The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

The Alchemy of Stone
Ekaterina Sedia

Every month at Calico reaction, there is a reading challenge and discussion of a single book. And every month I mean to join but never seem to plan things properly to read the book in time. Well, this month I resolved to read the selection which was The Alchemy of Stone, and with the 24-hour-readathon I even set the date to start it! This means for possibly the first time, I have read a book selection on time for a challenge. A personal victory over my own procrastination. Thank you, thank you.

The Premise:
In the fantastic city of Ayona lives a mechanical girl named Mattie. Mattie lives her life preparing alchemical concoctions for her customers and contemplating how to become truly free from her maker, Loharri.  Although Mattie is emancipated, she still needs Loharri to wind her up and he holds on to her key despite her requests for it. The story begins when Mattie is visited by the guardians of the city – the gargoyles. They ask her to work on saving them, because they are slowly turning into stone and every day their numbers dwindle further. In the meantime, change is coming to the city, as unrest under the ruling classes of Mechanics, Alchemists and Aristocrats begins to increase. As a machine, Mattie is overlooked so she has a unique perspective of the events on the streets and in the meetings of those in power.

Read an excerpt of Alchemy of Stone at Fantasy Magazine

My Thoughts: I just finished The Alchemy of Stone and I don’t really know how to put what this book makes me think about into words. My mind is a big jumble of thoughts. First of all, the prose is lovely. The world in The Alchemy of Stone would be perfect set in a stop-motion animation directed by the Quay brothers. There’s a dark loveliness to everything. Most of the story is told in the third person as we follow Mattie around the city, and although she’s intelligent, I thought that her viewpoint had a sort of innocence to it, because she’s still learning how to be a human and gaining her experience in life. The other perspective is from the gargoyles who speak with one mind as they watch over Mattie. They brought a sense of wistful sadness – watching over the people they’ve seen born into the city they created, sworn to protect them, but never really being able to affect much of what goes on.

I thought that Power was one of the big themes in this book. Power of individuals over each other and power struggles between classes. Everyone seems to hold a little something back from whoever they want to control and everyone wants something. For Mattie the automaton, her master, Lohari, has power over her.  Initially I wondered at Mattie’s resentment of him, because at the surface they seem to have a cordial relationship. She comes by and visits him, makes sure he’s alright and cleans up or makes him something to eat, but at other times, Mattie recalls hating being at his beck and call. I saw some of her resentment of him but his treatment of her at first glance was kind and patient. Then I started to see a little more beyond the surface.  Even though she’s emancipated, she still has to go see him in order to get wound up and continue running. He holds her life in his hands, and through this and other small ways, you discover how insidious his control is.  When I finally realized Loharri’s manipulations, it became a creepy, abusive relationship in my mind. Mattie’s feelings gyrate between love and hate, and I don’t think she even understands them completely or knows what parts are programmed into her. Mattie becoming an Alchemist was her way of trying to get back some of the control by doing something that Loharri didn’t understand and thus feared. But how do you really get control if someone has the key to your life or death?

I didn’t find many of the other characters to be much better towards Mattie as an automaton.  I thought that this was another theme within the book – the treatment of the majority towards the minority, or the treatment of those in power toward those who were not. I felt that we’re reading a lot of things through Mattie’s eyes and she is a forgiving character, and sometimes subtleties of the humans around her don’t register but maybe they do to the reader. Most people in power – the mechanics, ignore Mattie. The alchemists are better, but even then they seem to treat her a little lower class.  When Mattie makes what seem like friends, I felt a little sad because it didn’t seem that their affections were that deep. Most seemed to need something out of her each time. The people most isolated, the gargoyles and the Soul Catcher were perhaps the closest Mattie comes to have people genuinely care about her.

This treatment of Mattie extrapolated to the bigger picture represents the clash between the upper class of aristocrats, alchemists and mechanics and the poor miners, farmers and laborers. It also represents the clash between the locals and the immigrant population who are immediately blamed for rebel attacks on the ruling class. It all explodes suddenly when the upper class, in the pursuit of progress, move labor around for more coal and the lower class has no choice in the matter. But I don’t think it’s as simple as the upper class is in the wrong. They believed in their progress and in improving the city, and when there’s rebellion, they just want to keep their lives as they are and fight to keep what they have. There aren’t really easy answers because everyone is trying to protect themselves. Mattie as well. In the course of defending their own interests without acknowledging others leads to betrayals and struggles for control.

Overall: A lovely steampunk fantasy that mixes magic and technology with revolution. The prose is simple and lyrical, but the messages are not. In the end I enjoyed the mental exercise, but it made me a little sad as well. I put it under “well, that took a little bit out of me”.  It’s a little more serious fare than I’d usually choose for myself and has no easy conclusions.

Buy: Amazon | Powells

Other reviews/links:
Fantasy Book Critic
Ekaterina Sedia guest blog post @ Calico_reaction