The Alchemist and the Executioness

The Alchemist and The Executioness 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!

The Alchemist and the Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell (audio)
The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (hardcover)
The Executioness by Tobias Buckell (hardcover)