The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press, 2011
A woman whose father worked as the city executioner is on his death bed, and his daughter is forced to take up his axe to execute a criminal to continue putting food on the table so her children don’t starve. Things get more interesting when her family are captured by raiders, and Tana is forced to leave the city, axe in hand, to track down her lost children.
Set in the same world as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist, Buckell’s novella was released at the same time and is complimentary to the other work. Despite the strength of development of this world remaining, The Executioness doesn’t end up having the same strength of narrative or general impact of its companion. Buckell writes good prose and dialogue, but the plot is a bit paint by numbers by comparison. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with a pissed off mother going after her kidnapped children, I can’t help but think it’s a gender-reversed fantasy adaptation of a certain Liam Neeson film.
This novella still has redeeming qualities; Tana is a strong protagonist that it is not only likable, but very well developed considering the rather small word count involved in a novella. Buckell does an extraordinary job of giving the reader a good sense of who Tana is, including some real change over the course of the story. It is a real feather in one’s cap as a writer when you can develop a character more over the course of about one hundred pages than many science fiction and fantasy writers manage to do over the course of a novel three or four times as long.
Despite not being able to live up to the quality of Bacigalupi’s work, the strength of its character development and the fact that it still shares that perfect fantasy world make The Executioness a worthwhile read. Buckell has, at the very least, established himself here as a writer that is worth taking notice of in his future endeavors. This world deserves revisiting by either of its writers, and it would be a welcome read to see further adventures of Tana.
The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press, 2011
In a fantasy world where poisonous bramble grows wild by feeding off the energy residue left behind by casting illegal magic, a destitute alchemist named Jeoz invents a device can be used to destroy the bramble once and for all. His young daughter is terminally ill and he is forced to use illegal magic to keep her alive, and it is his hope that by offering up his invention to the local government, they will use their more advanced magical aptitude to cure his daughter of her illness once and for all.
Paolo Bacigalupi made a name for himself immediately with The Windup Girl, and is yet to disappoint since. There is no style that can be directly pinpointed as being Bacigalupi’s; everything he writes seems so fresh and inventive and nothing at all like anything that has come before it. The Windup Girl was near-future dystopian biopunk with a large cast of characters that, despite generally being unlikable, felt so developed and thoroughly real in a perfectly designed sci-fi dystopia. Ship Breaker, a novel for young adults, follows a young man who makes a living by harvesting copper from crashed ships, as the metal has become precious in a world ravaged by climate change.
Environmentalism is the one theme that is consistent between all of his works. In The Alchemist, the bramble that grows from the use of magic is a metaphor for climate change coming as a result of reckless use of technology that leaves behind environmental destruction in the form of carbon emissions. Although fantasy has the tendency to borrow too heavily from what has come before it, the world of The Alchemist (and it’s companion novella, The Executioness) is wholly original and brilliant. With immaculate prose and flawless dialogue, Bacigalupi is the best science fiction writer working today, with barely any competition at all. Writers like Mieville and Stephenson have contributed important novels to the speculative fiction canon, but neither of them can boast the consistency of Bacigalupi’s contributions to the medium.