Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

The Alchemy of Stone

AuthorEkaterina Sedia

Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Prime Books
Release Date: November 1st, 2009
ISBN-10: 1607012154
ISBN-13: 978-1607012153


I stumbled into reading Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone via a twitter conversation between Paul Jessup and Matthew Delman. It wasn’t a conversation about the novel’s themes or its characterizations, nor was it even about the quality; rather, they debated tone and setting. Delman likened the setting to Eastern Europe, akin to medieval Prague or Moscow, but Jessup didn’t see the connection. Having travelled quite extensively through that part of the world (in modern times, not medieval, mind you), I was curious about the distinction, and so took the novel from the (proverbial) pile and jumped into it knowing very little about Sedia or her work.

With the tale behind me now, I’m not surprised that Delman and Jessup’s conversation so heavily leaned on atmosphere. The nameless city in which the novel’s set is as important a character as any of the other characters: human, automaton or otherwise. Through the living stone Gargoyles, Sedia gives the city a voice:

There is a house on the top of the hill – no man’s land, no-place, too steep for agriculture and too rocky for pasture, out-of-the-way and inconvenient for city dwellers and farmers both. This hill, the Ram’s Skull, the bald forehead of the once-mountain worn to a nub by time (slipping, slipping, faster and faster) is nothing but bedrock and loose stones. The house on the top sits lopsided already, its northern corner sinking with the decay of the slope under its supports

The mechanical girl and the Soul-Smoker enter the house – we hear the long squeal of a door as it opens and a slam as it closes behind them. We do not know what is happening inside, but we can guess – there is light in the fireplace and the gurgling of a kettle, and low, guilty voices. And we think of the souls and we count them – we had known every ghost in the city, and we can recall their names. We marvel at the cruelty of their fate without having the capacity to truly comprehend it – no more than to merely recognize it as grotesque. But, like the mechanical girl, we have no souls, and we are not afraid of the Soul-Smoker, we have no reason to worry that the souls inside him will somehow lure ours away and we will fall dead on the spot, abandoned by our animating essence. We think about the nature of souls and listen to the small domestic noises reaching us from the little house on top of the hill.

But the nameless city, and its gradual degradation and destruction as two warring factions wage war in its streets, isn’t the ultimate make-it-or-break-it facet of the novel. Rather, that’s Mattie, a mechanical girl, an automaton, as she’s coined in the novel, trying to break free from the shackles that society has placed on her. The reader’s willingness to buy into Mattie will likely determine their attachment to the novel. She’s a well drawn, sympathetic character, much moreso than many of the secondary human characters (the only one who comes close to her level of complexity is Loharri, who’s woefully under-explored), but, in the end… she’s also a mechanical construction with little explanation of how a gunpowder society is able to create a fully sentient, emotional and adaptable A.I. This is doubly hard to buy into when much of the crux of the novel’s plot (which happens around and despite Mattie, rather than because of her) centres around a massive computer (for lack of a better term) that is powered by coal and much less sophisticated than Mattie. I was often enthralled by her, but then she would do something too human, and I’d be whisked away from the story. Ironically, perhaps, her character would have been better served if she was more alien – Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is a brilliant example of how to draw a sympathetic but believable robotic character. Her struggles with trying to break away from the preconceptions cast on her by society were fascinating, but her emotional relationships with human characters are hard to empathize with. Ultimately, had Sedia pulled back the curtain on Mattie’s creation, and given reason for why she was so far ahead of the technology curve (and I believe there was a very ample opportunity to do this, if she’d just followed one plot string about a trio of young boys to a deeper conclusion), all of a sudden the dichotomy of Mattie’s personality and emotional abilities would have been worlds easier to accept.
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Tengwar, by JRR Tolkien & Marcin Przybys

Now, this is just too cool. Marcin Przybys, a graphic designer, decided to take Tolkien’s Tengwar, an Elvish script he created for his novels, and update it for modern times. The results are gorgeous.

