Novel Review: The Alchemy of Stone

Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone has found a certain measure of success, even among more mainstream readers. She’s a fine crafter of words; does her steampunk take on Pygmalion do her prose justice?

Title: The Alchemy of Stone

Author: Eketerina Sedia
ISBN: 0809572842, 978-0-8095-7284-7
First published: 2008.

Available from


In a steampunk world where alchemy works and gargoyles stand watch, an automaton finds herself entangled in a political revolution.

High Point:

He couldn’t really punish her, she thought; the days when he had enough power over her to take away her eyes so that she stumbled through the house blindly were gone (204).

The portions dealing with the relationship between Mattie and her maker impressed me. She’s not human, but the circumstances and her reaction to them say much about human nature. The technology that powers her is magical and impossible, but it raises questions about applications of the real-world variety. Some of the parallels may seem a little obvious—- female characters who relate easily to Mattie’s semi-servitude, peasants who blame foreign workers for the loss of their livelihood, when the source of the problem lies closer to home—- but overall, they work. The Alchemy of Stone concerns itself with the dynamics of power in a variety of relationships, and I regard as a strength that it does not reach easy conclusions.

Low Point:

The society and the revolution present possibilities the book should explore, and doesn’t. I particularly thought that the plight of the “spiders,” “the pitiful terrors that emerged from the mine-shafts every night”(180), was insufficiently explored.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. The story features few truly original elements. The soul-smoker, though not without precedent, seems least familiar.

Imagery: 6-5/6:

Story: 4/6. The story begins well, and many readers will find the ending affecting. The protagonist often seems too passive. Minor and poorly-understood characters advance the plot, and the ending feels rushed.

Characterization: 5/6. Sedia’s characterization of Mattie represents a strong point in the book. The automaton has a psychological complexity that had me thinking about familiar aspects of humanity. The supporting characters, for the most part, lack depth. One exception is the Soul-Smoker, whom Sedia makes consistently interesting.

Emotional Response: 4/6. I felt for Mattie’s situation, which reflects many—too many– familiar human circumstances. I wish Sedia had created a stronger, more emotive sense of the novel’s political upheavals, so critical to the plot.

Editing: 5/6. She writes well. The story has not always been developed consistently well.

Overall score: 5/6

In total, The Alchemy of Stone receives 32/42