Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review of The Alchemy of Stone

The Alchemy of Stone
by Ekaterina Sedia
304pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.13/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.78/5

The Alchemy of Stone is the third novel by Ekaterina Sedia, author of The Secret History of Moscow and According to Crow. This beautifully written, character-driven story focuses on themes of social inequality and humanity within a fantastic steampunk setting combining science and magic. While it is a thoughtful tale, it can be read quickly and easily without getting bogged down by too many themes and not enough storytelling.

Mattie is an automaton created by Loharri, a prominent figure among the mechanics of the city. Capable of both thought and feeling, Mattie craved her independence from her master and became interested in alchemy upon discovering Loharri's fear of the alchemists, a group in opposition with the scientific mechanics. She boldly asks to be an apprentice to an alchemist and is accepted since it is apparent she is intelligent enough to learn the trade. Upon finishing her studies, Mattie moved to her own home as an emancipated automaton, to Loharri's great chagrin. However, she is not completely free. Mattie occasionally needs to be wound up with a key or she will cease to function - a key that her creator refuses to give up to her.

Tired of their fate of turning to stone, the gargoyles seek Mattie's aid in creating a potion to prevent this from happening. Mattie's quest for information leads her to the Soul-Smoker, who contains the soul of a dead woman who had looked into this problem before Mattie. She strikes up a friendship with the lonely Soul-Smoker, feared by those who possess souls. While seeking information that could help with treating the gargoyles, the unpolitical Mattie finds herself involved in the political struggles between the Alchemists and the Mechanics.

The Alchemy of Stone is mainly told from the third person perspective of Mattie, but it also offers occasional glimpses from the collective perspective of the gargoyles. Although it is partially about the city and politics, the book is mainly about Mattie, who is an interesting character in spite of (or perhaps because of) her not-fully-human nature. In many ways, Mattie seems human considering she has emotions, can love, and can learn, but she is also more tolerant than the human characters and immune to prejudice against others. Also, Mattie was created as a woman and it is a part of her as much as if she were born a human woman with her built in feminine garments. With her love/hate relationship with her creator and struggles to be truly liberated, Mattie is very sympathetic.

The writing is very lovely - not verbose yet descriptive. It tends to convey mood and feeling very well.

Sedia does an excellent job of writing a story with themes that are intertwined into the story. They are part of the tale itself and it never feels heavy handed or as though the book is being used to convey personal beliefs - both story and ideas work together and fit together.

The Alchemy of Stone is not a fast-paced book but an introspective book about society and people, particularly one character's personal struggles. Those who enjoy character-driven stories rather than those filled with action and adventure would probably enjoy this novel.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Free Stories and Novels/Update

I've seen quite a few free stories and novels available the past couple of days so thought I'd post them here in case anyone has missed any of them.
has decided to bring back having free e-books available on the site for a limited time. Right now War for the Oaks by Emma Bull and Dogland by Will Shetterly are available for download here. (If you are not a registered user already, you will need to sign up in order to access these.)

Also on is a short story by Elizabeth Bear entitled "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder."

In honor of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a story from the forthcoming Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer is available as a PDF on the Geekdad Wired Blog - "Boojum" by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. (As I'm sure anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, those are my two favorite new authors I've discovered this year.)

I am reading Hell and Earth, the second part of "The Stratford Man" duology in Elizabeth Bear's Promethean Age series now, which is even better than the first two books in the series. It's much more mature and has none of the problems of too many characters that Whiskey and Water had - in fact, the new duology has a rather narrow focus on Christopher Marlowe and Will Shakespeare that works excellently. While the first set of books had more references to mythology, this set has more references to history and literature (but characters such as Puck and Lucifer are still present and the first set of books certainly had a few references to literature and history as well). Either set of books can be read first as long as the two parts are read in the correct order (Blood and Iron followed by Whiskey and Water or Ink and Steel followed by Hell and Earth). I think I would have started with Ink and Steel first since it does take place before the other books and now there are parts I want to reread because of it.

