The Valley has long been sheltered, and defined, by the gemstones beneath it. Sentient, feral silicate intelligences with tremendous power, they are controlled by the Jewels and Lapidaries. The Jewels full the Valley, the Lapidaries assist them in the never ending struggle to simultaneously harness and not be overwhelmed by the power beneath their feet.
The Valley has fallen.
Only Lin, the youngest Jewel and her Lapidary, Sima, remain. Alone, outnumbered and in incredible danger the two young women must work out how to stay true to their vows, their people and protect the world from the power beneath the Valley.
Fran Wilde trusts her characters, even when they don’t trust themselves. She also trusts her readers and both gambits pay off. For Lin and Sima, this is a season in Hell as they lose their families, their home and are forced to confront every single thing about their lives that isn’t tenable. This is a very real world, where tradition trumps common sense and the needs of the one are always sacrificed for the needs of the many. As the book goes on, Wilde uses this to show us different facets of her two leads, their terror and grief giving way to tenacity, love and absolute courage. Neither one is happy where they are, neither one is given the time to fully mourn their vast losses and neither one let’s it slow them down. The flashes we get of their own needs make them individuals rather than the titles they’re shackled to. Their endless, polite, terrified heroism makes them two of the most affecting, inspirational fantasy characters you’ll read this year.
For readers, this is a snapshot of a world whose tragically familiar pressures are thrown into stark relief by its fantastical elements. Because we’re trusted to put things together ourselves, both elements really hit their marks and the Valley feels richly realised and lived in. That in turn leads to a profound sense of loss as you realise just how much has been taken from Lin and Sima and horror at what that means. The stakes are both personal and immensely high and Wilde makes sure we see that constantly.
But the genius of the book comes from the refusal to accept easy answers. The villains of the piece are complicated, ambiguous people whose threat is based in ignorance as much as it is in malice. There’s no mindless evil, no unified front. Just a group of people doing a bad thing for what they think is a good reason and not quite marching in lockstep.
That complexity echoes up and down the book at every level. It’s even folded into a beautifully subtle piece of world building that hints, strongly, at the effect Lin and Sima have on their world. Even that is complex and open to question, the ambiguity of human action standing in neat contrast to the precise, massive emotions and needs of the jewels.
The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a hard, dark story about the bravery of kindness and the collision between the shackles of duty and the needs of the individual. Unmissable and yet another top flight entry in tor’s novella series.