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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2008
This is the kind of speculative fiction that got me hooked on the genre as a teenager. Without bogging one down in pages of exposition, she creates an immersive Miyazaki-like world where magic, science and alchemy interact. The protagonist is psychologically complex and far more 'human' than any of the real humans in the novel, notably her creator Loharri. (Though you come to understand a bit of Loharri's motives through his backstory.)

The story intertwines Mattie's search for independence, the gargoyles' search for freedom from turning into stone, and a civil/class war searching for control of the city. It's part political parable--to resist ossification, the gargoyles must become, literally, vulnerable to wound and decay, just like the city they guard--as well as a questioning/meditation of what it means to be 'free': Freedom from something, or freedom to do something?

One of the things I truly admire about this book is Sedia's refusal to give the fairy tale happy-sappy group-hug ending. If you want all of your stories to end like Star Wars movies, this is not for you. If you like your stories to be readable as literature and as a really good story, much in the way of Philip K. Dick, dark and powerful and yet somehow beautiful, this book will stay in your memory far long after you finish the last page.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2009
This was a surprise in my mail earlier yesterday - I've been trying to get a hold of this book, The Alchemy of Stone, for a little while now, and had some problems. This third book by Ekaterina Sedia was one that I was really looking forwards to reading, and it was a fun book to read - While I waited for my computer to restart, I finished the last 150 pages in about an hour.

The story follows Mattie, an intelligent automation in a world that is very steampunkish. Mattie is an alchemist, trying to discover a way to prevent the gargoyles in the city from turning to stone and dying out. They seem to predate the human inhabitants of the city, and are responsible for its construction and character. At the point in the story, the city is overcrowded, and divided. There's a political rivalry between the Alchemists and machinists, which spills over into violence with the Duke of the city and his family is attacked and killed, culminating in civil war between classes. Mattie is at the center of this, as an Alchemist, but her creator, whom she is bound to, is a fairly cruel machinist who will not let her stray too far from needing him.

This was a fun read, but not as good as I'd hoped it would be. It felt like a quick look into a vastly complex and interesting world and I didn't get the depth that I would have liked, and that easily could have been there. That being said, what I got was still a very good, engaging read. Where the story is somewhat lacking, it is made up for with the character of Mattie and the various struggles that she comes across in the story. Where most people would think of a robotic being as fairly robust and durable - watching any sort of movie about robots will tell you this - Mattie is weak, timid, and fragile, both physically and mentally. At several points, she is easily broken after being attacked, and must be rewound by her creator in order to function. She is shy, and eager to please her master, Loharri, while at the same time despising him and yearning to be completely free from his grasp, which is not possible, as he literally owns the key to her heart.

There are many themes which run through this book that all intersect with Mattie, but the dominant one can be considered one of transitions. The city is changing, physically as there is a boom in construction and the machinists are taking over, building new things daily, which precipitate in a sort of political change. Between the Machinists and the Alchemists, there is a duel nature to Mattie as well, who was built by a machinist, but rejected that way in life, instead focusing on life. While the exact roles of the machinists and alchemists in this society aren't entirely clear, they do bring up another duality, one of life and death, or fulfillment vs. automation, role vs. job and emotions vs. logic. There is a class system, we see, as angry coal workers, forced off their fields by robots, are tasked with mining coal, while the machinists are content to blindly follow another sentient automation, the calculator.

This, to me, is an interesting theme, as it relates to themes that went on during the Renaissance period, a period of much change, but without the magic and fantasy elements. To some extent, the book has several issues that are still highly relevant today, if not more so. To what extent is a culture vibrant and full of life when it overwhelmingly utilizes machines and devices? At one point, a character that Mattie befriends, Naobi, an outsider, notes that the people of this city aren't happy or content, they just exist. When reading that, I had to wonder how much of that was a sort of social commentary on today's society, where the television, computers, mobile phones, MP3 players are the dominant forms of entertainment and recreation, rather than something that might be more fulfilling. It's certainly something that I have thought about often.

Another dominant theme that the book approaches is the city's response to the death of their Duke, where foreigners were rounded up, harassed and at times, had their souls removed or were threatened as such if they weren't cooperative. This was a somewhat chilling, if very unsubtle point in the book that is extremely relevant in today's society after 9-11. Thankfully, this isn't an overwhelming point in the novel. While it doesn't detract from the reading, I always get nervous when any artist, whether it be a writer, singer or painter, uses their material as a soapbox, for it dates and lessens the material that they are releasing.

The final big theme of the book is that of life and death. This is prevalent everywhere, from the machinists who create life from nothing, to the alchemists who preserve life, to the soul seeker who seeks to prevent it, while the gargoyles are slowly dying out. It seems fitting that Mattie, an automation, relates to all of those fields, while not alive herself, is a conscious being, actively seeking to preserve the gargoyles who still remain. More ironic, she is unable to remain alive without her human maker, who holds her fate based on his whims.