I'm hoping to make some progress on reviewing this weekend since I have no major plans (although I may end up doing some cleaning now that I'll be home for a weekend finally -ick). The next reviews will be The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia and Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. After I'm done with Hell and Earth I'll review the duology (which was originally intended to be one book until it grew too long).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review of The Cipher

The Cipher is the first novel in the Crosspointe series by Diana Pharoah Francis. The next book, The Black Ship, is supposed to be out in November of this year and the third book, tentatively titled The Turning Tide, is in progress. From what I have read about the series in brief descriptions and an even briefer excerpt from the third book, each novel has a different set of characters although they all take place in the fictional world of Crosspointe.

Ever since she was a child, Lucy Rampling has known she has the ability to detect majick. Unfortunately, everyone believed her so-called gift was a ploy for attention except for a stranger who tried to kill nine-year-old Lucy after she asked him about his majickal items. This taught Lucy to keep her talent a secret, although she developed an illegal obsession with collecting ciphers, majickal items created by the famous sorcerer Errol Cipher that often are cursed. One day Lucy senses and seeks out a cipher that attaches itself to her wrist, unable to be removed and invisible to all but Lucy, who becomes more reckless and dangerous the longer she wears it. Even worse, someone has discovered Lucy's store of ciphers and threatens to reveal their knowledge if she does not agree to do as she's told. As a member of the royal family that already has a shaky standing in the kingdom and so little funds that they must all work for a living, the consequences of this revelation could be devastating for the Ramplings.

During a particularly bad storm at sea, Lucy finds herself required to take charge as the senior official in the vicinity while she is on duty at her job as a customs inspector. A magical barrier protects Crosspointe from sylveth, majick which changes anything it touches whether alive or inanimate into strange and unique creatures. When sylveth washes up on shore during bad weather, those infected must be killed. Lucy's friend Jordan stays to aid her and keep her drunk enough to handle it and introduces her to Marten Thorpe, one of the best captains around. Due to his reputation as a gambler and therefore lack of integrity as a human being, Lucy takes an instant dislike to him; however, she will not be able to get rid of Marten's attentions so easily.

When I picked up The Cipher, I was in the mood for a book that would hold my attention and be easy to read without a lot of mental effort. It certainly suited this purpose in the beginning and kept me reading although it was never what I considered to be a very good book - just a mildly entertaining one.

Lucy begins as a decent character - a determined and hard-working woman in spite of her social status as cousin to the king. Yet she despises Marten for his gambling addiction and considers his illegal actions to mean he is lacking integrity and rather stupid. Considering Lucy's own unlawful cipher collection, this is rather hypocritical. While hypocrisy is a very realistic human failing, it is one that makes her difficult to like at times. By the time I got to the last 75 pages or so of the book, I found that I no longer cared about what happened to Lucy or Marten and just wanted to be finished with the story.

The romantic aspect of the novel seemed forced and not very believable to me. Lucy is very harsh toward Marten and Marten is a gambling smooth talker. I suppose it was one of those cases where I could see no reason for either of them to like the other. Plus at times the romance was just plain cheesy, such as this conversation during dinner:
"You still look hungry," she said.

"I am."

A thrill rippled deliciously over her skin at the smoky desire coloring his voice.

"There's plenty to eat. Don't stop on my account."

Thoughtfully he set down his glass and stood, coming around the table to pull her to her feet. He bent, his breath whispering over her lips. "I am hungry on your account."
Of course, it leads to passion and kissing and all that, but fortunately scenes such as this one do not actually occur often in the book.

My biggest problem with the book is one I can only be vague about to avoid spoilers: the ending. It was very contrived and far too convenient.

The Cipher begins as a somewhat interesting story but characters who overstay their welcome and a terrible ending ruined this one for me. I will not be reading the other books in the Crosspointe series.


