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The Alchemy of Stone Paperback – January 5, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Sedia's evocative third novel, a steampunk fable about the price of industrial development, follows Mattie, an emancipated automaton, as her home city is rent by conflict between alchemists and the mechanics whose clanking, steaming inventions are changing society. Though created by a leader of the mechanics, Mattie chose to join the alchemists, but her creator still holds the key that winds her up. When a terrorist bombing and an assassination touch off all-out war between the two factions, she discovers the ugly secrets and exploitation that keep the city supplied with food and coal. Sedia's exquisitely bleak vision deliberately skewers familiar ideas from know-it-all computers to talking statues desperate for souls, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions about the proper balance of tradition and progress and what it means to be alive. (Aug.)
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Top customer reviews
The Alchemy of Stone is set in a steampunk city on the brink of a civil war, and divided between past and future, poor and rich, science and magic, represented by the factions of the Mechanics and Alchemists. The protagonist Mattie is an emancipated robot that works as a alchemist, so she is truly divided between these worlds of science and magic.
Although Mattie is emancipated, her creator still insists in holding the key to her heart, and she needs him to literally wind her up like a clock, as well undergo minor repairs, like when she breaks her porcelain face, loses an eye, etc. It reminded me of a destructive relationship that the victimized party can’t seem to escape.
The problem I had with the book is that I had a deep antipathy towards the heroine, who was a bit of a drama queen for my tastes. All the human struggle was lost to me as the omniscient narrator got into looong rambling about what the lady felt or didn’t feel. Things got worse when Mattie got involved with a renegade mechanic. A love that culminates in one of the most bizarre sex scenes I have read, as the romantic interest circled with his tongue her – in this case very literal – keyhole.
The book does bring some very interesting ideas in the world creation front. Several fantasy elements are thrown into the steampunk setting. The city is guarded by living gargoyles that are turning to stone because of a plague, and their monologues bring a sense of decadence, sadness and end of a culture. A very interesting character is a smoker of souls who inhales the spirits that haunt the living, but got addicted to opium to try and endure the endless talking of the dead inside him.
The book also ends kind of abruptly, perhaps because I was more interested in the political maneuvers of the background than with Mattie’s story itself. Baring the chick lit tone that didn’t appeal to me, I enjoyed very much the setting and how the book emphasizes the frailty of an automata instead of bringing another super-robot.
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.