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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Reviewed Format: trade paperback
Release Date: November 1, 2009
Pages: 293

This was read for Calico-Reaction's April book club. :)

Ayona is known as the “City of Gargoyles” as much for the dark statues along the city’s architecture as it is a concession to the way Ayona was conceived: birthed through the magic of the gargoyles who once had an ability to manipulate stone.  Now these reclusive creatures are part of a triumvirate of government leaders including the Alchemists and the Mechanics.  The Alchemists are preoccupied with spiritual and magical concerns; the Mechanics are focused on things physical. Together they represent the gargoyles who “shape the physical with their minds” (p.69).  When the Mechanic Loharri constructs Mattie, an automaton, he doesn’t intend for her to be more than a helpmeet. In the unorthodox manner that will forever mark her character, Mattie is asked to be emancipated to learn the art of alchemy. As she gathers ingredients for bizarre concoctions to sell in her little shop, a war begins brewing between opposing sides of the city. Ayona has been polarized by an explosion that changes Mattie’s life. Now the gargoyles are flying into her window with a request…

The Alchemy of Stone is a wonderfully thematic book.  With concerns over alienation, immigration, origin, ownership, trust, power, and industrialization it’s a testament to Sedia’s skills as a writer that this book wasn’t longer.  Though, the best things often come in the smallest of packages.  In just under 300 pages, The Alchemy of Stone explores these themes (and others) through government, class, and what it means to be an automaton in a world full of humans.  The alchemical government, for one, was one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. From the very start it’s a combination putting sides often opposed in the same arena and told to work together toward the same end. This is a bit like asking Church and State to get along and ignore the friction of their underlying belief systems. The awkward relationship is one of tension and thinly veiled hostility, but serves to represent on a larger scale the unique relationship between Mattie and Loharri.

Loharri is, unfortunately, one of the nicer Mechanics. At first it seems he might be well-intentioned, if a bit problematic. As the narrative unfolds we discover he’s merely the best of the worst. Fixing things that aren’t broken are the least of his problems, especially as those relate to Mattie--the C-3PO to his Anakin Skywalker. He doesn’t trust her, is wildly possessive and only manages to achieve an underhanded loyalty. Loharri is a loathsome character, to say the least, but he’s an ugly necessity. If it weren’t for him, Mattie wouldn’t exist.

For having no soul, Mattie’s managed to become quite a complicated thinker when it comes to love and friendship. She feels petty slights against her just like anyone else would and it’s not entirely clear if Loharri intended this or not.  Mattie has a right to be wary of him--a man she can barely tolerate for his cruelty.  She pities him his rare moments of vulnerability, but cannot stand his selfishness at using the key she needs to wind her body as leverage.  He’s an abusive manipulator in this way, but Mattie has used this to her advantage.  She’s learned to manipulate human emotions to elicit desired responses, responses she can recognize in herself in the analytical and detached way she has.  She’s keenly observant of her own actions (particularly, her loudly ticking heart) as well as of those around her.  Mattie’s point of view reflects her mechanical nature as much as it does her desire to emulate very human emotions and behaviors; she’s acutely aware of how many in society view automata.

She must choreograph her world against the human demands that make certain alleviating gestures necessary. Mattie realizes she is not human; most humans are distrustful of automata, especially one that can talk.  Therefore, putting humans at ease is important, especially since she’s required to interact with them on an almost daily basis.  I like how Mattie is still questioning whether her actions are believable. I think that doubt is wonderful in how human a reaction it is.  It shows how marvelous Mattie has adapted to not being human and the extremes Loharri went to produce an automaton that works above and beyond the typical mindless drone.  At the same time, though, her humanness makes her vulnerable to Loharri’s unfairness and trickery.

I love how brilliant Mattie is. She’s so inquisitive and eager to be as human as is possible. Ironically, she comes across as one of the most human characters, especially in comparison to Loharri. A few days after finishing, I’m still thinking about Mattie and what an impressive heroine she is.  While Mattie had most of my attention, the gargoyles were also quite interesting.  I’m not sure what to make of the stylistic choice to have their point of view all in italics. It does graphically show the leap from Mattie to the gargoyles, but adds something urgent to their speech. A dying breed would speak urgently, I would think.  I wish I could have learned more about their magic or how it works.  The vague explanations seemed a bit too ethereal for a book that also focuses on concrete things such as Mattie’s alchemy or the Mechanic’s machines. Granted, we never question how Mattie sentience works either, it just does. I suppose the magic of stone operates under the same presumption.

Sedia has created an amazing character in Mattie; I think the book is worth reading for her alone.  She’s strong and assertive, at one point telling another, “I am not a thing” (p. 119).  The Alchemy of Stone is a complicated study of humanness that grapples with complexities of the heart.  Mattie’s story must be read. Her convictions and desires are enough to convince you she could be human, if she just wished hard enough.

How many Jawas recommend this book?


Janicu said...

Mattie is a unique heroine. At first I thought she was a little childlike.. I'm not really sure why, I guess that was my first impression, but as the book moved along she became more sophisticated to me. I also first didn't really get was going on with Loharri until well into the book. These things crept up on me.

Anonymous said...

wow, great review! having read this as well, i love the depth of your analysis in the themes and characterization. i definitely agree that the "human-ness" of Mattie was an ironic appeal when reading and her character alone was strong enough to carry the book. the great prose and other characters were bonus. :)

Dannie said...

That cover...it is magnificent.

Erika said...

@Janicu: I liked how we progressively saw how selfish Loharri really was. I don't think I would have believed his character if we were told from the beginning how awful and controlling he actually is. I think I understand when you say "childlike" - is it that she's inexperienced?

@thelittlereader.net: Thank you! My gushing over Mattie overshadowed anything else I was hoping to say. I'm only a little ashamed. :p

@Dannie: It's a brilliant cover! Unfortunately, this is a completely imagined scene. It does not occur at any time during the narrative. :\

Lily Child said...

Ok, I lightly skimmed b/c I want to read this book in the near future. It sounds amazing! I am bummed that I missed the April deadline for Calico's reading club! :(

Erika said...

@Lily Child: No problem. I tend to do the same if I haven't read a book, but am planning to. :)

Whenever you can read it, go back and read the discussion! Calico linked my VERY late review of Kindred on the discussion even though I didn't read it until nearly 2 months after the club did. :)

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