Last year, award-winning science fiction authors Tobias Buckell (Sly Mongoose) and Paolo Bacigalupi (Windup Girl) teamed up to write two fantasy novellas set in the same universe. Both novellas, Buckell's "The Executioness" and Bacigalupi's "The Alchemist" are set in the city of Khaim, where an early Renaissance culture has stalled out because the magic that underpins the region's wealth is causing a form of environmental pollution. Every time somebody casts a spell - whether something huge that will create a floating city, or something small that will heal a child's cough - it feeds the "bramble." Bramble is a plant that chokes off farmlands and kills everything in its path, including the humans for whom it is poison.
It's a fascinating premise, and the two authors tell emotionally intense stories about the people of Khaim that will leave you hoping that the two return to the world again.
"The Alchemist" is about a middle-aged widower who is the closest thing to a scientist that the world of Khaim knows. A former glassblower of some renown, he's put aside his art for a mad alchemy project he's been working on for fifteen years. He's created a "balanthast," a machine that can destroy bramble right down to its seeds. And just in time, too - he's sold off all his family's furniture to fund his research, leaving his sick daughter without a bed. Furtively, he is treating his daughter's deadly cough with magic. If he's caught, he'll be executed by Khaim's "Jolly Mayor," who is dealing with magic users by killing them - unless, of course, they work for the Mayor's office on special city projects like building a bridge.
When the alchemist shows his balanthast to the Jolly Mayor, he hopes that it will allow magic to flower across the land again, unhindered by bramble. But instead, the Mayor and his official magic user decide to use the balanthast for something our alchemist never expected. And thus begins one of the only fantasy tales I've ever read that's an allegory for the way scientists are coopted by government and industry.
Buckell's "The Executioness" broadens the scope of Bacigalupi's tale, taking us out of the city of Khaim and into the surrounding lands where each city fights the bramble in its own (inevitably horrific) way. When raiders come to Khaim on a holy pogrom to stamp out magic users, the city's secretly-female executioner's sons are kidnapped. Armed only with her axe, Tana vows to get her sons back - and take revenge on the raiders. As she travels, challenging the raiders against all odds, her reputation as the Executioness grows. Tales are told of a single woman taking down armies.
The truth is less glamorous. After a scuffle with a some of the raiders who took her sons, Tana is adopted by the Caravan, a fierce group of traveling traders. They promise to take her to the raiders' city, where the leaders preach The Way, a philosophy devoted to destroying magic and killing the faithless who practice it. As Tana learns more about the world, she begins to live up to her reputation. Her solution to the bramble problem is as problematic as the alchemist's, but still there is bravery in it. Buckell's story is one of the most stirring tales of an outcast's triumph that I have read in a long time.
Taken together, these novellas create a fascinating world, and two character studies that are realistically ambivalent about hope in a world where there is no easy fix for evil.