The Alchemist is the result of a collaborative project, commissioned by Audible, between Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell. Clearly the two richly talented writers have a fast friendship, because Paolo named a weapon after Buckell in Ship Breaker, and no truer gesture of friendship could there be. Together they stepped out of their comfort zones to create a fantasy realm with a slight Renaissance flavor. Their resulting stories, each clocking in at about a brisk hundred pages, have been released by the estimable Subterranean Press as lovely little hardcovers. Buckell's companion piece is called The Executioness.
This marks the third time — not counting his short stories — that Bacigalupi has proven himself a versatile wordsmith whose books each manage to be different and yet identifiably his own. Impressively he has managed to work in his hallmark environmental themes while avoiding broken-record syndrome.
Jeoz is an alchemist working in the city of Khaim. Once wealthy, he has squandered the last 15 years searching for a way to eradicate brambles, a profoundly toxic plant that is literally blanketing the landscape, and that has overrun and destroyed several neighboring once-fine cities. The brambles are not a natural phenomenon, but the horrible price humanity has had to pay for its use of magic. Back in the day, people used great and powerful magics for the most trivial of reasons. But each spell cast feeds the growth of the brambles, and now the land has been all but overrun. Magic, now a capital crime, is a hard habit to break. Even Jeoz sneaks a spell or two to treat his daughter's consumptive cough, and buries the guilt that somewhere, someone has just been inconvenienced by a new growth of bramble.
But finally Jeoz looks to have hit upon a solution. His mechanism, the balanthast, has succeeded in exterminating large swathes of impenetrable bramble growth without the use of any proscribed magic. Eagerly he presents his invention to the Mayor and Majister Scacz, the one man legally allowed magic use. Both men are enormously impressed and enthusiastically supportive. But there's something about their enthusiasm that Jeoz can't quite trust.
Again, Bacigalupi has his heroes fighting against the encroachment of a hostile, altered environment, and he's found a way to do it that doesn't simply recycle his previous two novels. Here, human treachery, blindness to consequences, and the irrational violence of fear play a strong role, whereas before greed was primarily what drove his characters to their darkest moral failings. A short, sharp shock, The Alchemist is efficient, tense, unpredictable and exciting. But it leaves you a little too hungry for more. This is a world that cries out for a full novel to properly work its storytelling alchemy.