Fran Wilde’s “The Jewel and her Lapidary” has oodles of potential. From an intricate magic system, political machinations, the ending of an era, some pretty good cover art… This story has everything going for it.
So I’m just a tad upset that this is probably, so far, the worst of the Hugo-Nominated Novelettes. At least it’s not for overt attacks on reality.
“The Jewel and her Lapidary” tells the story of Lin, the youngest princess of the royal household (and so a Jewel), and of Sima, her Lapidary, a gem-whispering servant bound by vows to Lin. The story begins in the midst of a palace coup. Sima’s father has betrayed his king, the two having a the same relationship of Jewel and Lapidary as Sima and Lin. As the enemy marches in, a battle of wills begins between Lin, the only surviving Jewel, and the invading commander over the rulership of the Jeweled Valley and it’s magical gems.
There’s three major thematic conceits which the story revolves around: 1) the magic of the gems, 2) the political struggle, and 3) the characters of Lin and Sima. Each, as ideas, had me entranced.
First, The magical system at work here is fascinating. The gems of the Jeweled Valley are able to influence those around them in some psychic fashion, referred to as hearing the gems. These gems can only be heard by a few select individuals. However, uncut and unset, the gems will drive those who hear them insane – driving their emotions in this or that direction, requiring great will power on the part of the hearer. These individuals can be trained to overcome this and ultimately speak through the gems to command and orient their powers. This training involves making special vows to the Jewels, initiated by becoming bound by various etched metal bands. Thus these individuals become Lapidaries.
This magical system offers quite a lot of potential to be explored. The Lapidaries have great power in “speaking” the gems, powers to even halt armies, but are also circumscribed in their power by their vows to their Jewels. The gems also become a sort of third-person in this relationship, seeking to influence the Lapidaries to selfish action, while becoming helpful by being cut and set by these same Lapidaries. Some Lapidaries may want to break free, but doing so will drive them insane – as we see in the first scenes with Sima’s father betraying his vows to the king. There’s a whole lot here that can become narrative tension.
Second, we also see the relations between the peaceful Jeweled Valley kingdom which depends upon the gems for its protection and prosperity and militaristic Mountain kingdom which depends upon its force of arms and is threatened by powers not seen in the tale. There’s a whole lot of potential here as well. With such strength in its gems, is the Jeweled Valley correct in turning inward and leaving its neighbors to their fates? If more powerful and willing, is the Mountain kingdom correct in breaking the Jeweled Valley’s isolationism so as to foster wider prosperity?
Third, the characters. Lin and Sima are the only survivors of the palace coup. Lin is the youngest of the Jewels, a fourteen year old girl. She was never trained to be a ruling Jewel, betrothed instead to a far off kingdom. She must quickly grow up in order to keep her people safe, confronting the ultimate fate of one who would die for her people.
Sima, seventeen, has been Lin’s constant companion since childhood, bound to her both by vows and the love of friendship. In following Lin’s commands, she is forced to break the vows that bind her and keep her sane. She must struggle, from then on, with the tension between the love of and loyalty to her friend and the call of the gems. She is also very aware of her own weakness as a Lapidary, never inheriting her father’s more powerful influence of the gems.
All three of these points, the magic, the politics, the characters, have absolutely astounding potential to make a great story. What pains me is that this potential is squandered at almost every turn.
The magic system is not something you fully understand until the end of the tale. Its general outline is present from the beginning, but its details, details important to the story, are left confused for much of it. Is it willpower that silences the gems influence, or do you need the vows? Do they allow only psychic influence or more evocative magical powers (like the gems of RA Salvatore’s DemonWars Saga)? How does the Mountain Kingdom expect to control the gems without a bound Lapidary? When do the gems become silent, when do they speak (because they appear to do both)? Do the gems have some sort of personality, can they act on their own toward some end?
Wilde seems to be trying to avoid exposition and info dumps, something I applaud, but even if Lin and Sima understand what’s going on, the reader doesn’t. And having constant mental references to vows only helps so far. Especially as Wilde uses a framing device, a traveler’s guide to the Jewelend Valley, there’s easily places to offer some exposition to help a reader out.
You do, mostly, understand the system by the end, but this appears less a final revelation and more of finally being exposed enough to pick up the pieces. If this had some pertinence to the end, I’d be more willing to accept this. Instead, it feels like frustration with no payoff. Especially as we are made to see this as the end of the Lapidaries – something we don’t really care about because we never really understood what they’re up to.
