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Smoldering Reviews: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

I first became aware of this book via a review at io9.com This review was the one that got me to the bookstore, so kudos to Annalee Newitz. The io9 review is longer and more detailed than my own, so do pop over if you want to know more about the book than what I give you.

Ok, first of all- The Alchemy of Stone is a great title, and a novel of automated anarchy & clockwork lust is a great tag line. I know exactly what I’m getting into. And Sedia delivers in masterful prose both a great steampunk fantasy romance, and an insightful slow-mo look at what happens when everything starts falling down.

The book opens from the point of view of a non-human multiplicity, a voice of the city, so to speak. It’s quite a hook in the first pages, but I found myself skimming subsequent entries from this POV in order to get back to the fascinating protagonist, Mattie. Attribute this not to any weakness of prose, but to the utter fascination I felt for Mattie, an automaton and an alchemist. I mean, a female automaton alchemist? Sold. SO, so sold. Mattie both loves and hates her inventor, Loharri. Loharri has emancipated her, allowing to move out of his home and set up her own shop, but will not relinquish the literal key to her heart, and so she remains dependent in part upon him.

The rest of the plot, revolving around the fall of the old ruling order and the rise of the new is well-handled, but I have to admit I read this book for the relationships (okay, and the alchemy), so this review will focus on that. Although she’s made of metal, porcelain and whale-bone, Mattie’s emotions are complex, and confused, and all-too-real. Her tormenting creator Loharri is a terrible person who does terrible things, and yet the whole time I wanted to have his imaginary fiction babies. I understood perfectly well why Mattie battled and hated him. The pathos of their power struggle kept me glued to the pages. For example, everyone in the book is shocked when they learn Loharri designed Mattie to be able to feel pain, (so terribly cruel of him, fetch the smelling salts) but no one acknowledges that being able to feel pain is necessary to be human. Poor horrible Loharri. So misunderstood. And yet, so completely horrible.

In contrast to the tangled web between Loharri and Mattie, the introduction of potential suitor Sebastian held little interest for me. Also more interesting than to me than Sebastian- Mattie’s sisters-in-arms, plotting courtesan and sometime employer Iolanda, and shunned fellow alchemist Niobe. Thanks to these secondary characters, TAOS easily passes the Bechdel test. Originally applied to movies, the Bechdel test requires the following criterion:

That the story
1. includes at least two women,
2. who have at least one conversation alone
3. about something other than a man or men.

Obviously most books, films, and tv shows fail this. Kind of stunning, but there you go. But in TAOS Mattie and Niobe have some seriously interesting conversations about alchemy, and about being outsiders. As a feminist (BOO! Now get off my lawn of patchouli-scented leg hairs) I noticed, and I appreciated it.

I won’t say anything about the ending except that I loved it. The Alchemy of Stone is a really solid book, a beautiful book, one that’s going to stay on my shelf. A different reader than myself will probably get different things out of it- I myself will probably get different things out of it on rereads. And I look forward to that.

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