Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary opens in the wake of pure chaos. The king is dead, and his greatest lapidary, a sort of sorcerer who can control the kingdom’s great magic gems, has betrayed everyone he knows and loves. The Western Mountain forces, led by their ferocious Commander, Nal, are arriving en masse, an invasion so large that the remaining people of the Jewel Valley have no choice but to surrender. The Star Cabochon, the last gem remaining to the Jewel Kingdom, and the only thing with the power to save (or doom) the people of the valley, is missing. Lin, heir to the throne, and Sima, her lapidary, are imprisoned, threatened by death, or worse, if they do not turn the Star Cabochon over to Nal.
If that sounds like a lot to take in all at once: it is. There’s a tremendous sense of tension and frenetic anxiety as the Jewel Valley is invaded and Lin and Sima recognize the betrayal that has occurred—but rather than being pulled into the story, I felt pulled under, drowning in details and struggling to keep up with the various politics, social complexities, and personal conflicts. A story must start with conflict, always, but conflict also requires empathy from the reader if they’re to invest in the story. Because Wilde throws us right in the deep end without water wings, I found myself focusing more on my inability to stay afloat—to understand the political and magical implications of the Western Mountains’ invasion of the Jewel Valley—than the personal journeys of Lin and Sima.
Deeply ingrained in all aspects of The Jewel and Her Lapidary, is a gem-based magic system. It will feel familiar to readers of epic fantasy (R.A. Salvatore’s criminally underrated DemonWars series comes to mind for me), but Wilde’s take on it is rich and compelling enough (if frustratingly light on insight into how it actually works) to earn its place as the fulcrum for the story’s complex plot. Early on, we learn the important role the gems’ magic plays in protecting Lin and Sima’s home as they’re witnessing the final moments of the kingdom’s greatest lapidary, who also happens to be Sima’s father:
“Sima,” Lin whispered. “What is he doing?”
Her lapidary whimpered. “He is breaking his vows, my Jewel. He has broken gems. Couldn’t you hear? The Opaque Sapphire. The Death Astrion. The Steadfast Diamond. He is about to break the Star Cabochon. We have to stop him.”
We know that the gems hold great magic—enough to hide and protect them from the preying colonial eyes of their warlike neightbours—but the actual details are sparse. And not in the purposefully oblique way, where reader interpretation is part of the allure. Instead, it feels a little undercooked, especially when compared to a detailed magic system such as that found in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. It might not be a fair comparison—in fact, it certainly isn’t, due to the lengths of the two pieces, but novellas have room to grow, and this is one area that I think extra detail would have proved valuable. The closest we get is a short passage outlining the relationship between trained lapidaries, wild gem-speakers, and the gems themselves:
The valley’s gems. In a gem-speaker’s hand, Lin knew they amplified desire. When bezel-set and held by a trained lapidary, they had to obey: to protect, calm, compel. Only without their bezels, or in the presence of a wild gem-speaker or a gem-mad lapidary, could gems do worse things.
We’re left to sort out the rest ourselves. Everything else in the story is very concise and tight, so a bit of sprawling here would have been forgiven. (Or embraced, even.) Not every magic system has to have a Sanderson-esque level of exactness and logic, and Jemisin herself has argued quite eloquently that magic systems need not be precise and detailed. In fact, as a reader I tend to prefer the more hand-wavy magic found in something like Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea—but I felt like I needed to know more about the relationship between the gems, the lapidaries, and the Jewels to really understand the story’s central conflict: the invasion of the Jewel Valley and the search for the Star Cabochon. The kingdom is already lost, so what does it mean if the gems fall into the villain’s hands? We’re shown only the barest sliver of what the powers available to the lapidaries and their gems, and almost nothing of the mechanics behind the magic, despite those aspects being deeply integral to the plot. Are the gems sentient? Do all gems in the world have magic, or only the ones mined in the Jewel Valley? So many questions abound that need answers. I desperately hope that Wilde writes more in this world, and expands on the groundwork she has laid in The Jewel and Her Lapidary.