As for the politics, well, Wilde decides to make this a clear good-versus-evil tale. The Mountain Kingdom is nothing but a cruel oppressor, desirous of power. Their leader, Nal, is an alpha-bitch who wants to marry her son to a Jewel and thus rule the kingdom. On one hand, I’m fine with this – I like my complicated villains, but I also like the one-dimensional, there-to-be-defeated sort. However, Nal is depicted less like a one-dimensional villain and more like a greedy fool who bit off more than she can chew. We’re made at times to think she’s having to be cruel only to keep her men’s loyalty, not wanting to appear weak. We’re also made to believe she’s doing this to save her kingdom from some approaching menace. But this is never explored more than a few lines. Wilde seems to not want to make her Mountain Kingdom another set of orcs being led by Sauron, but neither does she go through the effort to actually humanize them and make them complex. Instead we’re left with an unsatisfying mixture – these guys are cruel and mean and just plain evil for the sake of evil, but don’t worry, they’ve got real reasons we’re just not going into them. I can hate a complex villain – one who is doing some great evil for some apparently great good – and I can hate the pure supervillain – just doing his thing to conquer the world. But when it’s both, because the two are somewhat at odds, I’m left unsatisfied.
Finally, we come to Lin and Sima. This is probably the strongest point of the story, but has its weaknesses. Both tend to complain a lot. Lin seems only a step away from hating her family for not training her to rule. Sima bemoans constantly her broken vows (apparently referencing the broken physical bands, as she remains loyal to Lin). While the threat of the gems to Sima’s resolve is constantly mentioned, it never becomes more than a possible threat (even when confronted with the most powerful of gems). The majority of the story is the two of them sitting in dark, cramped places, often surrounded by their dead family, and miserably reflecting on their lives. The existential angst is palpable, but probably overly so.
A kind of hopelessness is oppressive throughout, but Wilde wants desperately for it to end in hope. The final climax offers a good, hopeful ending, but the story less develops to that ending as just wallows in the pain of it all until this exit presents itself. This could work, but we also don’t see much character development through this pain. Lin goes from scared child to willing to sacrifice herself in the first few pages and no more change is made. Lin is willing to make those sacrifices in the beginning all the way to the end. In retrospect, there’s just not much going on here. Not giving Sima more of a struggle with the gems was a definite weakness.
In the mix of this is a whiff of gender-politicking as well. Something just irks me about every male in the story being either weak (Lin’s father), traitorous (Sima’s father), gem-addled (Nal’s twelve-year old son), or just plain cruel (all of Nal’s men). Even in her memories, Lin’s brother is shown not having any care for his Lapidary, and it is always Lin’s grandmother who is giving her advice. When asked about marriage, Sima is left unsure who she would marry. I think most girls would be unsure in this world – no guy in this story is worth a damn.
The writing had some moments which perturbed me. Refusing to name or give a tag to the Royal Lapidary leads to passages like this:
Then the King’s Lapidary fell quiet for the first time since Lin woke.
The two girls listened, shaking in the cold, for the mountain army’s drums. They wondered how long the palace’s doors could hold. But no drums came. Only silence. The King’s Lapidary climbed up on the lip of the palace wall. He turned to face the courtyard. His lips were pressed tight, his eyes rolled. He spread his arms wide. His hands clutched at the air.
Sima rose to her feet. Began to run toward the wall.
Without another word, the King’s Lapidary leapt from the wall, his blue robe flapping, the chains on his wrists and ankles ringing in the air. And before Lin could scream, the King’s Lapidary crashed to the flagstones of the courtyard.
By the end of it, the term “King’s Lapidary” is like a hammer to the head. This isn’t present throughout, but a good lesson in giving your characters tags.
The jewel crafting could also get a bit confusing, especially when it went on for a while. Maybe I’m just a simple man, but I don’t like the use of a bunch of technical terms cropping up in the middle of the story, especially when few people actually have these skills. It doesn’t require an info-dump, but more space given to let the crafting be followed using layman terms would be helpful.
All these comments make me think the story was hurt by being a novelette. It screams to be given more space to grow – to explain its magic system, to give the villains more character, to become used to all the gem crafting language, to allow these complex relationships to actually develop.
In summary, “The Jewel and her Lapidary” has a bunch of wasted possibility. We won’t Index it, but I can’t recommend it either.