8 Rated Books Book Reviews Steampunk Week

Steampunk Week – Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone

Author: Ekaterina Sedia

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Publisher: Prime Books
Publication Date: August 2008
Paperback: 301 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets – secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart – literally.

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: I’ve actually had this book on my TBR for about a year and change. Ever since I saw the cover and read the blurb, I scooped up this novel…but kept putting off reading it, saving it for Steampunk Week.


Imagine a city where the magical and mechanical coexist; where automatons can be emancipated from their creators; where gargoyles roam and watch the bustling streets beneath them. Such is the city of Ayona, home to Mattie, an intelligent automaton, an alchemist, and an utterly alone being in a city of increasing chaos. For Ayona is in a period of dramatic change. The Mechanics, with their inventions of cogwork and steam and logic, fight for dominance with the Alchemists, of mortar and pestle, herbs and mysticism. And in the midst of this struggle is Mattie – the gargoyles, ever silent watchers of the city, have chosen to turn to the girl with the ticking heart to help them find a cure for their inevitable deaths in stone. And Mattie, different from everyone else as a machine with memories and emotions and pride, agrees to help them. As the divide between the Mechanics and Alchemists becomes even more volatile, Mattie discovers the truth of her city, and of herself.

Ekaterina Sedia’s third novel is easily my favorite of her work so far. A steampunk-fable, blending poetry with machinery, The Alchemy of Stone is a beautiful, heartfelt work. I loved that this book is narrated by Mattie – an automaton that feels emotions and can think for herself. The most intriguing thread, for me, was the question of humanity – or rather, of souls. What makes a soul? What determines humanity? It’s a question that many a scifi tale has explored (the reimagined Battlestar Galactica immediately springs to mind), but in The Alchemy of Stone, it’s examined from a different angle – from that of the unassuming automaton, herself. The issues of slavery, emancipation, servitude, and loyalty are all scrutinized, through Mattie’s complicated relationship with her creator Loharri – the man that literally holds the key to her heart, the key to Mattie’s own survival.

In many ways, this novel reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s elegiac Never Let Me Go – and believe me, this is not praise I assign lightly. It’s flawlessly written, emotionally poignant, and eloquent in its execution. I’m a sucker for technical details in my speculative fiction, but even though there was less of a focus on the scientific in this book, I found myself immensely satisfied all the same. The Alchemy of Stone is a book driven by a lone woman machine’s emotions and discoveries, and as such is more of a character-centric novel. As a protagonist, Mattie is sensitive and original. How would one feel if they knew they were created – if they were a slave to their creator? Mattie’s passion, her sense of justice and logic add a new dimension to this question, and Ms. Sedia explores it at length.

The blend of the magical and the scientific, the struggle between technology and spirit are what make The Alchemy of Stone so tantalizing. I loved this book, for Ekaterina Sedia’s lush prose (which manages to be lyrical without being stuffy or cheesy), for the intriguing (if somewhat simplistic) world, and most especially, for the characters Ms. Sedia has rendered like the Mechanics in her novel. This is a fable to be read and cherished by steampunk fans, fantasy fans, and fans of literary fiction alike. Absolutely recommended.

BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK?! Actually…I’m going to say yes. It’s a different KIND of steampunk – a version that includes magic and fantasy elements, moreso than science fiction – but at its ticking, clockwork heart it is a steampunk novel. And a beautiful one, at that.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:

WE SCALE THE ROUGH BRICKS OF THE BUILDING’S FACADE. 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 used fire escapes, we could’ve climbed up, up, past the indifferent faces of the walls, their windows cataracted with shutters; we could’ve bounded up in the joyful cacophony of corrugated metal and barely audible whispers of the falling rust shaken loose by our ascent. 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. We rest, clinging to the wall, our fingertips nestled in snug depressions in the brick, like they were made especially for that, clinging. We are almost all the way to the steep roof red with shingles shaped like fish scales.

We look into the lone window lit with a warm glow, the only one with open shutters and smells of sage, lamb, and chlorine wafting outside. We look at the long bench decorated with alembics and retorts and colored powders and bunches of dried herbs and bowls of watery sheep’s eyes from the butcher’s shop down the alleyway. We look at the girl.

Her porcelain face has cracked–a recent fall, an accident?–and we worry as we count the cracks cobwebbing her cheek and her forehead, radiating from the point of impact like sunrays. Yes, we remember the sun. Her blue eyes, facets of expensive glass colored with copper salts, look into the darkness, and we do not know if she can see us at all.

