Chances are good that you checked this book out of the library accidentally, and you actually wanted The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I mean, it is understandable: slim novellas of the same name by two dudes with similar Italian-sounding names (Paolo/Paulo! What are the odds?). Count yourself lucky -- you got the good one. The other one is full of bullshit, no matter what that lady at work keeps telling you.Paolo Bacigalupi loves to remind you how much people suck. Indeed, that could have been the subtitle to The Windup Girl. That or "Everyone is Fucking Up the World, and No, They Don't Really Care." Which, again, also works for The Alchemist. The novel is sci-fi and this novella is fantasy, but though the trappings are different, they are of a piece thematically, even if The Alchemist goes about things a bit more subtly.In this world, magic exists, but carries a very real price -- every time a spell is cast, a sprig of thorny, magic-seeking bramble (think Sleeping Beauty) sprouts from the ground surrounding the city. A long time ago, everyone used magic a lot, to do whatever they wanted: yeah, castles are cool, but flying castles are where it's at. The great civilizations crumbled, choked by the plant, their cities poisoned and destroyed by their refusal to recognize that actions have consequences.Civilization recovered (as they seem to do), but the problem still exists: magic use is outlawed, but people just can't help themselves, and the bramble encroaches ever more on the city's boundaries. And really, would you want to stop using magic? I mean, sure, you don't need to ride your flying carpet to work, but a little here and there won't hurt, as long as you have a really good reason (curing the sick! You are richer and more powerful than everyone else! Flying bridges are neat!). The problem is that everyone has a reason.There is a real world parallel here. Something... I can't quite put my finger on it WHAT COULD IT BE?This could be a really preachy story, but its removal into a fantasy context tempers the stridency somewhat. And it is certainly an elegant way to illustrate the problem, isn't it? We tell ourselves that the choices were make don't really contribute to the problems that are much larger than ourselves, try to forget the fact that everything large is made up of a lot of things that are very small.This is a companion piece to The Executioness (they were originally bundled together as audiobooks), but aside from the shared setting, you don't need to read them both to enjoy either. You'll probably want to though.