When I re-read The Little Mermaid as an adult something about it bugged me. This something bugs me more and more each time I re-read the story. It's not the pain the mermaid feels when she walks; all of Andersen's characters seem to get tortured, the Ugly Duckling was a male and he got frozen in the ice. No, with the mermaid, it's how the prince treats her. She sleeps at the foot his bed, he rests his head on her breast. It's like she's his personal lap girl with whom he has groping benefits.
I can't help wondering if Ekaterina Sedia feels the same way for The Alchemy of Stone is very reminiscent of "The Little Mermaid". Unlike "LM", Mattie, the protagonist, isn't looking for a soul; she's looking for her independence, to be her own person. She is a clockwork girl, which means even so often her gears run down. There is only one key that winds her up. This process makes her feel violated. (In fact, whenever Mattie is opened, it almost feels like a rape. This is a brilliant touch).
Guess who has it and doesn't want to share?
You guessed it. Her creator, a man. Her creator, Lornarri, has freed her, but he still exerts control over her in a variety of ways, not all of which sit well with Mattie, her friends, or the reader. Lornarri reminds me very much of the prince in "The Little Mermaid", crueler, but he has that same selfish thinking, that disregard for the women who are connected to him. A me first attitude, and let's not think about anyone's feelings, at least anyone who is not my equal.
Mattie is an alchemist and despite being non-politic, soon finds herself caught up in the revolution that is taking place in her world. This comes about due to her desire to help the gargoyles. No Disney cutie pies, the gargoyles are the creators and keepers of the city where Mattie lives, and they find themselves dying off without any means of reproduction.
In this struggle for control of an unnamed city, Sedia touches on the cause and effects of terrorism, the roots of revolution, and the effects of such violence on the community and the groups within that community. It is true that these issues are not dealt with startling depth. This isn't to say that she does a bad job; she doesn't. In fact, the book is timely in the topics it covers; it is hard not to see some of it as a mirror of current events. The focus of the book, however, isn't on politics, but on gender roles and the idea of humanity.
Reviews on the back of the block, liken Mattie to any women and considering the roles of female supporting characters, the idea of a woman's role and woman's independence is what Sedia seems to be examining. Who doesn't feel like a wind-up girl sometimes? These gender roles are also used in "The Little Mermaid". The mermaid wanted a soul, more than she wanted the prince, so she wouldn't become foam on the waves. Mattie is not looking for a soul, though one could she has one and the best one of the novel. Is she more human than those around her? Does she have more of a soul?
The same questions are raised in Andersen's tale, when the mermaid's compassion is compared to the thoughtless of the prince. Why do her sisters help her, but the prince cannot even think about her? It is easy to see the connection of this story to Andersen's fairy tale.