THE ALCHEMY OF STONE
by Ekaterina Sedia
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia portrays a revolution in a steampunk society through the eyes of an automaton, Mattie. Her society is complex, including not only both cognizant and unaware automatons, but also guilds of mechanics and alchemists, laborers, and gargoyles.
Mattie is significant because while there are many automatons, she is one of the only sentient ones, designed by the mechanic Loharri, who allows her some freedom, but retains the figurative and literal key to her heart. There is an aspect of a pygmalionesque relationship between the two, although it is far from the central focus of the story and the love between the two is nowhere as clearcut, or simple, as the relationship in the poem by Ovid.
Although a career as a mechanic might have made more sense for Mattie, her interest lies in alchemy, although as a product of a mechanic she is viewed with, at best, suspicion by the majority of her fellow alchemists, with the exception of the equally foreign Niobe, a expatriate living in the city of Ayona.
The third aspect of the Ayona’s governing class, the gargoyles, remain somewhat behind the scenes, only directly interacting with the characters towards the end of The Alchemy of Stone, but commenting on the action throughout, a sort of Greek chorus which can also be seen as manipulating the action to ensure that the proper outcome for them occurs.
The city is restless, made more so by the destruction of the Duke’s castle and his flight, along with the ducal court, from Ayona. Although the three governing agencies are still in the city, the lack of the ruling class leaves a vacuum which the laborers in Ayona attempt to exploit. Ayona remains a perplexity rather than a vibrant city, never quite fulfilling the promise Sedia indicates it has.
Sedia may have made an error in her selection of the automaton Mattie as her point of view character. There is a distance between Mattie and the other characters, even the ones she is purportedly close to, such as Loharri, which transfers to the reader. There is little connection to her. Similarly, many of the characters seem to drop in and out of the pages at a moments notice and briefly, not allowing any real bond with reader or other character. Despite this, many of Sedia’s characters, like Ayona, show promise unfulfilled, most notably Ilmarekh, the Soul-Smoker.
Much of the time, Sedia is setting the stage for her denouement, although Ayona never really comes to life despite that. It hosts an interesting guild and government structure, but that isn’t Sedia’s focus. While Mattie finds herself involved with the fugitive Sebastian early on, the book doesn’t really take off until Mattie finds herself dealing with the core of the revolutionaries and the lives of all she holds dear are threatened.
The Alchemy of Stone is full of ideas, potentially interesting characters, and a clockwork city which never quite manages to come to the fore. The cursory relationships between the characters don’t allow the reader to fully form an emotional bond with any of them, despite their quirky aspects which should welcome attachment.
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