Reading books by new (to me) authors has been paying off big time. Ekaterina Sedia definitely made me curious and eager for her other books. But, as sometimes happens, I still don’t quite know how I feel about The Alchemy of Stone. I loved most of it, I was indifferent at times, then I loved it again. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it and that alone made it worthwile.
Published by: Prime Books, 2008
Ebook: 304 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: We scale the rough bricks of the building’s facade.
Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets—secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart—literally.
For a relatively short book, The Alchemy of Stone is crammed full of amazing ideas and characters. This is both a strength and a weakness. When I picked up the book (lying in bed with the stomach flu) I expected to get a little taste of what Sedia’s style was like. In no time at all, I had read more than half the book and didn’t plan on stopping there.
Mattie, an intelligent automaton, lives in the city of Ayona, a place that was so vibrant and alive that it reminded me – at first – of the little towns we sometimes see in Ghibli movies. Red-shingled roofs on pretty little stone houses, smoke coming out of fireplaces, the market filled with delicious smells and the voices of people… except here, steam-powered machines are omnipresent. They clear the streets, the do hard labor, they are a means of transportation. This picturesque setting and the hard, metal bodies of steampunk automatons went surprisingly well together. Ekaterina Sedia particularly likes describing smells – a sense that is usually underrepresented in fiction – and I suspect that it aided in bringing the city to life so quickly. Ayona has a cute feel to it in the beginning, until you discover the underlying tension and political intrigues.
The story begins when the city’s gargoyles, silent but powerful creators of its magnificent stone buildings, come to Mattie’s workshop for help. They are slowly turning more and more to stone, losing their ability to move and think, and Mattie’s alchemy is their only hope. I have a soft spot for gargoyles anyway, and these were surrounded by myth and legend, which added to their strange distance to the people of Ayona. The gargoyles are a group but they seem to think and act as one. We never get a clear answer as to who or what they are and that suited me just fine. Not all secrets need to be revealed.
But it was the other characters that I was really interested in. Mattie herself has to deal with being an emancipated automaton but also identifying as a woman. Her maker, Loharri, built her to have feelings – pain, friendship, love, desire. She is fairly independet and lives her life happily, if it weren’t for the fact that the key to her clockwork heart still rests in the hands of Loharri. Until Mattie owns that key, she will never truly be free. Being ignored and seen only as a machine is almost secondary to that. Wanting to be able to love somebody is another matter yet. Following Mattie was a bittersweet experience, to say the least.
Loharri, Mattie’s maker, fascinated me to no end. I would have loved to see more of him, to find out more about his past, and about why he made Mattie the way she is. He is at the same time a father figure and a tyrant but the author never forgets to also paint him as a man with his own hopes and dreams. When Mattie befriends a dark-skinned alchemist named Niobe, I couldn’t get enough of those two together. They cautiously get to know each other, teaching the other what they know about alchemy, bonding over magical potions and homunculi. Niobe also gave the author a chance to explore the city’s racism through a more personal lens.
Now the Soul-Smoker is something else! Introduced very early in the story, I fell in love with this character immediately. A man who smokes the souls of the deceased in an opium pipe and keeps them contained within himself until he dies. This tortured man embraces Mattie’s friendship because Mattie – as an automaton – doesn’t have a soul and can safely come near him without fear. Although we do see quite a bit of him, I still wanted to find out more about him and the other brilliant characters. They all have a past, some of them harbor dark secrets, they each have a story to tell. One which I didn’t get to read because it wasn’t essential to the main plot. And this is where I wouldn’t have minded a few chapters that don’t advance the story but simply show some aspect of Niobe, Loharri, the Soul-Smoker or even Sebastian, the mechanic in hiding whom Mattie takes a fancy to.
The Alchemy of Stone shows many glimpses of great things. The problem I had was that most of them are explored only a little bit when I would have liked to delve in deeper. We learn of the political unrest and the class difference that caused it, but it all seems to happen on the sidelines. The same goes for the blatant racism of the enforcers, or for Mattie’s identity. There is one scene, when Mattie may or may not be in love, where her otherness becomes a true obstacle. After all, if you are made of smooth metal and wood, how could you ever have sex? What kind of cruel creature would give you the desire but not the abilty? Mattie has taste and smell sensors, but her face is a static mask. She can be kissed and feel it, but, needless to say, it’s not really the same. That scene was probably the most emotional of the entire book for me. As for the other issues, I would have liked if this had been a bigger book that spent more time building on the ideas and putting them in the center rather than just a throwaway sentence here or there.
I cannot find fault with the world-building or the writing style. It has been ages since I gobbled up a book in one day and it goes to show how much I loved Sedia’s voice. But when certain characters died, I felt more like a scientist looking into a microscope. Aah, now that’s interesting, rather than Oh my God, why did you have to die?! Emotionally, the characters remained at arm’s length and that took away from the impact the later events would have had. The ending was sad and wonderful and depressing and hopeful all at once but, again, strangely distant. I know intellectually that this is a good story. I just didn’t feel with the characters as much as I would have liked.
However, not every book has to rip your heart out and leave you in tears and in this case, it may have been a choice by the author – after all, we do see the events unfold through a robot’s eyes. An intelligent machine is nothing if not distant from what we are as humans. I was hooked enough to finish the book really quickly and still want more. The Alchemy of Stone was a strange little story that I would recommend in a heartbeat with the small reservation not to expect any Robin Hobb style scenes of heartbreak.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good