Audiobook Review: The Alchemist and the Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi, Tobias S. Buckell
Publisher: Audible Studios (July 7, 2010)
Narrators: Jonathan Davis (The Alchemist), Katherine Kellgren (The Executioness)
Length: 5 hrs and 36 mins
The Alchemist and the Executioness is actually two novellas told in a shared universe. This started as an audiobook, but now you can buy both stories in digital print format separately. In this world, magic is banned. Every time someone casts a spell, poisonous, thorny bramble vines appear in random places. These brambles continue to grow and sprout as magic is used, strangling and destroying whole nations. Despite this threat, brambles continue to appear. Magic continues to be used, and the punishment for using magic is death. However, for some, the threat of death is worth the use of magic. These stories explore both sides of the tale and both share a common theme of the things we’d do for the ones we love.
The foreword starts with Tobias S. Buckell stating that while he’d been editing one of his stories he listened to a discussion by Maureen McHugh about women’s roles in genre fiction, mentioning all the young, nubile heroines we get when strength comes from women of all ages. Specifically she asked: “Where are the middle-aged heroines?” This along with an art exhibit he visited where one of the pieces featured an executioner inspired him to look into a genre he doesn’t normally write in (fantasy) and craft a story that tries to give us a heroine who fits this bill. (Check out our past Tough Traveling that explores this theme with many women listed.)
I’ve recently crossed some excellent heroines in fiction who aren’t younger than their mid-20s such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Dowager Queen, Ista, from her Chalion series and M.C.A. Hogarth’s adventurous space captain, Reese Eddings, who is only 32 (not middle-aged, but still rare to see). And it would be a great disservice for me not to mention Commander Shepard from the gaming series Mass Effect for those of us who play(ed) Shepard as a woman. Shepard begins the series at 29-years-old and end the series in her 30s still kicking all kinds of ass. If I talked about movie/television heroines, I could go on and on. So, this story was certainly high on my interest scale.
While the title of “Executioness” grabbed my attention because how many female executioners–not assassins or rogues, but actual women who publicly execute people at the behest of their government–do you see in a fantasy setting of any age to act as their executioner, to set aside their feelings and punish those deemed guilty by their rulers, to be the feared face of their rulers’ wrath to the public? Finding out the heroine of this story is a middle-aged woman trying to feed her children, a woman who took up her father’s position, made it even more compelling.
Paolo Baciaglupi’s foreword talks about how once they decided to take this adventure on together, which was a new frontier for them as they’re both science fiction writers, they started focusing on “fantasy to what purpose.” What kind of world would require they have an executioner? What sort of ruler beheads its criminals and for what offenses? And I guess for most readers that’s a fairly simple question because we know that those in power like their executions for just about any offense. However, I suppose the medium (short-story) meant they had to think a little harder about that. They have to give these questions more weight because they’re not writing sprawling stories that allow them time to play around with these ideas.
The Alchemist follows a father, an alchemist, who wants to eliminate the bramble through scientific means while keeping his daughter, who is suffering from a wasting cough, alive. The Alchemist is both idealistic and cynical in his pursuits. He thinks that his experiments for destroying the bramble will make him a hero to his family and the country. However, he underestimates the greed of the government that runs their city, which shows him that their interests are going to align with whatever course keeps them in power.
The epic fantasy short story format has always been a curious thing to me because in my mind it seems like it would be much harder to write short stories in a typical epic fantasy universe because you don’t get to have the level of storytelling and world-building those types of stories require. I can’t say that I’ve read too many short stories in that setting that didn’t already have a series it was attached to, such as having various books with short stories set in Westeros as companions to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, short stories where the readers are already familiar with the world and are only meeting new faces or getting another side of a story.
Both narrators did an exceptional job with their respective stories. Jonathan Davis is one of my favorite narrators, so I knew I’d be pleased with his narration. He never fails to deliver for me, and this story is no exception. I’d first listened to Katherine Kellgren while listening to The Queen of the Tearling, and while I didn’t think she was a horrible narrator, her narration of that book came off a little strange. I’d commented in my review that I thought she’d probably be a fine narrator if she wasn’t doing that weird half-screaming thing she did while reading Tearling, and I was right.
Both of these stories would’ve best benefitted from a longer story. It would’ve been interesting to explore this world more, to find out if the alchemist eventually crossed paths with the executioness, what would become of the magic, etc. There were a few little inconsistencies that popped up between the two stories, but I figured most of this could’ve been explained away if these had been longer stories. I won’t dwell on them here.
The Alchemist worked better in this short format than The Executioness. Despite wanting to see more of the story, it felt more complete than The Executioness and achieved its narrative better. With The Executioness, you’re not getting exactly what you think you are… at first. You think you’re going into a story where a woman is an established executioner, where maybe her sex is commented upon but she’s carved out her role. That’s not really the case in the beginning. It wasn’t a bad story. I still enjoyed it more than I enjoyed The Alchemist, especially later parts of the story, but part of me wonders what kind of amazing story this would’ve been if there had been more meat. It captured the spirit of what can fuel the pain and need for vengeance in a person well. In any event, I applaud the effort of both writers to write outside their comfort zone.