Brendan's Reviews > The Alchemy of Stone

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
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May 11, 09

bookshelves: 2009, book-club, fiction, fantasy, scifi
Read in May, 2009

The tone and feel of this book reminds me a lot of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or The Scar, both of which take place in a steampunk world of strange creatures, mixing fantasy and science-fiction and excellent character development. Sedia brings those same ingredients to The Alchemy of Stone.

The novel tells the story of Mattie, an intelligent liberated automaton alchemist who works in the city of the gargoyles, both part of human society and disdained by it (the epithet for automatons, btw, is clunker). The book hinges on the abusive relationship she has with her creator, a machinist (the political opponents of alchemists) who keeps her tethered both by ingrained programming and by keeping her key, because of which she must visit him regularly to be wound up. The events of the novel turn on political rebellions and citywide battles throughout which Mattie must wrestle with the basic questions of life and purpose.

It’s a pretty good book, one that I warmed to as I read it. It’s also melancholy and kind of dark; I had trouble navigating the events of Mattie’s life without real empathy for her difficult situation. A few more thoughts:

* The political intrigue between the machinists and the alchemists works really well. The machinists are depicted with the scientific-rational worldview, one in which the idea of building a solution to all problems prevails. By contrasts, alchemists are more in touch with nature (but no less petty or abusive).
* The gargoyles, a part of the book both interesting and ultimately irrelevant, serve like a kind of chorus, reflecting on the events of the book and revealing key bits of information as the plot unfolds.
* Class warfare and abuse of the underprivileged plays a key role in the novel. It’s hard not to read the history of Russia–Sedia’s birth country–as influencing this sub-plot. By the same measure, it doesn’t feel overtly Russian (whatever that might mean).
* The bodily experience of being an automaton comes through spectacularly in this book. There’s a moment where Mattie tries to sneak up on someone, only to forget that her heart’s ticking can be heard quite distinctly in a quiet clearing.
* The blood magic Mattie learns from a fellow alchemist struck me as particularly interesting and visceral. I’m still haunted by the image of the sloppy, grotesque homunculus that soils her skirts with its bloody, muddy hands.

The book also dovetails very nicely with my New Millennium Studies class reading of Frankenstein. The Alchemy of Stone supposes a similar divide between creator and created, substituting a sort-of self-pity for disgust in the creator. Mattie’s mechanic resents her desire for independence, both granting it and holding enough strings to keep her from truly leaving his sphere. In a conversation about our obligations to and from our creations, it works really well. One might also use this novel to consider the experience of parenting a teen or early twentysomething — they want their independance but they’re the first person they come to when they need your help.
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