Sep 30, 2010

Yeti Review: The Alchemist - Paolo Bacigalupi / The Executioness - Tobias Buckell

In A Few Words: The Alchemist and The Executioness showcase two rising stars in the the genre but aren't completely successful in fully realizing the inherent potential in their shared fantasy world.

1) Fast, fun stories that work both in print and audio formats
2) The Alchemist is a fantasy version of pitch perfect Bacigalupian exposition
3) Bramble ravaged world feels real as the vegetative threat influences the entire culture

1) The worldbuilding away from Lesser Khaim is underdeveloped
2) Buckell attempts to put too much story into The Executioness, resulting in pacing problems

The Review: Fantasy is a genre that lives and dies by magic. It's what unifies a thousand different worlds and yet makes each one distinct. Each author imbues their world with a unique approach, relying on the reader’s sense of wonder to make their words come to life. In some stories, magic is re-entering a world that had all but forgotten it. In others, powers relied on for far too long are beginning to wane. In the shared universe constructed by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, magic not only defines the world, it attempts to destroy it. It’s a world where magic comes at a terrible price, even if it doesn’t earn you an encounter with the executioner’s axe. The world of The Alchemist and The Executioness is slowly being consumed by a poisonous bramble which thrives on magic, encroaching ever closer with every whispered word and forbidden act.

It may be difficult to sell coma-inducing vegetative growth as a legitimate threat but it’s hard to deny that the two stories are their strongest when firmly entangled in thorns and vines. You can’t write paired novellas (or good ones, anyway) without fleshing out the world in advance. In the case of The Alchemist and The Executioness, the entire world is structured around the bramble, the culture that created it, and its effect on the peoples that resist it. It’s got depth but not necessarily breadth. As a result, when the stories leave the bramble behind, they border on becoming generic fantasy.

Luckily, Bacigalupi’s offering rarely strays far from the heart of the story, detailing the exploits of Jeoz the alchemist as he attempts to engineer a device capable of eliminating the resilient bramble. The intrigue caused by the possibility of this “balanthast” is somewhat predictable but the way that Bacigalupi develops the characters and their collective culture more than make up for the simple story. The interactions between Jeoz and his daughter are genuinely heartfelt and as the story progresses it’s easy to become drawn in.

Bacigalupi’s bread and butter has always been environmental fiction, and it doesn’t take a literary scholar to see the similarities between this imagined world and ours. With the ever encroaching bramble, humanity faces a slow death of their own creation while anyone capable of substantive change selfishly ignores potential solutions for personal gains. While the global warming analogs are hard to ignore, they are never heavy handed. This may be his first foray into fantasy but with it he proves that his trademark style transcends genre. Bacigalupi’s flawless execution of show-not-tell worldbuilding is what earned him the Nebula and Hugo awards. The same skills are present here even if they aren’t quite as ambitiously applied as in The Windup Girl.

The Executionness has a harder time keeping the story in the deep end of the world. The story begins promisingly as a middle-aged woman is called to do her dying father’s work. Tana reluctantly joins the ranks of the magister’s executioners as the only executioness - a title that sticks with her despite the tumultuous events that change everything else. Before long, Tana is off and running on a quest of vengeance. The problem is that Buckell attempts a novel’s worth of characterization and exploration but only has a quarter of the pages to deliver it. To compensate, he skimps on critical development, resulting in a strangely paced story that feels rushed on more than one occasion. The piecemeal presentation of the final two acts often resorts to what are essentially “training montages” and the scenes in which the novice quickly becomes a master are only missing the bad 80s soundtrack.

This is frustrating because Tobias Buckell has crafted a story worth telling. The middle aged female protagonist is appealing and unique, the villains are more than just cardboard blackhats, and way the story ultimately plays out is memorable. Tana travels most of the continent on her quest for revenge, abandoning the intricate city of Khaim – the same setting that serves as the foundation to Bacigalupi’s tighter, more intimate tale. On said journey, she encounters a variety of interesting factions only tangentially related to the bramble. Because they lack the shared infrastructure of Khaim that links the two novellas, they require additional exposition. Sadly though, there isn’t any room for much more than moving from one set piece to the next. Buckell just lacks the page count/play time necessary to fully develop the elements he has introduced.

Ultimately, the combination of new characters, new locations, new cultures, and an aggressive plot is simply too much development to juggle in a novella of this length. None are intrinsically problematic but sometimes it’s necessary to cut scope in order to deliver higher quality. Even if increasing the word count wouldn’t have made the already 5+ hour audiobook unwieldy, it would still have the negative result of either inflating the word count of the well-composed The Alchemist or unbalancing the two stories.

As of this review, I’ve both listened to the audiobooks and read the advance print copies. I’m reluctant to steer readers one way or the other or suggest a definitive reading order. On one hand, the stories were original meant to be read aloud and the dialogue and sentence structure clearly reflect this. On the other hand, if you are anything like me, you will pick up on a lot more of the subtle details that create a cohesive world if you have the ability to easily re-read a line or two. Not to mention the promised interior illustrations from Subterranean Press.

While the stories are quick and entertaining, it’s difficult to label them complete successes or failures. The Executionness explores an atypical heroine as she travels across a diverse landscape dripping with potential for future narrative exploration. It also gets caught over-achieving at times, trying to do too much with too few words. The Alchemist is less ambitious but the simple tale is brilliantly executed and much more suited to the length and format. Neither would be the same without the other and together they are more than the sum of their parts. When the linked creation actually gets the detailed development it deserves, the magic is plain to see. The key to future entries into this shared world will be maximizing that magic while eliminating the bramble.

1 comment:

  1. I've got these on deck. Even more interested to read them having read your review.


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