In fact, there’s all sorts of worldbuilding in this small novella, and so much of it is derived from the magic system—from the economics of the valley, to the social structures confining the protagonists. There are also several travel guide-esque interludes that charmingly illustrate how the valley changes in the years following the conclusion of the story. A lot of fantasy readers thrive on that sort of thing, but it also results in The Jewel and Her Lapidary sometimes feeling crammed with information that’s not directly relevant to the invasion story or the protagonists’ fight for freedom. Wilde’s already proven she has the chops to build intricate, fascinating worlds with her debut novel, Updraft, itself a slim novel, and here proves that it was no fluke. There are enough ideas here for a full novel or more. It sounds odd to say, but I found the worldbuilding and depth of this world sometimes overwhelming, as though it got in the way of the emotional narrative of its two protagonists—it could have been saved (or this story expanded) into a novel length work, allowing the world and Wilde’s incredible attention to detail more room to breathe. It’s like you’ve tripped into a mineshaft full of diamonds, but you’re falling so fast that you don’t have time to appreciate it. When I finished Updraft, I immediately wanted to know more about the world, and The Jewel and Her Lapidary is no different.
But, like a worked gem, the shape of the story begins to reveal itself over time, and once Wilde has established the world, and the immediacy of the novella’s opening subsides, The Jewel and Her Lapidary begins to shine. At its heart, this is a tragedy about responsibility and friendship, but it’s also inspirational and full of heart. It’s about freedom, and how one person’s shackles can be another person’s key. Responsibility can be an inescapable prison, no matter your station in life. Consider Sima, who lives a life of privilege as the lapidary to the Kingdom’s heir, but is buried under responsibilities that threaten to take away the entirety of her autonomy:
When [Sima] was three, she’d heard the gems for the first time and her father had celebrated, showering the court with garnets and carnelian. She’d clawed her ears bloody until her father given her the first vow. Had taken the voices away with heat and metal. “Only Lapidaries can hear the gems, though all are compelled to obey. Only Lapidaries can speak the gems,” he’d praised her, cautiously. More bands followed against the endless barrage of whispers from the valley’s gems. She’d traced her vows until her fingers ached. A Lapidary must. A Lapidary must not.
While the court celebrates around her, Sima is wrapped in chains because of her ‘gift.’
Lin and Sima are inextricably bound together by the constraints of their positions upon the hierarchical and social ladder in the Jewel Valley. They are shackled (literally and figuratively) by the responsibilities thrust upon them by the circumstances of their births. In examining the way that they both choose to break free, we begin to understand them better. Lin thrives under the responsibility to save her kingdom, where Sima feels overwhelmed but inspired by her friend. Lin and Sima are very different from one another, but their desires to protect each other, and to save their home, bind them as surely as any social constructs or prison walls. Sima fights for a society that binds her tightly, removing any semblance of freedom from her life.
“We are the kingdom now,” Lin whispered as the links of her platinum veil rattled against the stone walls of their prison. Then she laughed. “Nal thought we would be easy.”
“The valley made chain mail and baubles, Highness. Not fighters,” Sima said. “Without gems to protect us, Nal is right.”
Throughout, readers are witness to many small moments that reveal the dichotomy that exists between Lin and Sima. Lin is passionate and hopeful, righteous, full of a fire to push back and reclaim her kingdom. Sima is submissive, but powered by a deep desire not to follow the same path as her treacherous father—she uses Lin as a waypoint, allowing her to navigate the labyrinthine responsibilities she has been given as the last remaining lapidary. The sense of change as their friendship grows beyond the bounds of their station is delicate and shows terrific growth as they begin to recognize the bond that exists between them. To understand what that their fight means to them personally and in a wider sense is heartbreaking and inspirational. Together, they must find victory in sacrifice and failure. Wilde does this so well, with such layered complexity, that the latter half of the story is entrancing.
The Jewel and Her Lapidary might be rough around the edges, a gem waiting to be polished, but it’s also the first signs of a vast, rich mine waiting beneath Wilde’s feet. The world is fascinating, and there’s so, so much room for it to expand.It’s set in a rich fantasy world that will surely appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s Hugo-nominated Uprooted, and has the emotional complexity to keep fans of Ken Liu or N.K. Jemisin wanting more once it’s all over. I hope to see Wilde write in this world again—not necessarily to tell more stories about this conflict (Lin and Sima’s stories feel complete), but to unearth the great riches and other stories that are waiting to be unearthed.
Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.