Once upon a time, in the city of Khaim, people used magic to solve their problems. Is that cut infected? Not a problem! Magic it away! But the era of magic is over, due to the growing threat of the bramble. Every time a spell is cast, a shoot of bramble sprouts. Already the bramble has spread across the land, destroying crops, poisoning people who touch it, and felling whole cities.
The mayor of Khaim does not want his city to succumb to the plant. Ordinary citizens are forbidden to practice magic, under penalty of death—but the alchemist Jeoz is willing to break the law. Destitute and widowed, he will do anything to save his little girl, who is dying due to a bramble-related illness. He casts spells to save his daughter, but only when absolutely necessary, and when no one will catch the telltale scent of his magic use.
Meanwhile Jeoz labors in his basement each night, desperate to find a cure. Finally he stumbles across a solution that will not only save his daughter but stop the bramble, too. He presents his alchemical device to the mayor and to the mayor’s chief advisor.
Bad idea, Jeoz. Fantasy literature has taught us to never trust the mayor’s advisors. Remember Wormtongue in The Two Towers? The grand vizier in The Horse and His Boy?
This novella is a quick read. Grab a copy, and within an hour or two you’ll have the whole story. You’ll find out exactly how nasty things get after the mayor’s head honcho gets his paws on Jeoz’s device, whether Jeoz and his daughter survive, whether the bramble’s growth is halted. If you like the story, you can pick up the companion novella, The Executioness, written by Tobias S. Buckell and set in the same bramble-choked world.
But wait! There’s more!
I chose to read The Alchemist as a work of ecological fiction. The similarities to our planet’s energy crisis are striking. For years we’ve used the magic of coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and just lately we’ve glommed on to biofuels, even though they destroy rainforests and deplete the world food supply and actually use more energy than they create. The cost of all this magic is finally catching up with us.
Did Bacigalupi intentionally include these environmental parallels? I’m guessing so. He’s a savvy writer, winner of impressive awards including the Hugo and the Nebula. He is best known as a science fiction novelist, but this dark and dirty fantasy novella is a good introduction to his writing.
Check the WRL catalog for The Alchemist