The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

The Merchant and the Alchemist's GateThe Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is actually a short novella from Ted Chiang and the first of his work I ever experienced when JJ Campanella read it (brilliantly) for StarShipSofa podcast.

I recently received a signed (!) copy from a friend who was clearing out his bookshelves and took the chance this weekend to reread it.

It is told in what I’d call Scheherazade-style, of a story within a story within a story. This story folds in and around an alchemist who has opened a shop in medieval Baghdad. He has the secret of gates which will take one twenty years into the future or into the past. A penniless beggar tells the tale which takes readers into the lives of thieves, weavers, wives, lovers, and more. Surrounding the story is the question of whether one can change the will of Allah or how previously hidden knowledge may change one’s life or even one’s soul.

Charming and beautiful, the story has the power to make us ponder our own lives, circumstances, and how “chance” affects us. Chiang is an interesting writer also because he continually explores what it means to be human and how that intersects with different ideas of God. He’s a self-stated atheist but always is honest with where the story goes, which is a rare talent these days.

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