I would love to be able to say something cheesy about this story like, “The Jewel is a shining gem in my treasury of novels!” Unfortunately, though, this jewel is not a glittering diamond, not a geode that’s better once you crack it open (the cover is one of the best things about it, actually–and don’t you all pretend you don’t judge books by their covers, too!), not even a fun pebble that a little kid might find in somebody’s flower garden and decide to keep. Honestly, it’s more like a rock that you try to skip across the water but that only succeeds in sinking to the bottom.
I know: harsh. And I do hate talking badly about a book that somebody has put so much effort, time, and hope into writing. It is not my intent to say that Amy Ewing is a bad writer. In fact, The Jewel was popular enough to warrant two sequels and two companion novellas. I do, however, think that she and/or her editors might have tried a little harder to publish a well-developed book instead of a shallow story.
This novel is hard to summarize because there are a lot of plot holes and unanswered questions, but I will do my best. The story centers on Violet, one of many young low-class girls in the dystopian island city where the novel is set who are born with special powers. These powers allow the girls to manipulate the color, shape, and growth of the objects around them. Violet and the others are trained and then sold to be used as surrogate mothers for the city’s noblewomen, who have been unable to carry their own children for generations. After being bought by the unpredictable Lady of the Lake, Violet uncovers a menacing plan to remove any sense of personality from future surrogates and thereby render them nothing more than vessels. A sympathizing servant named Lucien spends the entire novel trying to help Violet escape. Despite Violet’s stubborn meddling, the plan continues more or less on track until the very end of the novel. The book ends with the threat of consequences for Violet’s actions and the promise of help from a presumed enemy.
The story is perhaps a shade dark for a genre technically directed at children, but it still bears the time-tested idea of a dystopia that needs to be changed. Usually, this basic premise performs very well; dozens of novels have used it with great success. My biggest complaints about The Jewel, however, are that the plot doesn’t deliver, the questions are never answered, and the characters are flatter than the pancakes your papa makes on a Sunday morning.
The plot: All the action happens in the very last pages. I suppose this is a tactical move on the publisher’s part; nobody would have any reason to buy the next book if not for the cliff-hanger. The rest of the story is spent watching Violet slowly accumulate information and sulk. Never does she do anything to create any real empathy.
The questions: The information Violet gathers is never enough. I’m a big supporter of the whole Suspension of Disbelief–the idea that readers approach a story willing to believe anything that would be considered improbable or even impossible in the real world. But my disbelief is never suspended so far that I don’t require logical explanations from a writer. Much to my frustration, however, Ewing never explains why the noblewomen have been barren for generations, why some girls are born with powers, how the powers came to be manifested in the first place, how the ridiculous government system ever got accepted, or any of the other dozens of questions I have. It seems that what was meant to be suspenseful (lack of immediate answers) turned out to be basic poor world-building (failure to have thought out the answers beforehand, even if those details are never included in the book). The lack of answers also felt like an insult to me as a reader, since I wasn’t getting credit for being as observant or intelligent as I am.
The characters: My final complaint is the under-developed characters. It is the job of main characters to make readers want them to succeed and to keep reading. But we are never quite sure what Violet wants, except to not be a surrogate, and we are never given a reason to want her to succeed in her ill-defined goals. The Lady of the Lake is prone to wild mood swings: gentle and encouraging one moment only to be violent and hateful the next, with no real explanation as to why she behaves this way other than the flimsy assumption that she is trying to scare Violet into submission. Ash, Violet’s (convenient and sickeningly instant) love interest, is described as good-looking and just as much a slave in his capacity as a companion (an odd sort of hired boyfriend for young noblewomen until they secure themselves a real husband) as Violet is as a surrogate. But Ash has little more defining personality than does Violet herself. These three are the primary characters; I won’t delve into descriptions of the secondary ones.
General conclusion: Sadly, I would not recommend this novel. The writing itself is passable, but the action, the characters, and especially the world-building are severely lacking.
Fear not, fellow readers! I will have a happier review next time!