I keep an eye out for everything Paolo Bacigalupi publishes ever since reading his marvellous collection of short fiction Pump Six and Other Stories in 2008. When news reached me that Bacigalupi teamed up with Tobias S. Buckell to write a set of paired novellas in a shared fantasy world, I was quite excited about the project. Unfortunately they were meant for release as audio book on audible.com. There is nothing wrong with audiobooks of course, but I happen to prefer reading over listening so this was a mild disappointment. Fortunately Subterranean Press picked up these novellas and released them in hardcover with some very good artwork and interior illustrations by J. K. Drummond.
The novellas are set in a world where magic exists but comes at a high price. With every use of magic, a new bramble sprouts somewhere near. These plants are almost impossible to kill, poisonous and rapidly overrunning entire cities. Everybody feels use of magic ought to be curtailed but there is always the lure of solving some problem with magic that would lead to disaster otherwise. What's one extra sprout somewhere near weighed against the life of a sick child? Draconian laws are put in place, religious orders preach against using magic and still the bramble spreads... Apparently Bacigalupi came up with the bramble idea, it looks like he took his inspiration from the tragedy of the commons.
The Executioness - Tobias S. Buckell
In this story we meet Tana. She middle-aged, mother of two sons and burdened with an alcoholic husband living outside Khaim. Her family can barely make ends meet on the income of Tana's father who is one of the city's executioners. Tana's father is very ill however, and soon the day comes when he can no longer perform his duty. To ensure the family's income, Tana sees only on option, she will have to take his place. When she returns for taking the head of someone caught using magic, she learns that raiders have struck the city. Her husband is dead, her father dying, her children taken. Carrying the executioner's axe, Tana sets out to get her children back.
I enjoyed both novellas a lot but I think The Executioness is the weaker of the two. The story was partly inspired by the question why there are so few middle-aged women as major characters in modern fantasy. Which, in itself, is an interesting question of course, truth be told I couldn't name that many. Tana's role is that of a mother protecting her children. Everything she achieves in her search for her children are means to an end, she is ready to give it up in a moment if it means getting her children back. This is a very powerful motivation of course, but not one that will win Buckell many feminist fans I suspect. Not until the very end of the novella is Tana forced to adjust her view a bit.
Tana's travels do give us a brief view of the world this story is set in. Buckell, who's published work is mostly sciece fiction, quickly finds out why epic fantasy is ...well... epic. Worldbuilding takes time and Tana's story itself could easily have been novel length. In short, the author has some trouble fitting it all into a hundred pages. He manages, but it left me with the feeling that the world was a but underdeveloped. Despite my earlier comments, I did grow to like Tana a lot. Her story may be a bit of a fantasy cliché, it is a well-written fantasy tale.
The Alchemist - Paolo Bacigalupi
The city of Khaim has been trying to control the use of magic, and thus the spread of the bramble, by making unauthorized use of magic punishable by death. Not everybody is ready to give up magic, death penalty or not, so the bramble keeps spreading. In his laboratory alchemist Jeoz is working on a mixture that will kill the bramble and makes sure it stays dead. He has sacrificed his wealth for this, selling just about every bit of furniture in the house. Jeoz has an additional motive for his project, without the use of magic, he cannot keep his daughter alive. She is suffering from consumption and will surely die without magical intervention. When Jeoz hits the jackpot and finds a formula that will work, he rushes of to the authorities to show his invention to them. Khaim's mayor does not intend to deliver the world from the poisonous bramble, he sees the means to reinforce his monopoly on the use of magic. And if Jeoz doesn't care to comply, well, the major has the perfect incentive to make him.
So instead of a mother trying to protect her sons, we have a father protecting his daughter. How is this story different from The Executioness? What makes it work better? For one thing The Alchemist does not have the wide scope of Buckell's story. It is focussed on what happens in Jeoz' household for the most part, making it more intimate, less dependant on a large cast and events in the wider world to make the story work. It feels to me like Bacigalupi's story fits much more comfortably into the novella format.
What I also liked about this story is the gradual way in which the motives of the key players are revealed. It is clear what Jeoz tries to achieve from the first but there is much more to his household than is immediately apparent. Bacigalupi carefully times the moment when the mayor's ideas on Jeoz' invention become clear. When it comes to pacing and time key developments this novella work very well indeed. In a way, The Alchemist is not that different from Buckell's effort but I think I can see why Bacigalupi got the Nebula nomination.
The Executioness and The Alchemist form an intriguing set of novella's. On Suberranean's website a new story in this world written by Buckell appeared. I wonder if he and/or Bacigalupi intend to develop this world further. There's definitely room for more stories in this setting.
Title: The Executioness
Author: Tobias S. Buckell
Publisher: Subterranean Press
First published: 2010
Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
First published: 2010