But she smiles and waves at us, and the bronzed wheel-bearings of her joints squeak their mechanical greeting. She pushes the lock of dark, dark hair (she doesn’t know, but it used to belong to a dead boy) behind her delicate ear, a perfect and pink seashell. Her deft hands, designed for grinding and mixing and measuring, smooth the front of her fashionably wide skirt, and she motions to us. “Come in,” she says.

We creep inside through the window, grudgingly, gingerly, we creep (we could’ve flown). We grow aware of our not-belonging, of the grayness of our skin, of our stench–we smell like pigeon-shit, and we wonder if she notices; we fill her entire room with our rough awkward sour bodies. “We seek your help,” we say.

Her cracked porcelain face remains as expressionless as ours. “I am honored,” she says. Her blue eyes bulge a little from their sockets, taking us in. Her frame clicks as she leans forward, curious about us. Her dress is low-cut, and we see that there is a small transparent window in her chest, where a clockwork heart is ticking along steadily, and we cannot help but feel resentful of the sound and–by extension–of her, the sound of time falling away grain by grain, the time that dulls our senses and hardens our skins, the time that is in too short supply. “I will do everything I can,” she says, and our resentment falls away too, giving way to gratitude–falls like dead skin. We bow and leap out of the window, one by one by one, and we fly, hopeful for the first time in centuries.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: If you haven’t been introduced to the haunting, evocative writing of Ekaterina Sedia, you must get on board. The Secret History of Moscow is another gem that I highly recommend:

Every city contains secret places, and Moscow is no different, its citizens seeking safety under the city during tumultuous times — a cavernous dark world of magic, weeping trees and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairytale creatures still whisper strange tales to everyone who would listen. Through their interlocking stories, a very different history emerges, full of betrayals and unseen hostilities, between the real world and the world below . . . and now, in the early 1990’s, the conflict is escalating.

Galina is a young woman, caught like many of her contemporaries in the new economic uncertainty and apparent lawlessness of the country. In the midst of all this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away . . . prompting Galina to help Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden histories and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, truth and betrayal . . . The Secret History of Moscow.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Radiant Shadows by Melissa Marr

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  • KMont
    April 16, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Thea, this sounds wonderful. 🙂 I’m very intrigued. Will go put it on my wish list. Thanks for the great review.

  • Paul Smith
    April 16, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Great review Thea.

    I felt the same way when I reviewed it a while back, I loved Mattie, and felt Sedia dealt with a lot of difficult questions about sexism, racism, and social inequality in an insightful and intelligent way.

  • KMont
    April 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I added it to my wish list over at Amazon. I remember seeing the U.S. Cover now, I assume it’s U.S. version….I would never guess it’s in any way steampunk from it:


    It’s eye-catching, though.

  • Adrienne
    April 16, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    I added it to the “to be bought” list, thank you! Glad to know I am not the only one that has a TBR pile that spans books over a year purchased 😛

  • S.S. White
    April 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Very cool that you got to read it this month, as THE ALCHEMY OF STONE is our book club selection at Calico Reaction. I’ve got to get around to this before the month is over, but I’ve read THE SECRET HISTORY OF MOSCOW, so I’m looking forward to this. 🙂

  • The Bookish Type
    April 16, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    This review was amazing! I’m definitely going to have to read this one (in fact, I may run out and buy it right now). Your style is eloquent and informative. Thank you so much for writing this fabulous review!

    I have an award for you! Check it out here: http://thebookishtype.blogspot.com/p/awards.html

  • Moonsanity (Brenda H.)
    April 17, 2010 at 7:27 am

    I kept seeing this book, and love the cover, and now I can buy it. LOL I’ve saved all the posts from this week and the last Steampunk week in my steampunk email folder ( I subscribe to the blog posts). SO much good information. 😯

  • Rabid
    April 19, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I placed this on my wish list a few months ago. The cover caught my eye and the synopsis sounds fan-freaking-tastic. Very nice review to wet my appetite for the book just a little more.

  • Cover Makeovers: The Secret History of Moscow | Lurv a la Mode
    April 21, 2010 at 7:34 am

    […] one jumped out at me because of Book Smuggler Thea’s review of Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone during their second week of Steampunk goodness. Looks like The Secret Life of Moscow is getting a […]

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