Monday, March 7, 2011

The Alchemist and the Executioness: A Joint Review

The Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press
Trade $20; Limited - sold out
96 pages

The Executioness
Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press
Trade $20, Limited $45
104 pages

Here's a pair of novellas that will definitely be worth your while.  The backstory behind them is that Tobias Buckell had an idea for a fantasy world and invited his friend Paolo Bacigalupi to join him in it.  Together they developed the settings, history, and characters.  What resulted from this collaboration was the pair of books you see above.  Hopefully, this is the first of many because they've created a fascinating world with an interesting magic system.

In this world, magic, as the publisher's promotional copy says, has a price.  If magic is used, bramble grows.  Bramble is like kudzu, only with thorns.  It takes over everything.  Little magic, big magic, it doesn't matter.  If you use magic, bramble will grow somewhere nearby.  It's caused the downfall of an entire empire in the recent past and is well on its way to taking over the entire world.  (I told you it was like kudzu.)  To bet stuck by bramble is to risk falling into a deep sleep, one from which you won't likely wake up.  It's never stated when bramble first started, but The Alchemist implies that it wasn't always around.  It can be burned out, but there are enough people who use magic (in small amounts, of course, not enough to really hurt anything you understand) that this is a losing battle.

I'll start with The Alchemist only on the basis of the alphabet.  Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the hottest new writers working today, and after reading this book, it's easy to see why.  Of course, if you've read any of his short stories or his novel The Windup Girl, you already know this about him.  The Aclchemist concerns, well, an alchemist.  One who has spent a literal fortune trying to find a way to successfully battle bramble.  He's not doing this purely from altruistic reasons but because his daughter has a wasting lung disease. The only cure for it is through magic.  He is able to keep the disease at bay, but to do more will cost him is life.  The Mayor of the city of Khaim has declared that practicing magic is a death penalty offense.  The alshemist succeeds in his quest.  And that proves to be his undoing...

The ink on the book was barely dry when Bacigalupi picked up a Nebula Award nomination for it.  (Congratulations, Paolo, and good luck!)  It's understandable when you read it.  The prose is moving and at times poetic.  While I found some of the villainy a little over the top, the story's ending wasn't as dark or nibilistic as I was expecting from the set up.  I definitely want to see more of this character.

The Executioness is the story of a middle aged woman, the mother of two boys, who takes up the axe in order to keep her family from starving when her father, an executioner himself, dies. This is not your typical fantasy heroine.  That's a good thing.  Buckell does a fine job of developing her character, and anyone, male or female, who's ever had children will relate to her motivation.  After her alcoholic husband is killed and her sons stolen by raiders, she takes off in pursuit of her boys.  The raiders are practicing what they call Culling, reducing the magic using population by kidnapping children and taking them away across the sea to be indoctrinated in the raiders' religion.  She quickly catches up with them, only to be defeated and tossed in bramble.  Somehow she awakens, her wounds healed (this is never explained, something I hope is addressed in a later book), in a caravan, where she becomes one of the guards.  The caravan is heading to the city where her sons have been taken, so she has no problem riding along and earning her keep with her axe.  In the course of the story, she becomes something of a legend, as the number of raiders she fought grows with each retelling as well as the outcome of the fight changing.  In the end, she leads an army of some of the fiercest fighters you never want to tangle with:  an army of mothers who have had their children kidnapped. Whether they're successful, well, that would be telling...

Buckell is the author of several well received novels and one short story collection, which can be ordered here.  I picked up a signed copy of Crystal Rain when it was up for a Nebula a few years ago and the awards ceremony was held in Austin.  I confess I haven't read it simply because it is signed, and those books aren't the ones I take with me to read when I travel and so tend to sit on the shelf longer than unsigned books.  It's in the TBR stack, and after reading The Executioness, it will be moving up closer to the top.  Much closer.

These books might seem a bit pricey to some of you, especially in the current economy.  But if you can afford them, you should check them out.  The illustrations by J. K. Drummond are great.  I'm hoping these two glimpses into this shared world will be the first of many. 

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