Monday, May 4, 2009
The alchemy behind The Alchemy of Stone
Ekaterina Sedia's novel, The Alchemy of Stone, is unlike anything you've ever read. Simultaneously a fantasy, a steampunk, a tale of minority empowerment and a look at the destructive nature of love, it builds on the promise of her last novel (The Secret History of Moscow) in ways that not even that neat story anticipated.
Mattie is an automaton, an artificial person made of gears and metal instead of circuits and software. She's been emancipated by her maker Loharri, except for one thing: he still possesses the only key that will wind her mechanical heart. While she plies her trade as an alchemist, hired by the city's protective gargoyles to find a way to stop their turning to stone, the city itself begins the inevitable slide toward revolution. As trouble brews, then breaks out, Mattie must decide where her loyalties lie and come to grips with her own nature.
Mattie is one of the great literary characters I've had the pleasure of discovering. She, like the city itself, is described only as much as necessary, so that the image in the reader's mind is almost entirely constructed from his or her own preconceptions, much as Maddie herself was done by Loharri. Loharri is far from a one-dimensional ex-maker spurned by his creation: he both encourages Mattie and limits her, repairs her without question and yet refuses to give up the literal key to her heart. Their tapdance around questions unasked and unanswered provides the book's emotional core.
The rest of the tale is equally compelling. Again describing only as much as is necessary, Sedia creates a city-state with a fully-realized history, social structure and belief system. The conflict between the various castes is believable and sadly inevitable, and provides a vivid, if subtle, commentary on our own technology-beholden world.
The Secret History of Moscow was fascinating for its crossing between realism and fantasy; The Alchemy of Stone is just as mesmerizing within its own fantasy world. Mattie will feel like a kindred to anyone who believes they've managed to successfully fit in, only to realize a single misstep can undo everything. Teenage boys, filled with emotions their society often insists they choke down, will understand her all too well. And in Maddie's struggles for both self-reliance and the comfort of a relationship, I suspect these same boys, in the privacy of their own hearts, will see themselves behind her porcelain face, no matter the implied gender difference.