Tengwar, by JRR Tolkien & Marcin Przybys

This project is a kind of playing with typography.

J.R.R. Tolkien created new race – Elves with their language, culture and stylish alphabet. But did you ever imagine that the Elves evolve to present time ? Would they have their own Helvetica ? How their „Hengwar” typeface would develop?

I made two modern elvish „Tengwar” typfaces (Tengwar New Light and Tengwar New Bold).

You can check out more example of the font, and a breakdown of all the characters, on Przybys’ blog.

Well, I must’ve impressed them the first time, because the dudes at The Functional Nerds podcast asked me if I’d be interested in appearing on another episode. Obviously, I said yes. Alongside myself, John Anealio and Patrick Hester is Dan Goodman, from Literary Musings. The website has a nice write-up of the things we cover in the episode:

In the 23rd episode of The Functional Nerds, Patrick Hester and John Anealio are joined by returning 3rd Nerd Aidan Moher and our youngest recruit to date – Dan Goodman! This week, we chat about NASA, crowdsourcing wake up music for astronauts, digital distribution, Stargate Atlantis, creative commons licensing, Cory Doctorow, free tv, pay tv, bit torrent, record companies, the music industry, the long tail, publishing, ebooks, ereaders, Caprica, the channel formerly known as Scifi, Stargate Unierse, Haven, Jeff Vandemeer, A Dribble of Ink, Literary Musings and bandcamp.com.

Also, I’ve got a couple of pieces of very A Dribble of Ink related news at the end of the podcast, so if you’re interested in hearing about some of my new projects (with some very cool folk), give it a listen.

You can also find my first appearance on Episode 009 of The Functional Nerds.

Jeff Vandermeer, World Fantasy Award Nominated author of FinchJeff Vandermeer needs little introduction. Between his fiction (he’s just been nominated for another World Fantasy Award), his work on various anthologies or his popular blog, Ecstatic Days, it’s hard to miss Vandermeer’s presence when you step into the online Speculative Fiction community. With the recent release of The Third Bear, a collection of short fiction from Tachyon Publications, Jeff and I decided it would be a great time to sit down and talk about his latest project, the online reviewing sphere, sticks, awards, writing and, just maybe, what other projects he’s got up his sleeve.

It’s a long one, but Jeff pushes me around a little, so grab some popcorn, get comfy and enjoy.

The Interview

Jeff! Welcome to A Dribble of Ink and thanks for dropping by! Any opening words to set the mood?

    “I will smack your head from your body and pull your arteries out through your neck bones.” Oh, sorry, that was the third bear saying hi.

*gulp* The tone has been suitably set, I think.

    Behave yourself, sir.

Your most recent project is a short fiction collection called The Third Bear, recently released by Tachyon Publications. What can The Third Bear, and the stories it contains, tell us, right now, about you as a writer, both professionally and creatively?

The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer

    I’ve spent a great deal of effort not explaining anything about the stories in the collection—no story notes, no introduction, just a sparse afterword. It’s not really up to me to say what it tells readers about me or my fiction. For me, it was just important to have a tight, complex collection that entertained but also didn’t compromise.
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The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Reviews have started cropping up, and the release is just around the corner. Few authors have come around that can match the impact had on the genre by George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan, but Brandon Sanderson (with the marketing push behind him, his ties to Wheel of Time, the accessibility of his work, and, well, his popularity) seems poised to join them with the release of The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archives.

Will he become the next Frank Herbert, and bathe in pools of hot women and gold dubloons? Or the next Robert Newcomb, subjugated to the lowest levels of hell for not being able to live up to the grandiose quotes plastering the covers of his novels? Only time will tell, but Sanderson seems to succeed at everything he sets out to accomplish. The ball’s certainly in his court.

Tor Books has released Chapters Twelve and Thirteen on their website, to go alongside the Prologue and Chapters One through Six, Nine and Eleven.