There are so many ways to describe Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone. It's a sombre symphony of motifs, ranging from women's independence and sexuality to the ramifications of rapid industrialization. And deceptively so—despite the intriguing back cover copy and the seductive tagline, "a novel of automated anarchy & clockwork lust," I wasn't quite convinced of The Alchemy of Stone's brilliance until the denouement, when everything suddenly came together in a wonderful, cathartic moment.
In the city of Ayona, hewed from stone by the ever-watchful gargoyles, the Mechanics and the Alchemists duel for political control of the city while the peasants labour in the mines and on the farms. Mattie is an emancipated, clockwork automaton who has chosen to become an alchemist (and she's competent at it too). Though she is legally a free woman, she can't break her bond to her Mechanic creator, Loharri. He retains the key that will wind her clockwork heart and exerts an insidious influence on Mattie throughout the book.
The Mechanics have recently achieved a majority in Parliament, but when someone destroys the Duke's palace, the city gradually slides into chaos. Mattie is politically apathetic (and she can't vote anyway), but she is close to people on both sides of the conflict and inexorably becomes involved. Still, her outsider's perspective provides us with valuable insight into the tensions and fears that motivate both those in power and the masses who are unhappy with them. It's clear that the Mechanic-controlled Parliament has an agenda, and we get a glimpse of a counter-agenda from Sebastian, Iolanda, and the revolutionaries. However, there are very few specifics in both cases. Sedia focuses less on the political aspirations of either side than the power conflict itself, mostly because it parallels the power conflict between Loharri and Mattie.
The revolution's root cause is the rapid industrialization driven by the Mechanics. Machines are the answer to everything: transportation, manufacturing, even food production, thanks to mindless automaton labourers. Despite the improvements these machines often make, there's disadvantages too, both aesthetic and practical. The factories in the city are eyesores, polluting the river and belching smoke into the sky. The peasants who still have jobs tilling the soil receive little pay and little gratitude; still, they are luckier than the orphans raised in inhumane conditions to live out their lives as miners, striving to satisfy Ayona's insatiable appetite for coal. The result: the riots of the Industrial Revolution, accelerated just as the steampunk technological innovations accelerate in the book. We go from initial attack to the end of the revolution quite quickly, or at least it seems that way. Likewise, the revolution spurs unintuitive improvements in technology: the Mechanics construct a "Calculator" that will analyze the situation and provide them with the best possible course of action; Loharri manages to perfect audio/video recording in a very short time and use Mattie as an unwitting spy. The pace of this progress isn't very believable, but as a storytelling device, I suppose it works well.
The revolution is but a backdrop to the personal journey of discovery of Mattie herself. Initially, she seems to pursue her goals with a single-mindedness only a clockwork person can possess. Yet as the story progressed, I realized that one could also interpret that pursuit as a form of selfishness—such a human attribute, or an attribute of the flesh, as the gargoyles would no doubt describe it. Mattie, though made of gears and springs, whalebone and ceramic, feels pain—and pleasure—and her emotions run the gamut from lust to passion to anger. She is a person, in all sense of the word. And she is a woman.
The personhood of robots is a Big Question; entire books, science fiction or otherwise, devote themselves to unravelling that mystery. Sedia, in a sense, has bypassed this issue, taking Mattie's sentience as a given so that she can explore more pertinent problems. This is what Mattie has to say about her gender (to the female character Iolanda):
". . . why do you consider yourself a woman? Because you were created as one?"
"Yes," Mattie replied, although she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. "And because of the clothes I wear."
"So if you changed your clothes . . ."
"But I can't," Mattie said. "The shape of them is built into me—I know you have to wear corsets and hoops and stays to give your clothes a proper shape. But I was created with all of those already in place, they are as much a part of me as my eyes. So I ask you, what else would you consider me? . . . I assure you that my femaleness is as ingrained as your own."
Mattie identifies herself with The Alchemy of Stone’s female characters, like Iolanda and Niobe, who themselves are struggling for some power over their own destinies. She expresses horror that the city's mindless automatons were never aware enough to know their own lack of freedom; hence, she cherishes what little freedom she has. Yet there's something much more sinister about Mattie's creation: Loharri built her in a form designed for servitude. She repeatedly experiences a desire to help or please Loharri even as she resents his reticence to surrender her key. Though emancipated, she often accompanies Loharri places in the role of "his" automaton, possession rather than person, somehow less "real." The combination of Mattie's femaleness and her illusory freedom is a potent reminder of women's struggle to emancipate themselves from the role of devoted housewife. Sedia manages to make Mattie's plight resonate even for me, a young male who lacks much experience when dealing with gender discrimination. And the culmination of this aspect of Mattie's journey is, for me, the most fulfilling part of the book.
It's worth mentioning Mattie's faces. Most of Mattie is fairly durable, but her faces are made of porcelain and prone to cracking or even shattering completely. When this happens, she must go to Loharri for a replacement—a shameful, degrading circumstance, at least from her perspective. Think about how much importance we humans put on one's face: it's an outward representation of our personality; we associate faces with specific individuals. The facts that Mattie's face is artificially, so easily breakable and mutable, that her expression and appearance are controlled by her creator all contribute to this tragic sense of not being "real" despite her obvious sentience.
Sedia, for the most part, executes these themes with skill and confidence. Occasionally, however, she does falter, and that inconsistency is why I demure from five stars. To be honest, getting through the first two thirds of the book was more chore than diversion. I can understand why some people would probably put it down after the first few chapters. Yet my opinion of the book experienced a reversal in the last act; the final third is captivating in its tragedy and beauty. Without spoiling it too much, Mattie is definitely a tragic heroine, her downfall ultimately residing within Loharri's spiteful betrayal of her.
Loharri is a fully realized character. He's passionate but phlegmatic, prone to fits of enthusiasm and malaise. Mattie's complex feelings about her creator alone justify calling three dimensional. He was kind enough to create her with an independent mind in the first place; he allowed her to learn alchemy and emancipated her on request. Yet he refuses to hand over her key, which would truly grant her freedom. And he uses her, both indirectly, by compelling her to see him at regular intervals, or directly, by using her as an unwitting spy. This duality is mirrored in his role as a Mechanic politico. He seems more open and accepting than most Mechanics, yet when Mattie attempts to question the wisdom of a party policy, Loharri becomes defensive. He displays the same general xenophobia the other Mechanics have, blaming the revolutionary atmosphere on the increasing population of "Easterners" in Ayona. Clearly, Loharri is not a very nice man. Yet he created Mattie, who is equally clearly a nice woman, determined to care for those society has left by the wayside, such as Ilmarekh the Soul-Smoker and the gargoyles.
So when Loharri betrays Mattie one final, irrevocable time, it's the most poignant turning point in the novel. Suddenly he has crossed the line from passive antagonist to active villain. When Sedia made me hate him for his actions rather than for how Mattie saw his actions, that's when The Alchemy of Stone captured me. It's unfortunate that it took almost the entire book to reach that point; certainly other books have captivated me from the first page until the last. However, when it did happen, it was as swift and irrevocable as Loharri's betrayal.
Sedia's prose is lyrical and haunting; she never wastes words or wants for imagery. That's why I label The Alchemy of Stone a symphony. The entire book feels like a score—set in a minor key, of course—that could easily be put to a ballet or some sort of opera. I've criticized the plot, and some of the character development, but the atmosphere of this book is potent and unforgettable—maybe even unforgivable.