Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Robo Reads

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
First Published: 2008

Robots tend to be imagined as being pretty tough and durable. Even those machines that aren’t specifically built for war or heavy labour are often depicted as having super-strength or the ability to withstand great pressure (check out the TV Tropes page Super-Powered Robot Meter Maids!) This is understandable: metal is stronger than flesh.  But when authors diverge wildly from this stereotype the results can be intriguing. Mattie, the mechanical protagonist of this steampunk fantasy novel is one such divergent creation. She is an (allegedly) ”emancipated automaton” with a clockwork core; less sentient tank and more whalebone-ribbed living doll – with all the frailty that implies. She even has a delicate, porcelain face that is prone to cracking.

It’s refreshing to see a more vulnerable robot for a change; refreshing, but also heart-breaking. Think about how much prejudice and intolerance we see towards sentient machines in other sci-fi and fantasy works and now imagine a creation singularly ill-equipped to defend herself against such abuses. “There are a few intelligent automatons around,” Mattie explains ”…But you know, nobody likes making them. And they… we don’t even like ourselves.”

As this quote suggests, The Alchemy of Stone is a beautifully melancholy read, blending the sensibilities of a dark fairytale with an allusive commentary on real world issues of gender and racial inequality and – as is common in steampunk-inspired fiction – an exploration of the conquests and casualties that are inherent in the unstoppable march of progress. Sedia’s vivid imagination and beguiling way with words kept me intrigued to the end of Mattie’s story, but I have to admit, I felt this novel’s world-building was finally more captivating than its plot.

The Alchemy of Stone book cover

The Alchemy of Stone book cover

Mattie’s story takes place in Ayona,  a city once built by gargoyles and now the site of an escalating conflict between the two opposing creative factions: the Alchemists with their potions and charms, and the Mechanics with their steam-powered and clockwork creations.  The main focus of the novel is Mattie’s struggle for independence but she also serves both to observe to embody the wider fate of Ayona. Mattie is tied to all three elements of the conflict. She was created by a Mechanic, Loharri, but has been ostensibly freed from servitude and she now makes her own living working as an Alchemist. It is in this capacity that she is hired by the gargoyles. In this novel, gargoyles are living creatures. Born from stone, but alive, they fashioned the city themselves and have long watched over it as guardians. But the gargoyles are dwindling, gradually turning back into stone and crumbling. The remaining stone watchers employ Mattie to research their condition and to try to develop a cure before extinction beckons.

You’ll notice I’ve qualified each reference I’ve made to Mattie’s emancipation. Although she lives alone, her clockwork heart needs winding regularly to keep her running, and Loharri still has the only key that makes this possible. The act of being wound brings Mattie pleasure as well as vital energy. It’s one of the novel’s less subtle touches: Loharri quite literally retains the key to her heart. I found symbolism somewhat overwrought but the consequences of Mattie’s situation are fascinating. Sedia’s clockwork protagonist longs to extricate her key, but doing so requires her to fight not just against Loharri but also against herself – since she has been wired to obey and to please her creator. Although Mattie’s case as an automaton is an unusual and extreme one, her experiences chime with those of the human women in the book, and indeed with those of anyone living in a society where the rhetoric of equality far exceeds any practical experience of it:

They, the women, were like gargoyles, Mattie thought. Respected in words but hidden from view of those who ran the city.

Mattie’s creator, Loharri, is certainly among Ayona’s prime movers. He could easily have wound up as a fairly one-dimensional villain, not just because he is Mattie’s oppressor but also for his role as a Mechanic whose inventions seem to increase social inequality: more and more workers are being forced into the mines to help power the growing number of mechanical contraptions on the city’s streets. But the novel does not suggest that all technological advances are necessarily bad: Mattie herself is a testament to this. And Sedia grants Loharri a similarly intriguing depth and complexity. His cruelty towards Mattie is certainly shocking: she is used to having her eyes temporarily removed as punishment for disobedience. Yet at other times his need to ensure Mattie keeps visiting seems to be born from desperation and loneliness; and, when his backstory is finally revealed, it provides another perspective on his priorities, as well as revealing the dark foundations of city life as a whole.

While it may be impossible to write a robot novel without evoking the Frankenstein myth Sedia adds a particularly interesting duality to the mix.  Mattie may play The Monster to Loharri’s Dr. Frankenstein, but through her alchemical research, she too has the chance to become the feared and fearful creator:

She was not prepared to have created something so unexpected – and she guessed, horrible. For a moment she fought the temptation to just destroy the creature, fling it with its tightly locked jar into the fireplace and flee from the apartment… destroy it forever so it never got the chance to whisper its terrible secrets to her with its mutable, liquid mouth.

It’s a fascinating reversal which reveals another eye-watering layer in the onion-like representations of both Mattie herself and of Loharri.

Gargoyle atop Notre Dame, Paris.  Photo credit: Alan Voorhees

Gargoyle atop Notre Dame, Paris.
Photo credit: Alan Voorhees

Like Marge Piercy in He, She and It, Sedia explores with considerable sympathy the weighty issue of whether an artificial intelligence can ever truly overcome their core programming. Creation and creator, dissenter and dependent, Mattie’s is a complex journey, with no easy shortcuts. Her conflicted character is probably the most interesting aspect of The Alchemy of Stone. While the story contains plenty of action, building up to a full scale war, I found the overall plot less engaging than the individual moments that comprise it. Perhaps this is because the novel’s ending veers a little too far into the realms of gothic romance. Or it may be because, compared to Mattie and Loharri, some of the other key players just didn’t feel sufficiently fleshed out to hold my interest. Of course, not all dramatis personae can or should receive the full protagonist treatment but a few key figures here did feel just a little too insubstantially presented. This was a particular problem when it came to Niobe. As a woman and a foreigner in the city, Mattie’s alchemist friend Niobe faces prejudice daily, and suffers for her lack of representation. But, while she does evoke sympathy – in a case of art imitating life-in-art – the novel just never allows Niobe sufficient space to command understanding or any real affection.

But my quibbles about its plot and ending were never enough to dampen my overall appreciation of this enjoyably different Robo Read.  From the mechanical caterpillar transport devices clogging the city streets to the tortured world of the Soul Smoker – who is quite literally a living vessel for Ayona’s lost souls – The Alchemy of Stone is novel brimming with darkly evocative ideas. Sedia writes with mournful flair and there were many passages I found myself reading slowly to savour the beauty of her language.  The Alchemy of Stone may be best enjoyed as a meditation on the journey rather than the destination, but since I finished it, I’ll admit I have found my mind frequently wandering back to Mattie and to the gaslit streets of Ayona. Sedia builds worlds really stay with you.


Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  R reviews The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

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