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Alchemy, Numbers 1 & 2

Alchemy #1
Alchemy #2
Alchemy pays 5 cents US per word for fantasy stories up to 8,000 words. Submissions to:
Steve Pasenchnick,
Edgewood Press,
P O Box 380264,
Cambridge MA

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Alchemy appeared quietly in 2003 from Edgewood Press and immediately set a new standard for what a small press fantasy magazine could be. It contained no manifesto, no grand editorial pronouncements, no socio-politico-historical ruminations, and only the barest of biographical notes about the authors at the end of each of the six stories.

But what stories they were, and what authors! A posthumous tale from the legendary R.A. Lafferty, new stories from Carol Emshwiller and Alex Irvine, and good work by newer writers Theodora Goss, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Sarah Monette. Eighty-two unpretentious pages of good and occasionally better-than-good fiction.

The second issue of Alchemy is considerably better than the first, and thus, even though it seems there is only to be one 2004 issue of the magazine, it is nonetheless one of -- if not the -- best small press periodicals that the science fiction and fantasy field has to offer. Simply put: If you are not reading Alchemy you are missing some of the best fiction of the year.

As first issues of magazines go, Alchemy's first is astounding. The stories are all entertaining and of considerable variety of subject matter and style. Alex Irvine's "The Fall at Shanghai" is a weird Biblical reimagining; Theodora Goss's "Lily, with Clouds" is a soft, wistful fantasy of transcendence; "Long Juju Man" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is a vivacious folktale; and the Lafferty piece, "There'll Always Be Another Me" is a gonzo ghost story that's also a revenge fantasy and a domestic drama -- typical fare from an author for whom the title of the story is entirely inappropriate.

The real gems of the first issue of Alchemy are saved for last: Carol Emshwiller's "Lightning" and "The Wall of Clouds" by Sarah Monette. Both stories have a weight and substance the other stories in the issue lack -- Emshwiller's through evocative, but unanswered, questions; Monette's through its length (thirty-seven pages) and stylistic precision.

Everything in the second issue of Alchemy, though, is better than most everything in the first issue, and this is high praise. Each story seems to have a stylistic pair: Theodora Goss and Sarah Monette both return, and their tales each have a certain arch antiquity to their tone; either story sounds like something that might have been published in a 19th century periodical. Holly Phillips and Dale Bailey both offer essentially traditional fantasy stories, while the stories of Barth Anderson and, especially, Amber van Dyk find space between traditions, drawing their imagery as much from the logic of dreams as any other source.

Sarah Monette's "The Venebretti Necklace" shares the same narrator as her previous Alchemy story, "The Wall of Clouds" -- a young (but white-haired) museum archivist who gets into situations needing a bibliophilic Sherlock Holmes. "The Venebretti Necklace" demonstrates the same virtues as "The Wall of Clouds" -- a light, deft narrative voice that conveys mortal horror with a captivating offhandedness -- but it is a stronger, more entertaining tale, with its incidents more efficient and its secondary characters better able to participate in the storyline this time around. It's all good, ghostly, innocuous fun.

Carol Emshwiller's story in the first issue of Alchemy benefitted from the questions it bravely left open in the reader's imagination, and Amber van Dyk's "Sour Metal" in the second issue is even braver -- some readers will, I'm sure, say it is less brave than foolhardy; that it is frustrating and fragmented beyond all hope of redemption. This may be true. It's also unsettling, surprising, and spare. It suggests more than it states, and it rewards rereading.

To my taste, the best story of the second Alchemy, and the best story the magazine has yet published, is Barth Anderson's "Sand Dollars and Apple Halves." Anderson's story is, in a way, the prototypical Alchemy story in that it is a fantasy tale with a certain timelessness to its tone, a careful diction, a mythic quality. It's even better than that, though, because it is so vividly imagined -- its imagery is multi-dimensional and its sentences feel more hewn than written. It is an intriguing story at first, the tale of a man compelled to build a wall, but as the situation develops and the characters gain complexity, the whole builds toward real emotional power, concluding in a way that, were the story's elements not so perfectly modulated, could have been saccharine, but is, instead, profound.

Though different stories will appeal to different tastes, there is not a truly weak story in either issue of Alchemy, a fact that is, alone, impressive. That there is such a wide variety of good stories is a testament to the efforts of the magazine's editor, Steve Pasechnick. Much like transmuting base metals into gold, wringing both consistency and surprise from a small press verges on the miraculous.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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