The Alchemy of Stone is the third novel by Ekaterina Sedia, author of The Secret History of Moscow and According to Crow. This beautifully written, character-driven story focuses on themes of social inequality and humanity within a fantastic steampunk setting combining science and magic. While it is a thoughtful tale, it can be read quickly and easily without getting bogged down by too many themes and not enough storytelling.
Mattie is an automaton created by Loharri, a prominent figure among the mechanics of the city. Capable of both thought and feeling, Mattie craved her independence from her master and became interested in alchemy upon discovering Loharri’s fear of the alchemists, a group in opposition with the scientific mechanics. She boldly asks to be an apprentice to an alchemist and is accepted since it is apparent she is intelligent enough to learn the trade. Upon finishing her studies, Mattie moved to her own home as an emancipated automaton, to Loharri’s great chagrin. However, she is not completely free. Mattie occasionally needs to be wound up with a key or she will cease to function – a key that her creator refuses to give up to her.
Tired of their fate of turning to stone, the gargoyles seek Mattie’s aid in creating a potion to prevent this from happening. Mattie’s quest for information leads her to the Soul-Smoker, who contains the soul of a dead woman who had looked into this problem before Mattie. She strikes up a friendship with the lonely Soul-Smoker, feared by those who possess souls. While seeking information that could help with treating the gargoyles, the unpolitical Mattie finds herself involved in the political struggles between the Alchemists and the Mechanics.
The Alchemy of Stone is mainly told from the third person perspective of Mattie, but it also offers occasional glimpses from the collective perspective of the gargoyles. Although it is partially about the city and politics, the book is mainly about Mattie, who is an interesting character in spite of (or perhaps because of) her not-fully-human nature. In many ways, Mattie seems human considering she has emotions, can love, and can learn, but she is also more tolerant than the human characters and immune to prejudice against others. Also, Mattie was created as a woman and it is a part of her as much as if she were born a human woman with her built in feminine garments. With her love/hate relationship with her creator and struggles to be truly liberated, Mattie is very sympathetic.
The writing is very lovely – not verbose yet descriptive. It tends to convey mood and feeling very well.
Sedia does an excellent job of writing a story with themes that are intertwined into the story. They are part of the tale itself and it never feels heavy handed or as though the book is being used to convey personal beliefs – both story and ideas work together and fit together.
The Alchemy of Stone is not a fast-paced book but an introspective book about society and people, particularly one character’s personal struggles. Those who enjoy character-driven stories rather than those filled with action and adventure would probably enjoy this novel.