Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

Short review: The Jeweled Kingdom is betrayed and Sima and Lin must salvage what they can from the shards.

Kingdom of jewels
Betrayed by lapidary
Only shards remain

Full review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a story about transitions - about that space when one story is ending, and new stories are just about to begin. It is also a story about duty, loyalty, and sacrifice, and how sometimes those aren't enough to save the day. Taking place at the death of one kingdom and the genesis of a new order, the story occupies that netherworld that is often lost to history, a fact that is highlighted by the framing device used to tell it. Despite this tale's short length, Wilde manages to convey a complex fantasy world with an unusual and deadly system of magic and a social order that has arisen to deal with it while also infusing the characters with a weight and presence that one usually only finds in longer works.

The story of The Jewel and Her Lapidary is told in two modes, and alternates between them. The conventional aspect of the story is a straightforward fantasy that starts in the immediate aftermath of an act of betrayal that resulted in the murder of pretty much every member of the Jewel Court save for the Lapidary Lin and her Jewel, the Princess Sima. The architect of this treason is Lin's own father, formerly the Lapidary Aba who was bound to the King of the Jewel Court and who had embarked upon a plan born of insanity to overthrow the extant order and allow the armies of the neighboring Western Mountains under their warlord Remir to invade, apparently intending to offer his daughter and the princess as bargaining chips to gain something. The key here is that the plan is in fact born of insanity, and that insanity is part and parcel of the fantastical element that underpins the entire story - the existence of people called "Lapidaries" who can hear and use the powers of magical gemstones. The trouble is, the gems have a will of their own, and that will is apparently often inimical to humanity and drives these Jewels mad. The Lapidaries are bound to the service of people called Jewels, constrained by various oaths to prevent the gems from dominating their minds. Some gems are more powerful and sought after such as the Star Cabochon, while others are less impressive. Although not explicitly stated, the story implies that the more powerful a gem is, the more dangerous it is to the user.

This portion of the story is told by rotating between the viewpoints of Lin and Sima, focusing on one and then the other as they struggle to salvage at least something out of the shards of their shattered kingdom. For her part Lin must face the fact that it was her father who forsook his oaths and betrayed their kingdom, and the fact that she has to break her own oaths of duty in order to fulfill her promise of service to Sima. On her side of the ledger, Sima is faced with the task of navigating an impossible situation to save her people as best she can even though she was intentionally never prepared for politics. There is an almost claustrophobic element to this portion of the story, as most of it takes place within the confines of the Jeweled Palace, and the freedom of movement, and consequently freedom of action, that both Lin and Sima have gets progressively more constrained as the story goes on. As I said at the outset, this is a story about one story ending, and Lin and Sima must face this reality as it crashes into them as all of their options are closed off one by one, leaving them with no good choices, and only one that can even be described as not so bad. Wilde manages this story expertly, giving a sense of desperation and mounting terror and then offering just the smallest glimmer of hope underneath.

The other mode by which this story is told is a travelogue, written some undefined (but apparently quite lengthy) time after the events of the more conventionally told portion. In these sections, the reader is given tips on traveling to the Jeweled Valley, now a tourist destination with picturesque scenery, lovely walking trails, notable sites of interest, and quaint local crafts. These little saccharine snippets of guidebook information are set against the gritty and brutal reality of the other sections, and while they get something akin to the broad strokes of the history correct, they are devoid of crucial details - as if the reality of the society and dying struggles of the Jeweled Court have been entirely forgotten either intentionally or by accident. While the conventionally told portion is a well-told fantasy tale, what truly elevates this story is the meta-commentary provided by the travelogue sections highlights just how ephemeral the importance given to the tribulations faced by Lin and Sima actually was, and how critical events of the past can be obscured by the passage of time. Passages in which the relationship between a Jewel and their Lapidary are casually dismissed as "a conflation of multiple roles" show this decay with a stark harshness contained within the tranquil text of the travel guide. It is this casual disregard couched in almost soporific terms that is so very jarring, and makes it all the more brutal.

At first glance, The Jewel and Her Lapidary might seem like an ordinary, if well-written, little fantasy interlude. Once one starts the scratch the deceptively simple surface, however, one finds interlocking layer after layer of depth. Although Lin and Sima are the only two characters in the story who really feel fully fleshed out, their relationship is so intimately portrayed that it makes up for the fact that everyone else in the drama is essentially a one-note song. The fantastical magic set-up is intriguing, although it is not more than sketched out in outline form, but the characters sell the fact that the stakes surrounding it are incredibly high. Finally, the travel guide snippets worked into the interstitial areas of the story add a tone of almost bitter melancholy to the whole. All of these elements add together to make a beautiful novelette that has just enough to it to leave the reader feeling like they got a complete story, but still wanting more.

2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

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