This isn't really a positive book when it comes to tone - it's dark, gritty and at times, downright depressing, which came as a real surprise to me, especially at the end, when things came together. I can't really remember a book that has done this, one that really puts the characters into place.

Mattie is the true center of the novel, and is a brilliantly conceived character from the start, one who is curious, afraid, at times strong, and one who changes over the course of the story. While she is built, automated, I never once thought of her as a robot, but as an organic being - at times, I was trying to imagine her as a robot, and had a hard time doing so, which is absolutely fantastic, given what type of character she is - this is something that few authors that I've come across have been able to do, turn a machine into a character that you can really and truly care for, one where you don't have to stretch your imagination to imagine her being hurt or having feelings.

At the end of the book, I was happy to have gotten into a book and finished it in a day. The Alchemy of Stone was a fun read, engaging and interesting. I'd highly recommend it.

(Originally posted to my blog)
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24 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2008
Very rarely does a concept alone sell me on a book of unknown quality written by an author I've never heard of before, yet I tracked this book down based entirely on the idea of this novel.

It starts out with some promise, as the narrative slowly weaves an exposition cleverly blending technical information about the world and its inhabitants with a growing drama between the main characters. From the first chapter, I wanted to get to know the characters better; to find out the secrets behind Loharri's motivations and see what makes Mattie tick.

Unfortunately, the story never quite evolves to that point, settling for some halfhearted political rhetoric halfway through the book, culminating in a seemingly rushed and abrupt ending that tries too hard to pull off a last-minute moment of dramatic significance. I was an art major; I know it when I see it.

It almost telegraphs a thought pattern:

"Here's a colorful and diverse world of alchemy and science, teetering on the edge of conflict, populated by a number of interesting character archetypes. Let's set them in motion and see what happens. Oh wait, I don't actually know what happens. Well, let's introduce some random cardboard characters and dabble in some bland, mildly erotic scenes with all the flavor and appeal of day-old oatmeal. Nope, that didn't work. how about a sudden war, which will see all those formerly complex and fascinating characters reduced to window dressing for the last half of the novel? Sure, why not...but I don't know how to end it! Oh, pizza's here -- uh...THE END. Wait, that's not dramatic enough. THE END -- OR IS IT. Yeah, much better. Mmm, pepperoni."

I really felt let down by "The Alchemy of Stone," not just because I had high hopes due to the genre and initially promising concept, but because the storyline really feels aimless, especially after expending so much effort endearing the reader to the protagonists. The characters really did get all dressed up with nowhere to go; the character-driven story wanders, it gets lost, it peters out, and eventually gives up. It deserved better.

On a side note: The underlying character and plot structure of this novel struck me as eerily similar to "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville. It practically mirrors many of the social patterns among the protagonists, except that PSS is a bit darker and urban; more nightmarish than the cookie cutter victorian-style setting in "Alchemy of Stone." Plus it has an ending. I would definitely recommend that book over this one, as it is much more savory: rich Italian cuisine to Sedia's Chef Boyardee.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Ekaterina Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone (Prime, 2008)

I've been hearing wonderful things about The Alchemy of Stone since long before it came out, but it took me a while to track a copy down. And while it got off to something of a slow start, once it grabbed me, it didn't let go until the final page. If you haven't discovered Ekaterina Sedia yet, do so at your earliest opportunity. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Mattie is an emancipated clockwork human, an automaton whom Loharri, her maker, built with the curses of intellect and feelings. Curses because in the world where Mattie and Loharri dwell, racism is rampant, and never more so when you're the construct of a Mechanic, but you went off and joined the Alchemists. The Mechanics and the Alchemists are at an uneasy truce, but never for very long. Still, Mattie uses her association with Loharri, who is still a bit in love with her (think Pygmalion here if you hadn't been already), to gain valuable information. Eventually, Loharri, who isn't blind to the gains of having an ally among the Alchemists himself, sets Mattie up with Iolanda, his current lover, who's looking for some interesting perfumes, as well as an Alchemist good enough to pull off something that no one else has ever thought of. There is a third faction in the city, though largely forgotten: the Gargoyles, who built the city originally. They have been calcifying over the years, until now only a handful are left, and they're dying. Mattie is tasked with the ultimate job: make the Gargoyles flesh again. But not everyone is thrilled with that idea, nor with the way things are in the city...

