From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Ekaterina Sedia, author of The Alchemy of Stone

Last week we gave you a peek at Ekaterina Sedia’s new book, The Alchemy of Stone. This week Fantasy columnist and costume geek Genevieve Valentine gives us a glimpse at the gears and cogs of the world and characters Sedia created for this amazing new book.


Genevieve Valentine: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that your stories often come from a single initial character or image. What was the initial spark for The Alchemy of Stone?

Ekaterina Sedia: There were two images — the gargoyles crawling along the walls, and the intelligent automaton who wanted to be an alchemist, in a willful denial of the rationality that made her possible in the first place. With gargoyles, I started writing a separate story initially; it was later than I realized that they fit with the girl automaton.

Valentine: What surprised you the most during the writing process for this book?

Sedia: That I could write a story with a plot! Really, all those disjointed pieces of gargoyles and automata and blood magic fitting together was a minor miracle.

Valentine: You clearly have fondness for Mattie, your protagonist, but you have a large cast of other characters as well. Which of these were closest to you; why?

Sedia: I like most of them — Soul-Smoker is perhaps close second to Mattie, because he is so disenfranchised and yet completely terrifying; it’s a pleasant contrast. Then there are gargoyles who speak in a single voice and are somewhat delusional about their own capabilities, perhaps more flawed than many others because of their inability to act, to interfere (with some exceptions) in the lives of the people below. Then there’s Mattie’s creator [Loharri], who is perhaps the most complex and sardonic of them all.

Valentine: “Complex” is a good word for Loharri; how do you think readers will feel about a character who’s equal parts doting suitor and slavemaster?

Sedia: Don’t forget a father figure and at times considerate friend. I guess it all depends on how much any given reader is willing to forgive and why. To some the good will outweighs the bad; to others, not so much. He makes a good antagonist because his own life was not happy and he was a victim just as often as Mattie. He does what he thinks is right, and his position is understandable. I think some readers would sympathize with him and others would despise him, and neither reaction is unwarranted.

Valentine: Alchemy of Stone will definitely get strong reader reactions all around. What’s the best (or worst) first reaction you’ve heard from a reader so far?

Sedia: You mean, beside you asking, “Why do you hate your readers?”

Oh, and some great reviews — such as Fantasy Bok Critic and PW were very nice.

(Note: Interviewer’s first reaction was actually “*sob*.”)

Valentine: Well, it’s a very complicated story! It tackles feminism, free will, class struggle, and religion. What do you expect will be the most polarizing aspects of this book?

Sedia: I hope that everyone will love the book and buy many copies. I suspect however that books that are explicitly identified as concerned with, say, gender politics will be perceived as agenda books — in a way that books with a strapping hero who restores the heir to the throne and marries a princess would not be, even though both are equally political. I do hope for the discussion about gender roles and class assumptions in fantasy; I do hope for critical interest. Polarization — not so much, even though we both know that some folks will hear about the book and only think ‘girl cooties.’

Valentine: Speaking of gender politics, I have to ask a question about what someone wears. Mattie has a whalebone corset and hoop built into her anatomy. What was the design behind constructing her this way, both for you as the author and for her maker Loharri?

Sedia: Well, for her maker I suspect the reasoning was practical — she is built so she is easy to dress, at least partially; he also wanted her to be female, and that takes us to my reasoning.

For me, it was a very imperfect analogy to human anatomy — after all, the automaton has no primary sex characteristics, so there’s no reason to think of her as female. And yet she was designed as female — and her corset and hoops and whalebone stays play a role of secondary sex characteristics. So to Mattie, this is what makes her a woman — an objective set of physical characteristics corresponding to gender. Could I be trying to say anything about essentialism and gender identity? Who knows.

Valentine: So at the end of the day, what do you most hope people will take away from this story?

Sedia: I hope that it’s something different for everyone; I hope for some sort of meaningful and personal experience. In general, if you insist on me figuring out a universal message, it would be “not everything should (or indeed does) go back to status quo.” Things change, heirs get lost and thrones are abolished, and there’s no home to go back to.

Valentine: A cheerful thought, indeed.

Sedia: If you wanted cheerful, why exactly are you talking to me?

Genevieve Valentine is a writer in New York; her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Byzarium, and Quarter After Eight, and she is an occasional columnist at Defenestration. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

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