The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

One of the ways I attempt to prevent my book addiction from bankrupting me is by picking up books at library sales and clearance sections.  You get the job of buying a book with a lot lower cost.

One such pick-up was The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang.  Seemed like a good fit for me: short novella set in exotic location with a philosophical/religious bent.

Here is the blurb:

Cover of "The Merchant and the Alchemist'...
Cover of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

In medieval Baghdad, a penniless man is brought before the most powerful man in the world, the caliph himself, to tell his story. It begins with a walk in the bazaar, but soon grows into a tale unlike any other told in the caliph’s empire. It’s a story that includes not just buried treasure and a band of thieves, but also men haunted by their past and others trapped by their future; it includes not just a beloved wife and a veiled seductress, but also long journeys taken by caravan and even longer ones taken with a single step. Above all, it’s a story about recognizing the will of Allah and accepting it, no matter what form it takes.

And it turned out to be  an elegant and engaging story which brings either a sense of fatalism or deep faith in Allah depending on your perspective. I like the way PW describes it “Half lyrical Arabian Nights legend and half old school cautionary SF [science fiction] tale.” A graceful and lyrical read.

It has that wonderful sense of being a story passed down in the oral tradition; the kind of story you might hear told by a family patriarch late at night.  You have to admire Chiang for the graceful mixing of traditional forms and elements with a sci-fi hook.  And obviously, you don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate the mediation on fate.  Whether you finding it comforting or fatalistic is itself an interesting insight into your perspective and mindset.  Certainly worth the short period of time it takes to read this slim volume.

I would mark this a another gem in a long list of list of library sale finds.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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