Read the first chapter for free.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Review of Archangel Protocol

Archangel Protocol
is the first book in the AngelLINK series by Lyda Morehouse (who also writes the Garnet Lacey series under the name Tate Hallaway). This book is followed by Fallen Host, Messiah Node, and Apocalypse Array, which are supposed to work as stand-alone novels even though they are set in the same universe as the first book. Unfortunately, the books in this series are out of print, although new copies can be found at Dreamhaven (which is where I got my own signed copy of the first book at regular price). Lyda Morehouse is currently writing an AngelLINK prequel called Resurrection Code.

Just after the midway point of the 21st century, the destruction produced by the terrible Medusa bomb led to the official movement of America from a democracy to a theocracy. In a world with drive-through churches in which it is a crime not to belong to some sort of organized religion, the presidential candidates are Rabbi-Senator Grey and Reverend-Senator Letourneau, who is claiming to be the second coming of Christ. These claims appear to be justified with the appearance of the LINK-angels, awe-inspiring angelic beings who appear within the cybernetic virtual reality almost everyone is connected to. Since the LINK-angels cause a strong emotional response when sighted--something that is impossible to do through technology--it is believed that they are a miraculous sign from God.

Deidre McMannus went from being a successful detective to a struggling private eye after her investigative partner Daniel publicly murders the Pope. For the offense of her association with Daniel, Deidre is excommunicated from the Catholic church and disconnected from the LINK, meaning it is hard for her to find work and access to credits. While undergoing a particularly bad day due to the loss of a client, Deidre is visited by a drop-dead gorgeous cop in jeans and black leather by the name of Michael Angelucci. Michael would like to enlist Deidre's aid in exposing the would-be messiah Letourneau and his supportive LINK-angels as a fraud. In return, he promises to give Deidre access to the addictive LINK.

Archangel Protocol is hard to define since it incorporates a diverse blend of genres - I suppose you could call it a cyberpunk mystery romance socio-religious/political adventure. This is part of what made the book stand out to me since anytime I've tried reading cyberpunk before, it has bored me. I tried to read Snow Crash since it was supposed to be a fantastic cyberpunk book and gave up eventually. I struggled through Neuromancer and came away from it with the feeling that it was the longest 200 pages I have ever read. These books were all about the tech and the cool hacker characters that I had no attachment whatsoever to. Yet Archangel Protocol had the cyberpunk feel and the technology as a core component of the story without compromising characters or plot. In addition to this, it had a plausible future scenario containing interesting prospects about the complete removal of the separation of politics and state.

Deidre is a sympathetic character - a social pariah because of a crime she did not commit with a sense of left-over Catholic guilt preventing her from simply joining another religion just to become a part of the real world once again. She even finds some comfort in the preacher who rants outside her window every day since "at least someone thinks I'm worth saving." Other characters are not as fleshed out as Deidre, but I found them likable in spite of not feeling they were particularly deep. Michael seems like a typical nice guy, but I did find his brother Morningstar intriguing when he did show up.

This book is rather fast-paced and getting involved in the story was effortless. It was one of those books that captured my attention in the first chapter and held it all the way to the end, making it very difficult to put down.

The story is told from the first person perspective of Deidre and the end of each chapter has a newspaper article or other relevant interludes such as political interviews or religious essays. Some of these were serious, others were amusing, but they all added to the story being told and did not feel out of place.

The main complaints I have about this book is that some of the romance did seem a bit cheesy (which is hardly unusual) and although I enjoyed Deidre's character she did seem to be a bit slow at times. I suppose if such unusual events happened to me, I'd be a bit hesitant to believe it as well, but she had all the pieces of the puzzle at times but later would seem to forget what she had known just a little while ago.

Archangel Protocol is a very enjoyable novel combining a fast-paced plot, a fairly well-developed main character, some romance, religious themes, and a fun mystery.