The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

Emily Haddad, Associate Managing Editor & News Editor


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When first picking up ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Bacigalupi, I admittedly confused it with ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coehlo and even felt somewhat duped. A similarly named author putting out a novella with the exact same name as well-known, highly-acclaimed novel? Shenanigans, I say.

But the hegemony-rich world Bacigalupi brings to life is nothing like the stark philosophical landscape of Coehlo’s book. Bacigalupi’s “The Alchemist” is set in the Middle Ages of an alternate reality in the city of Khaim where magic use used to be common- place, but is now punishable by death. With civilization set upon by a mysterious bramble plague, a link was found between magic use and the explosive growth of magic-loving brambles that engulf fields, choke off roads and poison anyone who touches the branches. The book opens with a heart-wrenching scene about a widowed alchemist named Jeoz who is desperately trying to pry his sobbing young daughter away from the last piece of valuable furniture the family has to sell, her own little bed. Once a rich and influential man, Jeoz lost everything except his daughter and one loyal servant as his city declined and his livelihood drained away. The alchemist had become obsessed with finding a way to use alchemy to defeat the brambles that are destroying his country. By using the brambles own affinity for magic as a polarizing agent, the Jeoz creates a device that has the potential to strike a real blow against the bramble plague. But the upper society in Khaim has grown used to life with the bramble and dark machinations threaten the lives of everyone in the city as a result.

At 96 pages, ‘The Alchemist’ is a quick read and an intriguing stand-alone story. It’s currently available as a hardcover and as a very inexpensive Kindle edition. However, if the bramble-threatened world of Khaim interests you beyond ‘The Alchemist,’ there is a second novella named ‘The Executioness’ written by Tobias Buckell about the same world that both continues the story and functions as a stand-alone work.

Paolo Bacigalupi is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author from Colorado that has written several other full-length books, including ‘The Windup Girl’ and ‘Ship Breaker.’