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Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: The Alchemist and The Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell

The Alchemist and the Executioness – Tobias Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi (Released 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Heroic (perhaps… does it matter?)
Completed: 8 October 2010

The Alchemist and The Executioness demanded the attention of genre readers before a word hit the page. Paired novellas in a shared world created specifically for the audiobook format by two of Science Fiction’s rising stars, Tobias Buckell and the red hot Hugo and Nebula winner Paolo Bacigalupi, launching their first foray into Fantasy. I bought in, and I’m glad I did.

Bacigalupi and Buckell have created a unique world in which the use of magic fosters the growth of a deadly bramble. The bramble has destroyed the great civilization of powerful magic users and now threatens the city of Khaim, which has imposed strict laws against the use of magic in order to slow the bramble’s encroachment. Along with the obvious environmental themes, it is a setting ripe for the portrayal of moral compromise and uncertainty, which Bacigalupi latches onto brilliantly with The Alchemist.

Jeoz, the titular Alchemist, has devoted many years of his life to developing a means to destroy the bramble. It is implied that Jeoz was once a much more impressive and certainly a wealthier man, but his world has shrunk down to his slowly dying daughter and his obsession, the balanthast (it is very likely that I’ve spelt these names incorrectly, having only heard them spoken). Tragically, Jeoz’s preoccupation blinds him to both potential social interactions and the political maneuvering around him.

Buckell ranges wider with his story of Tana, The Executioness. In an incredible set of circumstances Tana is compelled to literally take up her father’s axe and mantle as an executioner for the city of Khaim. She is stripped of the security of family and her defining roles as a daughter, wife and mother. Yet the beauty of Buckell’s story is in watching Tana develop as a somewhat liberated individual while always holding to the believable behaviour of a mother.

As a middle aged female protagonist in a Fantasy story Tana is somewhat unique, and it makes her an interesting focus for what is in many ways a ‘coming of age’ story. The Executioness is more ambitious and in some sense more original than The Alchemist, but in his ambition Buckell takes the focus off the conflict with the bramble. The reader is left with an engaging, thoroughly character driven story that for its strengths doesn’t quite do justice to the setting. I would prefer to give Buckell the benefit of the doubt and point to the somewhat restrictive length he had to work in.

I was certainly moved and drawn into each of the protagonist’s conflicts and left wanting more. I wouldn’t say that I was unsatisfied, or that the stories were unfinished, but I think that as a long time reader of Epic Fantasy I draw a lot of satisfaction from that lengthy period of engagement you have with the characters. This is obviously not a flaw with the stories, simply a reflection of my reading habits. Indeed, I felt that the length of the stories was ideal for the audiobook format and the nature of my listening habits.

The Alchemist and The Executioness is definitely one of the best produced audiobooks I have enjoyed to date, which is hardly surprising given that it was designed as an audio project from the ground up (commissioned by Audible). Narrators Jonathan Davis and Katherine Kellgren truly captured the heart of their respective characters. Kellgren particularly shines with her portrayal of the much more expressive Tana. I can’t imagine reading the stories in a text format without hearing those voices in my head.

I really enjoyed both stories, but have separated my ratings because I found myself more engaged with the character and struggle of the Alchemist than with the Executioness (for reasons relevant to me as an individual, which I intend to discuss next week). Hence The Alchemist receives 3.5 stars and 3 stars for The Executioness.

Listen to it – for a pair of intriguing and original Fantasy stories that offer you a gateway into audiobooks (which are awesome)
Don’t listen to it – if you would just never listen to an audiobook… in which case, why not?

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