book reviews by Althea

The Alchemist – Paolo Bacigalupi *****

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An alchemist has been working desperately to discover a solution to the fast-growing bramble that is engulfing his nation. He’s bankrupted his family in pursuit of his research – but finally, he may be on the verge of a breakthrough.

The poisonous bramble is fed by magic – every time someone casts a spell, the dangerous plant grows a bit more. And everyone uses magic, even though it’s illegal. Even the alchemist uses spells – without them, his beloved young daughter would die of her tubercular illness.

Like most (all?) of Bacigalupi’s work, this story is a cautionary tale. The metaphor is clear: this is about environmentalism, and the seductiveness of doing the small, easy things that in conglomeration are destroying the planet. It’s also about politics, and the reluctance to take any action out of altruism, even when the benefits to all are starkly obvious.

While it’s got a pessimistic view of human nature as a whole; many of the individuals involved, while they may not be admirable, are treated with understanding and empathy.

Apparently, there’s a companion piece to this, ‘The Executioness’ by Buckell. I haven’t read that one yet, but I may – this world is fascinating. However, I’m really just hugely a fan of Bacigalupi’s writing.


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