I was stoked with anticipation for Paolo Bacigalupi's foray into fantasy, the novella The Alchemist. Not only did I love most of his short fiction (strangely enough with the exception of „The Calorie Man“) and his novel The Windup Girl. Also, The Alchemist was to be published by Subterranean Press, and therefore became associated in my mind with another fantasy novella from that publisher, the excellent Purple and Black by K.J. Parker. It didn't hurt that The Alchemist comes paired with The Executioness, a novella by Tobias S. Buckell, an author I'd been planning to check out for some time.
As it turned out, neither of the two novellas did anything for me – I found both of them pretty uninspired and conventional, even irritating. While, on the surface, they seem to be ambitious and eager to broaden the scope of the fantasy genre, if you scratch that surface, you'll find little but well-worn tropes beneath it. That's not to say that either of the two novellas is bad – the stories are both more or less well-told and well-constructed. They are just not very good, and certainly not what one would have expected by an author like Bacigalupi (I can't say anything about Buckell, because I haven't read anything else by him yet), and they are certainly not on par with fantasy works by authors like R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker or Jeff VanderMeer.
Here's the specifics on what bugged me about the novellas:
Paolo Bacigalupi - The Alchemist
In a world were each use of magic feeds the deadly bramble encroaching on the land, the executioner's axe awaits all unsanctioned sorcerers. But Jeoz, the title character of the novella, has found a non-magical way to kill the hardy bramble by using alchemy. However, when he presents his invention to the lords of the city of Khaim, they decide to put it to use in a perverse way …
The concept behind the world devised by Buckell and Bacigalupi actually has merit (although it is vaguely reminiscent of the Dungeons&Dragons RPG setting Dark Sun), especially insofar as neither of them is using it to shove any platitudes along the lines of „magic (i.e. Technology) is bald because it disturbs the balance of nature“ down the reader's throats. Instead we get the next-best platitude, namely that inventors may have the best intentions, but they can't control the use that powermongers will put their inventions to. There's nothing wrong about this concept, but it is pretty tiresome if it is presented as shocking twist about halfway into a story, when you actually can see it coming from page one.
There's a more interesting conflict in The Alchemist, about taking part in some greater evil by committing small and necessary sins, and about the injustice of of punishing the small sinner when the great sinner is the one dealing out the punishment. However, Bacigalupi makes little of this concepts except trying to convince us that the people in power are evil and sadistic.
All this would be forgiveable, if The Alechemist was not an exceedingly melodramatic novella. Bacigalupi gives Jeoz a terminally ill but heart-warmingly couragous littel daughter, whose suffering is clearly a blunt device to choke the reader up, but provides no sense of the ugly reality of sickness and fear of death. Add the fact that Jeoz, while commiting a few small sins, is clearly a blameless man pushed around by evil powermongers, and the character of his loyal housekeeper who also happens to love him unconditionally, and you have to ask yourself how so much mawkishness can come from the author of The Windup Girl.
As a fantasy reader, I feel vaguely insulted by The Alchemist. It feels as if Bacugalupi is slumming, as if he thinks that in fantasy, he can get away with lazy characterisations, half-baked world-building and cheap melodramatics. I'm pretty sure that I'm overreacting and that that was not Bacigalupi's intention at all, but at the very least I have to say that The Alchemist is by far his weakest work yet.
Tobias S. Buckell - The Executioness
My reaction to the second novella set in the same world as The Alchemist wasn't that strong. The Executioness is an ironic take on classical fantasy notions of heroism, but it's notions about the nature of heroism as something imposed from the outside are pretty conventional. Tana, the protagonist, is a simple women who dons the axe and the cloak of her father, an executioner, and leaves her home to save her children who have been abducted by raiders. Reluctantly, she takes on the role of a symbol of courage in the fight against an enemy who kidnaps children to reeducate them, even though she accomplishes most of her heroic deeds by accident. Buckell goes through the standard motions of de- and reconstructing heroism - Tana is not a great warrior at all, but it is her reluctance to accept her role that marks her as a true hero of the people. In the end, she finds out that the enemy might not be that wicked after all and that being a symbol might put her in a position that keeps her from fulfilling her personal goals. It's all pretty much by the numbers and occasionally preachy. What's worse is that, while the foreword implies that Buckell was trying to write a vaguely feminist fantasy novella by choosing a middle-aged female protagonist, there's actually a pretty disturbing kind of sexism at work in it, implying that while men fight for money and glory, women fight for their families.
Finally, Buckell's prose style is serviceable but just not very interesting or engaging. In the end, The Executioness is only slightly more successful than The Alechemist because it aims a little lower.
By the way, Subterranean Press made up for these two novellas by publishing K.J. Parkers new novella Blue & Gold, which is thematically similar to The Alchemist, but much more complex, surprising, engaging, funny and well-written. Maybe part of the reason that I'm coming down so hard on Bacigalupi and Buckell is that I've read a lot of Parker's stuff in the last few weeks (The Folding Knife, The Hammer, Blue & Gold and "Amor Vincit Omnia"). It's hard to top Parker when it comes to writing about scientific genius, accidental heroism and good intentions paving the road to hell. Bacigalupi and Buckell are obviously not up to it, at least not when they're writing fantasy.