Review: The Alchemist and The Executioness

Paired novellas set in a shared fantasy world, The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell take place in a land where the incautious and casual use of magic has brought about the collapse of a once-great civilization. A poisonous bramble, a plant that feeds upon magic, has infested the country, ruining farmland and dragging whole towns and villages to ruin beneath its tangling vines. And in the place of a prosperous empire now exists a despotic regime that punishes with death even the most trivial use of magic. Originally published as an audiobook on audible.com, the two novellas have seen been published as illustrated books by Subterranean Press.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press, 2010

The alchemist Jeoz has spent a good portion of his life and nearly all of his fortune pursuing the mad notion of a weapon against the poisonous bramble, one that uses natural principles rather than the magic that only serves to feed the deadly weed. The device he creates, the “balanthast,” destroys the brambles down to the seed, and promises to restore the dying city of Khaim back to its former glory of flying carpets and floating cities. But for Jeoz, the potential to restore the free use of magic means also hope for his ill daughter, whom he has kept alive only by the furtive use of magic, an offense that could mean his execution should he be caught in the act.

When he presents his discovery to the authorities, they eagerly embrace the invention, only to find a use for the balanthast that Jeoz never anticipated. Bacigalupi’s novella is a fairly obvious exploration of the way that the powerful twist technological advances to their own ends, to consolidate their authority with no regard for the greater social gains that technology might otherwise bring, and The Alchemist could have easily devolved into preachy allegory. But Bacigalupi deftly tempers the political undertones with solidly entertaining writing and some surprisingly good character development for a fantasy story of this length.

The Executioness

The Executioness
Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press, 2010

Tana is an unwilling executioner, having secretly taken over the role of her ailing father in order to feed her family on whatever few coins the condemned can spare in hope of a quick death or the crowd deign to contribute in reward for a brief moment of grim entertainment. But Tana soon finds she must turn her axe toward other, less passive targets when raiders fall upon the land and kidnap her children. Through a combination of circumstance, hopeful gossip, and a bit of maternal foolhardiness, Tana becomes an unlikely legend to her people, even as she discovers that the raiders are more than opportunistic bandits, but rather, religious zealots intent on culling the people who brought the bramble curse upon the land.

The Executioness takes on a much greater scope than its sibling novella, and some reviews I’ve read have faulted it for trying to do too much for such a short work. And I agree that there are a few moments that seem rather rushed. Nonetheless, if you’re the kind of fantasy fan who’s entertained by world building, the two novels complement each other quite well, The Alchemist with its tight, intimate scope and the The Executioness with its broader narrative and as epic a feel as one could hope to capture in barely a hundred pages. Together, the books succeed in creating the illusion of a living world without getting bogged down in the minutiae that sometimes plagues fantasy of this sort.

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