The Alchemist – Paolo Bacigalupi ( 2011 Subterranean Press, Michigan)
This little novella is a package of pure fantasy delight, and the best part is, it’s part of a pair! The second book, The Executioness, is by Tobias S. Buckell and, to my utter dismay, I can’t track down a copy in our entire library system. (A casualty of weeding, I wonder, or was it ever part of the collection?). No matter – I will buy both books online, and The Alchemist, at least, can be read as a complete stand-alone work without the presence of its mate.
The formerly great city of Khaim is under siege – by bramble, the raging, suffocating, destructive byproduct of the magic that citizens have been practicing for untold years. Other cities in the land have already fallen to bramble, and the countryside is completely overrun, and can no longer be used to grow food to sustain a desperate population. Work parties struggle daily to destroy the magical plant, but it’s a losing cause…because even though using magic is punishable by death, people keep practicing it, which only creates more bramble.
Enter the alchemist, a man at the end of his rope, an artist and inventor who has lost his fortune and his wife and whose beloved daughter is fading fast due to a ravaging illness. Fortunately, the alchemist might just have a way to deal with the bramble, and restore the empire to its former glory (saving countless lives, including his daughter’s, in the process). That is, if he can outwit and outlast the murderous magician Scacz, who wants to harness the power of the alchemist’s creation for his own nefarious means….
This tiny tale is beautifully written and fully formed – it’s hard to believe the minute perfection of the world-building and character development that Bacigalupi accomplished in just 95 pages. The feat is simply astonishing; it’s almost as if a little magic was employed! 😉