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The Jewel and Her Lapidary Paperback – May 3, 2016
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"[A] story about power. Although this one's about loss, friendship, and responsibility. Two young women, one magically bound to protect and obey the other, are the last survivors of the ruling class of a kingdom defended up to now by magic. Captives of an invader, they alone must keep the magic of the gems out of enemy hands. It's a novella about love and duty, at its heart: elegant and affecting." ~ Liz Bourke, Sleeps with Monsters
About the Author
FRAN WILDE is an author & technology consultant. Her first novel, Updraft was published in 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Nature, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Wilde also blogs about food and genre at Cooking the Booksand for the popular social-parenting website GeekMom. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.
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I admire the concept and the world-building that went into imagining a magic system shaped by gems. I haven't seen any magic system quite like this one before, and give major props for its thoughtful development. I have some background in gems and lapidary tools, and with my own experience in cutting, polishing, faceting, and wrapping stones, I was prepared for disappointment. I was relieved to see the author did her research, and overall I thought that the magic system was thoughtful and enjoyable.
Ironically, the book could have used more polish. The pacing was slow. The narrative spent so much time buried in the two main characters' thoughts and immediate sensory experience that it was often hard to divine what was going on. This confusion was made worse because the book begins with scenes of madness and chaos. In a longer format, this might not have mattered much, but with an eighty-page novella, it felt to me that a third of the book was gone by the time I understood the situation and what it meant to the characters.
The author's Third Person Omniscient point of view could have benefited from more control. Within a single scene, the narrative jumps from the Jewel and her lapidary many times. Unfortunately, the two characters are so similar in background, temperament, and mental voice that it was hard to distinguish the two. I wished that the perspective had been more controlled and consistent, and that the characters had been more different.
Another reviewer pointed out that the book took place in "two rooms," which isn't exactly true. I can think of at least three scenes that involve other places. But it is true that most of the action occurs in two places. However frustrating this might be, I think it's true to the spirit of a story about a member of the ruling class in a fantasy inspired by East Asian culture. It was a quiet, limited life, and I think the author did a good job of using metaphors and imagery to add layers to the implied claustrophobia. Keeping the scenes restricted to mostly two settings was entirely appropriate.
I was surprised by the casual way the main character receives the touch of a member of non-royalty. Most cultures with royalty, especially those with female members who are kept veiled and sheltered like the main character was, would have been vehemently offended by the touch of someone from a lower class. I once had a college history professor explain this to me with an analogy that went like this. "Sure, you can imagine shaking hands with the President, because you come from a culture with relaxed etiquette. But imagine you went to shake his hand and accidentally tapped him on the bottom instead. You'd feel absolutely mortified, right? Now imagine that no common person has ever touched the President, who is treated with the same kind of awe that you would reserve for the Pope, or a Saint, or Jesus Himself. How inappropriate does this situation feel now? How about if they might chop your hand off for the offense, or kill you outright?" I won't spoil the scene where the main character is touched by someone from the non-royal class, but I will say I was shocked that there was no reaction and no sense of the cultural context that I would have expected.
As predictable as the book was, I was surprised by the ending, which I liked. I liked the foreshadowing and "layers of history" from the excerpts that began each chapter. I don't regret buying and reading this book, but I think it went to press before it should have. More shaping and more polishing would have helped shine the light into this story with more grace and brilliance. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future, and seeing how she improves.