BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An automaton named Mattie struggles for her true independence against the backdrop of social and political change.
PROS: Intriguing world-building; sympathetic protagonist.
CONS: Weak personal interrelationships between characters; some weighty issues are raised but never fully explored.
BOTTOM LINE: A good novel with much more potential.
The world of Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is both fascinating and strange. It takes place in Ayona, a city where there is a large emphasis on class structure and status. The era of the current ruling class, the Mechanics, is coming to an end and many other factions are playing their part in the pending change: the Alchemists, whose traditional brand of science is more like magic; the miners whose unappreciated labor stirs them toward action; and the gargoyles, the ancient creators of the city who are nearing extinction as they, one by one, turn to stone.
The protagonist of the story, Mattie, is an automaton created by the Mechanic named Loharri. Mattie is more intelligent than most automatons in that she has free will and her own independence. Well, to a point; Mattie’s construction requires that her heart mechanism be periodically wound and only Loharri carries the key. Mattie’s desire for full independence echoes the larger-scale story of the overthrow of the Mechanics at the same time that it thrusts her into the middle of it.
The Alchemy of Stone attempts to cover lots of ground with respect to world building, interpersonal relationships, and political change, and has varying degrees of success with each. The world building is enticing in that the cosmology is not immediately grasped but nonetheless intriguing. The viability of Alchemy in this world means that roots and animal parts have strange, surprising powers that include creating small creatures that act as proxy to control others. Contrast that with the Mechanics who use machines to solve problems and, further, with the dying race of gargoyles that extruded the city from stone. Each of these components contributes to a larger world that’s alluring and fun to explore.
The personal relationships work less effectively for the reader. Mattie, for example, seems to have a specific, tangible dependency on Loharri possessing the literal key to her heart. She’s a sympathetic character that understandably hates Loharri from precluding her full independence despite her public emancipation, and she even conspires against Loharri. But then Mattie at times also feels love for her creator despite these controls. This feels more like an out-of-place inconsistency than it does a reflection of the psychological dependency of prisoner and jailor. It’s also difficult to get a grasp on the relationship between Mattie and the gargoyles who enlist her aid to save them. Part of this is because the gargoyles are, for the larger part of the novel, watching proceedings unfold from afar. They narrate events perched from the rooftops and don’t play a specific role in the story until the end. Some relationships work more effectively, to be sure, like Mattie’s concern for the Soul Smoker, an elderly blind man whose job it is to consume the souls of the dying and those presumed guilty by the ruling class. Some don’t, like Mattie’s brief and awkward sexual tryst with a man suspected of being a terrorist.
Then there’s the pending overthrow of the Mechanics, a significant part of the story that makes a convenient hook of political change on which to hang other weighty issues. For example, Mattie, a Mechanist’s creation, works as an Alchemist, a group that disagrees with the Mechanics’ trend of industrialization – a situation that adds additional contention between Mattie and Loharri and also serves to dial up the political intrigue. Mattie becomes embroiled in these current events when a terrorist attacks the royal family (who are figureheads, at best) and she is torn wondering what to do with the information. The civil unrest also serves as a platform to discuss racial issues (specifically with the dark-skinned Easterners of the story) and gender issues (regarding women’s role in society). However, these issues are sadly more of a passing mention than they are an exploration.
It’s as if The Alchemy of Stone attempts to address many different issues and aspects of storytelling, but spreads itself too thin. It feels like the story is about important issues but they’re not explored to any significant depth, thus making it difficult to become deeply involved in it. This doesn’t make it a bad novel, by any means — it’s easier to talk about a novel’s faults than positive attributes – it just makes it a good one with much more potential.