You all know how much I enjoyed Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow (Canada, USA, Europe) last winter. As things stand, the novel is in my Top 5 of the year and its place seems to be quite secure. Hence, I was curious to see if I would get drawn into Sedia's newest offering as much as I was with her previous work.
Prime Books refers to it as "a steampunk novel of romance, political intrigue, and alchemy." One thing about The Alchemy of Stone is that the book is incredibly difficult to put in a nutshell. There are a number of interesting ideas throughout, but I felt that the author doesn't deliver the way she did with The Secret History of Moscow.
To begin with, the worldbuilding leaves a little to be desired. Sedia introduces the reader to Ayona, a city uncomfortably coming to terms with industrial development. But she offers us little more than a few glimpses about its past and how it shaped the political and social environment of this tale. I feel that a more in-depth elaboration on the history of the conflict and its protagonists would have been apropos.
The Mechanics' inventions continue to alter society as Ayona's inhabitants know it, while the Alchemists attempt to hold on to their ancient traditions. Yet the absence of depth in that regard means that the conflict between the two factions never truly grabs you. The problem is, this conflict is at the heart of the story. If you cannot bring yourself to care, it's hard to get sucked into the surrounding plotlines.
The most fascinating facet of The Alchemy of Stone is its main protagonist, Mattie. She's an emancipated automaton created by the Mechanic Loharri. Though he set her free, he still retains the key to her heart, and can thus control and manipulate her to a certain extent. Mattie's ponderings about the meaning of being alive and free are food for thought.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is nowhere near as engaging as the automaton. Some characters show signs of brilliance, such as Loharri and Niobe, but they are never fleshed out in a manner that permits them to attain their full potential.
I seldom say this, but The Alchemy of Stone, weighing in at 304 pages, is not long enough. Ekaterina Sedia introduces us to an array of concepts and ideas and characters, yet she fails to expand on most of them is a way that would be satisfying.
Nevertheless, The Alchemy of Stone is an intriguing read. Sedia set up the bar pretty high with The Secret History of Moscow, and her latest work doesn't quite live up to the expectations generated by its predecessor. While The Secret History of Moscow delivered on all fronts, one reaches the end of The Alchemy of Stone with a sense of "what might have been." The potential was there, no doubt about it. I think that the author simply needed to run with those ideas a little more. . .
The final verdict: 7/10