01 February 2010

Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

gargoyle detail - detalle gárgolaImage by Xavier Fargas via Flickr
Gargolyes, longing to live free from the bonds of stone. A robot, with a vulnerable ticking heart. A reclusive AI inventor, with a fearful past in a bleak orphanage that specializes in cage-raised children. A consumer of souls, an outcast, unsafe to any but the soulless.

Any one of these creations would have been enough material for an ordinary author to build a story. A superb author might have dared two of these elements. But Ekaterina Sedia dares to work with them all, and more, and makes a book that appears so effortlessly wonderful, so delightful, that substantial efforts must have gone into her novel, The Alchemy of Stone.

What ultimately pleased me about the work is how each of the characters was so utterly right in their actions and motivations, and how each of them ends up harming the other inevitably. There is no dithering and no simpering in this lot. The gargoyles' pursuit of their determined salvation is absolute - and correct. The inventor's mistrust of his creation is, in the end, merited. The robot's vulnerability is exploited to bad result. Upon reflection, the trajectory of each character appears to have been plotted out with mathematical precision. Counter-motivations balance and oppose one another; and the shape the entire plot makes is deceptively simple until it cascades together at the end.

I read Alchemy based on Carl's recommendation from Stainless Steel Droppings. This fellow drives way more than his fair share of my book purchases than is logical for someone I've never met. He's like My Own Private Oprah.

This comment from Carl was what put this book in the read category for me:
Despite being an automaton, she is a remarkably human creation, and in that sense very easy to relate with. One particular passage made me smile, discovering that Mattie was a clockwork girl after my own heart:

“…Mattie decided to stop by a bookshop near the paper factory. It carried some books she had lusted after for as long as she had been on her own, after she had ended her apprenticeship with Ogdela–small, trim books with thick paper and ragged pages, books bound in cloth and leather, books with faded drawings painted with a thin brush dipped in ox’s blood.”
Reading this book for myself, I flagged a section of prose to share with you, wandering readers-
“Mattie’s memories had shapes--some were oblong and soft, like the end of a thick blanket tucked under a sleeping man’s cheek; others had sharp edges, and one had to think about them carefully in order not to get hurt.”
And isn't it like that sometime? I reflected on the passage and considered that in Mattie's case, what is a simple human metaphor is dangerously real for her. What would it be like to be made with a kill-switch inside, to have the capacity to sabotage oneself and not know that it exists? In further reflection, I considered that we all are already, and that believing this is only true of robots is simplistic - automaton or not, the sentiment is human. For the author to so subtly include such wellsprings of metaphysical thought with such a careful sentence is masterful.

I'd recommend this book to readers of fantasies, cyber-punk, philosophy and fairy tales. I hope this is not the last we'll see of Mattie and the gargoyles in the city of stone.
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