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, 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.

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Review: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, 2007

A frame narrative in the tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, Ted Chiang’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novelette The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is narrated by the prosperous fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas, who, while searching through the markets of Baghdad for a gift for a business associate, stumbles upon a shop of curious instruments and ingenious mechanical devices.

The shop is owned by the alchemist Bashaarat, who introduces Fuwaad to his most prized invention: a great gate of polished black metal that allows an individual to step twenty years into the future. The bulk of Chiang’s novelette is a series of stories told by the alchemist concerning past clients who have used the gate to visit their own future selves. Eventually, the narrative reveals that the alchemist owns a second gate in Cairo that allows one to journey not only into the future, but also twenty years into the past. The novelette’s final tale concerns Fuwaad’s own journey through the gate in an attempt to correct a past mistake.

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