31 August 2008

Locus Magazine's Faren Miller reviews Ekaterina Sedia

from Locus Magazine, August 2008

The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia (Prime 978-0-8095-7284-7, $12.95, 304pp, tp) July 2008. Cover by David Defigueredo.

Growing up in Russia, Ekaterina Sedia inherited a burden of history — including war, disaster, and ruin — greater than America has managed to accumulate in its few hundred years of existence. Interwoven with wit and native legendry, that helped shape her novel A Secret History of Moscow (reviewed in issue 564). Her new book The Alchemy of Stone leaves behind direct links with the modern world, only to thoroughly reinvent it in Ayona, a ducal city of squabbling alchemists and mechanics where a few of the gargoyles who once ran the place still cling to life among their petrified fellows.

Moving among all this, not quite part of any group, trade or belief system, is Mattie, who started as one of the city's automaton servants but who now has the rare gifts of personal freedom and an independent mind. Though she works as an alchemist, she's still in contact with the mechanic who made her (and literally holds the key to her clockwork heart, which occasionally needs rewinding). She has also developed a kind of rapport with the more elusive collective mind of the gargoyles, shown in italicized passages, and even has friends among the city's foreign tradespeople.

All this puts her in both demand and danger. The gargoyles want her to track down a lost alchemist who was trying to help them find an elixir of life; current alchemists know she can serve as a kind of spy among their rivals the mechanics (who ignore her presence entirely); and she has a rare ability to make contact with the city's amiable but deadly punisher the Soul Smoker because an automaton, however advanced her powers of thought, has no soul to be eaten. The danger comes when Ayona suffers an attack, the bombing and implosion of its ducal palace by unknown enemies from within or without, for it gives rise to a powerful hatred of outsiders — foreigners and anyone "different."

Readers in Sedia's adopted home America are bound to think of 9/11. There's a familiar sense to a passage where even some more positive responses to the disaster lead one character to declare, "It makes me wonder, it truly does — is a disaster the only thing that can bring us together? Are we that selfish, that embroiled in our own lives?"

But The Alchemy of Stone isn't just a transparent allegory of recent events. As her mechanic made her, with a porcelain face and obvious inner workings, Mattie seems less a robot than a reimagined Coppelia in a steampunk world. The gargoyles represent a fascinating survival from a lost magical empire, something like andats who had been closer to demigods than slaves. And the divided government that later human dukes designed for their city cleverly tries to recreate imperial power in a balance of opposing human tendencies, where the alchemists and mechanics "represent two aspects of creation — command of the spiritual and the magical, and mastery of the physical. Together, we have the same aspects of the gargoyles who could shape the physical with their minds."

As long as the balance holds, magic won't stifle natural creativity here as General Balasar claimed it did among his enemies in Abraham's book. But humans can find many ways to destroy their own achievements, or at least damage them so badly the only thing the survivors can do is try to adapt, and rebuild. In The Alchemy of Stone, the gargoyles who have managed to escape petrification know this best of all. As they watch Ayona's struggles to rise again, they recall its past because "there are voices of the dead whispering to us everyday, and we learn to live with the constant ebb and flow of their memories and regrets." Now that our own world preserves so much of its history, we must do the same.

Read more! This is one of two dozen books reviews from the August 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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