For our road trip to and from SFContario earlier this month (more on which anon), we listened to The Alchemist and The Executioness, a pair of linked novellas by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, respectively. Both works are sufficiently full of awesome that I fully expect to see them battling one another on an award ballot at some point — and I’d be hard pressed to decide which one to vote for.
They’re both set in a world in which magic works — but, as usual, at a price. Where magic is used, a poisonous plant called bramble grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. The use of magic is, as a result, banned, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming. In The Alchemist, an alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, but discovers to his horror that the authorities have other, more sinister uses for his invention; in The Executioness, an executioner’s daughter, chasing after raiders who stole her children, finds herself, much to her surprise, taking on the role of a hero.
The bramble itself makes for a beautiful and (to use Tolkien’s preferred term) applicable theme: how something that is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it — that could be applied to everything from fossil fuels to file-sharing.
Jennifer and I have been arguing about which of the two stories we prefer. The Alchemist is the darker and more intense story, with the greater power: she found herself tearing up at several points. After that experience, The Executioness was downright cathartic: it sounded more triumphant notes, with enough ass-kicking to make us smile through much of it.
The reading were beautifully done — Katherine Kellgren’s performance of The Executioness was astonishing. It’s a reasonable $10 for a five and a half hour recording. If you’d rather read it than hear it, Subterranean Press is publishing each book in hardcover next month (announcements: The Alchemist, The Executioness). My advice: buy both!