The plot is often secondary here to Sedia's exploration of this city she has built, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is steampunk that revels in its own worldbuilding in ways that others I've read in the genre don't. There's certainly something to be said for that stance (I am, after all, a huge fan of China Mieville's), but if you're a good enough writer to pull off a book where the majority of the interest comes from the protagonist looking around and seeing the inherent coolness of your world, then there's a lot of fun to be had with that as well. Sedia is that good a writer and then some, and the world she has built is endlessly fascinating. Take Mattie's friend the Soul-Smoker, a sort of hyper-sin eater who acts as a living channel between Mattie's world and that of the dead, of Loharri's wild idea of building a machine into which Mechanics can feed in information and have it give them answers. (It'll never fly, Mattie tells a friend, because the Mechanics will never know all the parameters. As a computer programmer, I know exactly where she's coming from.) There are touches of genius all the way through this novel, which is just as good as everyone says it is. Find yourself a copy; you won't regret it. ****
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2012
Most steampunk is rooted in science fiction. Alchemy of stone is one of those rare steampunk novels that find its roots in fantasy. Ekaterina Sedia forges a world where magic, technology and alchemy all interact and all influence society in their own particular way.

The novel follows Mattie, a self-aware clockwork automation who is a skilled alchemist. She is employed by the handful of remaining gargoyles to discover the reason they are turning into stone. While she tries to divine clues to this mystery she gets caught up in the politics of a culture war being fought between the alchemists and the machinists. The culture war breaks into an actual civil war when a terrorist launces a bomb into the heart of the city.

Things are further complicated because her builder, a mechinist named Loharri who holds the key to her hears, both literally and figuratively. She finds that the fate of the city's gargoyles is intertwined with the tragic and bitter history of Loharri and his selfish reasons for refusing to turn her heart key over to her.

Mattie is weak, timid, and fragile, both physically and mentally. At several points, she is easily broken after being attacked, and must be rewound by her creator in order to function. She is shy, and eager to please her master, Loharri, while at the same time despising him and yearning to be completely free from his control.

This book was a great read, and just as good as I'd hoped it would be. I've often heard writing described as `lyrical" but it is rare when one actually sees such writing in real life. The world Sedia creates is both foreign and familiar and exceptionally complex but she does not bog the reader down with unnecessary details about her world. We discover the city of stone as she explores it form its beautifully high pinnacles to its disturbing and very dark depths.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
i almost didn't read this book, wavering in my interest based on the synopsis. now that i've read it though, i can see that this is a book about so many things and it would be impossible to do it any justice in a few words. my ultimate faith in the person who recommended it (Calico Reaction) prevailed and i am definitely glad i gave in and read it.

the political face-off between the Alchemists and the Mechanics is at a breaking point and the underground political movement is threatening all out war. the gargoyles, as builders and protectors of the city, are dwindling in their numbers and have turned to the Alchemist Mattie, to help them find a cure for their eventual turn to immovable stone. at the core of the story is Mattie, who is an intelligent automaton, the highly sophisticated product of the mechanic Loharri. in her quest to assist the gargoyles, Mattie is drawn to the most varied and surprisingly tangible cast of characters, including the lonely, yet resigned Soul Smoker Ilmarekh and the sexy rebel Sebastian.

honestly, though, the plot lines are secondary to the characters and the writing here. Mattie, with her human-like abilities to feel pleasure and pain, and her programmatic increased sensory capacity, make her a very descriptive and emotionally driven narrator, one that is very easy to be sympathetic towards. her unique position of being an Alchemist and the creation of a Mechanic gives the reader an insider's view to both political factions and equates to a highly readable and rather fascinating book. this is a dark and twisting story that is both thoughtful and engaging, with a great amount of depth to it.

by using Mattie and Loharri's unique parent/child relationship, Sedia seamlessly weaves in the themes of identity, freedom, and obligation, in addition to the overlaying political and societal themes of prejudice and survival. despite the fact that Mattie was emancipated, Loharri holds power over her, not only because he is her creator and is necessary for her maintenance, but also because he refuses to hand over the key to her ticktock-ing heart. it reminded me very much of a twisted, steampunk Pinocchio mixed with a Wizard of Oz quest for a heart story. and oddly enough, it really worked.

"Numb, Mattie obeyed. It was just like before, and no matter what had happened to her since, no matter how powerful or emancipated, she still did as she was told - because she could not do otherwise, because he was the one that made her. Just like the gargoyles obeyed the stone - or was it the other way around? she could not remember - she obeyed Loharri."

this is one of those rare books that could probably be enjoyed by a vast range of readers - sci fi to literature, paranormal romance to science lovers,The Alchemy of Stone manages to have a little bit of it all.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2010
I had one of the most engaging experiences when I opened this book and started the tale of Mattie the automaton; I don't remember when I last felt immediately drawn into a world so seamlessly. Sedia's writing is beautiful and it made me feel very nostalgic (whether that's on purpose, I don't know).

