The Alchemy of Stone
Prime Books, 2008
Mattie, the protagonist of Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, is a sentient automaton and a student of alchemy. Her creator, however, is a Mechanic, and as the rivalry between the Alchemist and Mechanic factions begins to grow into overt conflict, Mattie finds herself having to navigate the political complexities of a city on the brink of civil war, even as she struggles to understand her own place as a mechanical being in a very human world.
Although Mattie is nominally emancipated, liberated from the drudgery of her non-sentient mechanical counterparts, she is far from truly free: her mechanical heart requires winding and her creator alone holds the key. Only by obtaining the key for herself can Mattie truly achieve independence. Her quest to obtain the key, however, uncovers unexpected secrets and simmering conflicts, and ultimately reveals Mattie’s own central part in their resolution.
Much about The Alchemy of Stone reminds me of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, including Sedia’s richly descriptive prose style, grim urban setting, steampunk elements, and the integration of realistic political subtexts. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that Sedia perhaps tries to tackle too much: the problems of gender inequality, the dangers of uncritical technological advance, and the xenophobic hysteria of a post-9/11 world are all addressed to some degree under the guise of fantasy, but none of these issues seem fully developed. In a sense, though, this apparent shortcoming is also a strength, allowing Sedia’s novel to be thought-provoking without devolving into transparent political allegory. Mattie’s world is messy, full of ethical quandaries and short on definitive answers, and it’s this untidiness that lends Alchemy of Stone its unexpected realism.