The Escher-eqse city of Ayona has a nominal nobility, in the form of a duke and his royal family, but the city is mostly governed by the frequently conflicting groups of Mechanics and Alchemist. While the Mechanics and Alchemists exist in an uneasy truce with each other, they both vie for the upper hand in power. The ancient city was “grown” out of stone by the ubiquitous but slowly dying race of gargoyles, who, when they were stronger, were worshipped and feared and kept both groups in check.
Mattie, a mechanical automaton, is at the center of this conflict for several reasons. First, she is the creation of a prominent Mechanic, Loharri. Second, she is a practicing alchemist. And finally, she has been contacted by the gargoyles and given the task to heal the sickness that turns them into stone. While Mattie is mostly a free agent, she bound to Loharri, because he has the key to her clockwork heart.
The novel has numerous subplots and operates on several levels. One is as a novel of political intrigue. The war between the Mechanics and Alchemists is kicked off when a terrorist group destroys the stone palace, and both groups point the finger at each other. Mattie shuttles back and forth between the two groups. As automaton, most of the mechanics believe that she is the mute and mindless servant of Loharri, so she can listen in on their plans without being considered a threat. Both groups use Mattie to find out who the culprit is, without realizing that she has her own motivations. The Alchemy of Stone is also a novel of weird magic. In addition to the major narrative featuring Mattie, part of the novel is narrated by the gargoyles themselves. Their mysterious story is told in a plural poetic voice, not unlike Kafka’s short story Josephine the Singer.
“We scale the rough bricks of the building’s façade. Their crumbling edges soften under our claw-like fingers; they jut out of the flat, adenoid face of the wall to provide easy footholds….We could’ve flown. But instead we hug the wall, press our cheeks against the warm bricks; the filigree of age and weather covering their surface imprints on our skin, steely-gray like the thunderous skies above us…”
Most of the scenes of Mattie performing alchemy have her doing arcane things. She can see salamanders dancing in fire, and other elementals. The fact that Mattie does not have a soul also allows her to befriend the Soul Smoker, a much feared lonely old man who devours ghost and like Mattie is used by various factions. It is also a novel of relationships, between creator and creation, between magic and science, and ultimately, between people. While there is a slight love story, most of the tension in the book is generated by the love-hate relationship between Mattie and Loharri. In a way, their disturbing relationship reminds me of the dynamics of male-female, master and slave relationship explored in the oeuvre of Octavia Butler.
Sedia’s novel has a steady pace and aims for the ‘slice of life’ feel of the fantasy books of Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu or any of Patricia McKillip’s work. She avoids explaining some of the magic/mechanics—like what makes Mattie intelligent. Instead, the reader sees the world mostly through Mattie’s eyes, and feels her terrible loneliness. She’s a misfit toy in a strange world. If at times she is passive, it fits with her character. She is literally a breakable person. The novel’s main weakness is that is can’t make up its mind as to what kind of story it wants to be. Quest story? Love story? Political allegory? (In addition to the terrorism and the revolution stories, there is also a subplot involving racial profiling). The anomie that pervades the narrative seems to be the main theme of the book. From the Soul Smoker to the gargoyles to Mattie herself, this is a book about those unsung heroes and outsiders who sacrifice much for the common good. The resolution is both haunting and unresolved. While The Alchemy of Stone is not a perfect book, it is a worthwhile read and belongs on the same shelf as such postmodern fantasy authors like Mieville and Vandermeer.