Sedia creates a steampunk city and populates it with Mechanics who engineer automatons and other contraptions, the Alchemists who deal with those of flesh and bone (a fine line), and the Gargoyles. I really loved, in particular, the use of alchemy as a major subject because it really sets the darker tone of the book for me (such as the homunculus). Mattie herself was my favorite part of the book. She's an automaton but she is so real and so endearing that I really attached myself to her. I wanted her to succeed, to be happy, even though she's a machine. I wish more of her past and creation were revealed.

I felt that near the end of the book that the charm of the book slowly dissipated perhaps because of the fact that the political plot catches up with Mattie and everything is thrown into chaos in her world. Mattie herself wants the world to go back to how it was, to the simpler time before the interference of the Mechanics and Alchemists. I almost think this was done this way for us to feel the same as Mattie, that things aren't quite right and we wish we could go back to the beginning.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and think anyone interested in steampunk should give it a try.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2009
I wasn't sure what to expect from "The Alchemy of Stone," but what I got was a thoroughly engrossing and startlingly moving story about a mechanical woman striving for independence and relevance. In all Ekaterina Sedia's work, her characters (organic or otherwise) are defined by what they do, a Hawksian dynamic that makes Mattie, the heroine of this novel, far more interesting than some princess or priestess. Mattie just wants to get by, and to do that she needs the key that winds her mechanical heart, which her maker refuses to turn over. The larger social and political forces echo this dilemma, and combine into an affecting, mature fantasy leagues above most of the stuff out there.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Alchemy of Stone’ is a delight, if dark steampunk allegories appeals, and it did to me. I highly recommend this novel. There be living gargoyles, sensate robots, debauched aristocrats, soul eaters, alchemists, lizard transport, weird scientists/mechanics, orphan abuse and magic. Religious mythology underpins the plot, but it doesn’t get in the way. Religious echoes notwithstanding, it is an exciting story and well-written. The characters are interesting and realistic.

Mattie is an emancipated robot, but her original owner, Loharri, also created her and he can’t let go. He gave her an intelligent curious mind, and she is unusually self-aware; most robots are simple creatures that are designed to labor as servants or street-cleaners.

Mattie trained as an alchemist, and since her recent emancipation, she is happy with her avocation and her new life. However, while learning how to be an adult and free, she is enduring harsh indignities which haunt her society - poverty, class oppression, prejudice. Because of her status as a mechanical robot, very few people take her as seriously as she would like, and her Master, Loharri, still retains control over her life by refusing to give her ownership of the key which maintains her functionality. The key must be used to ‘wind’ up her mechanical works; without periodically using the key she loses consciousness and existence. Despite her irritations and limitations, she feels useful and pleased with her professional choices. She maintains respect for Loharri, despite his obstinate maintenance of a superficial relationship with her, and he never lets her down when she needs assistance or advice.

The gargoyles, once revered as the creators of the city’s foundations and buildings, are now ignored and they are barely sustained with minimal donations of rocks, minerals and jewels they eat to live. Gargoyles are shy creatures of living stone, and they grieve over the suffering they are witnessing, especially of the enslaved mutilated orphans, working in the mines which support this culture and the upper-classes in their ease. However, they love Mattie, although she is unaware of their interest in her. They seem to ‘know’ if there is to be help for them and the city they made, it will come from her.

Mattie goes about her business gathering blood, bones and flesh from the abattoirs, growing plants and mixing potions for her customers. She still accompanies her Master when he attends parties and meetings, so eventually she is drawn into schemes she does not understand, partially because of her youthful inexperience and partially because she does not know who to trust. She desperately wants to fit in, and in particular she wants friends. She is also developing a capacity to love, to her chagrin. After all, she is a metal and wood robot. How can she satisfy any human? Self-doubt, anxiety and desire begin to hamper her life, and she feels her ambitions are impossible. She wants so badly to be a responsible and autonomous adult, dependable and useful, with respect and friends. It all looks to be beyond her reach.

Then, she meets a foreign alchemist with knowledge of an enchantment spell. Maybe she can free herself from Loharri with the new magic. Impossibly, the man she loves appears to enjoy her company. Surprisingly, the gargoyles secretly meet with her and explain they hope she can help their race survive. But the obstacles seem to be insurmountable - is there anything she can do to fix her corrupt society?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2010
Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone follows the story of Mattie, a free-willed clockwork android who dwells in a city on the cusp of revolution. Though technically free, Mattie is strangely dependent on her creator, who exerts his control on her by his possession of the key to her wind-up heart. The story revolves around her and her relationships, others' attempts to possess her and the curious role she has been annointed with by the reclusive guardians of the city, the gargoyles.
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