The Alchemy of Stone follows Mattie, a clockwork automaton in a city where automata have no rights. She’s managed to grab herself a bit of freedom, however, working for herself as an alchemist, and it’s in this capacity that she’s approached by the gargoyles, mysterious creatures who first shaped the city out of stone, and who are trying now to escape their stony forms.
So it’s sort of the story of Mattie’s search for a cure for the gargoyles’ slow and inevitable transformation into stone. But it’s also the story of her search for self-definition and self-control – her creator Loharri literally holds the key to her heart, and if she’s not wound regularly she’ll effectively fall silent and die – the story of a city on the brink of revolution, the story of those on the edges looking in.
It’s steampunk, and I do like steampunk. The Alchemy of Stone gets all the beats of the “punk” part as well as the “steam”: the arbitrary class system, the mechanisation that threatens the working class, the intersectionality between different types of oppression, the feminist fable, the deep-seated pessimism about the efficacy of rebellion and the nature of humanity.
But, for all that I recognise its technical steampunk-ness, I’m not really convinced by The Alchemy of Stone. Core to this, I think, is the world-building: I never felt that the city was a real city, that the politics (centred around the two opposing guilds of Alchemists and Mechanics) were as byzantine and incomprehensible and exclusive as real politics are, that the systems of oppression Sedia describes were quite as oppressive as their real-world counterparts are. Generally, I don’t think world-building is as important as other SFF readers do; but steampunk is essentially a genre about power, and I think in that respect it’s essential to get the world-building right, because it’s part of where the point of steampunk is. And I also think that Mattie’s story is too superficially, too obviously a fable of misogyny, its villains too obviously villains. This doesn’t feel like a real place, where misogyny and racism and strategies of othering are embedded deeply into cultural systems. It just feels like a Bad Place, written so the author can make wry observations about how misogyny works. “Look, gender has been forced upon this automaton by building a corset into her! Isn’t that like how we force gender norms upon women and trans people in the real world?” Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s also kind of obvious.
It may be that I just have high standards for steampunk: certainly I kept comparing The Alchemy of Stone to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, which I read at the end of last year and which seems a lot more aware of how discrimination gets perpetuated, despite its being written for a YA audience. And, quite unfairly, to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which is also about doomed revolutionaries and ambivalent automata and is absolutely magisterial on oppressive social structures, although it is admittedly less feminist. And Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night, which is feminist, and set in a bustling, socially stratified city like Mattie’s, and conceptualises oppression in a way that’s similarly fabulistic but actually much more interesting and powerful.
The Alchemy of Stone was OK, is what I think I’m trying to say. I just wanted it to be more.