After a slight deviation from my usual book reviews this month to exalt literary food with Brian Jacques, I want to finish the month with one last lesser-known favorite of mine. Fantasy novels with a dash of political intrigue are some of the best. When the author also manages to create a unique system of magic to go with the inventive political system, one begins to feel positively optimistic about the chances of enjoying the story. Emerald House Rising manages to hit several high notes with its magic, political goings on, and characters, particularly since Peg Kerr interweaves all three with a common theme: gemstones.
The story centers around the young woman Jena who is an aspiring gemcutter, although in this particular world, joining a professional Guild can be very difficult for a woman. Her love for her craft is significant throughout the story and through all the magical and political complications that she is embroiled in, she never leaves it behind. A meeting with a strange nobleman wearing an even stranger ring is the first in a series of unexpected turns in Jena’s life, and she discovers that she is an adept, able to use magic.
Kerr’s magic is interesting, perhaps because it is only somewhat defined, and that’s okay. In her world, magic is all about possibilities. If something is possible, an adept can weave magic into the fabric of reality and bring it about. Of course, magic is also about the impossible, so things like shape-shifting and teleportation can be used, but the central idea of magic is shaping reality through possible occurrences and possible outcomes. This can be a bit dangerous when the inexperienced Jena imagines overly drastic outcomes to get herself out of tight situations. But as Jena learns to use her gift, she also hones her skill fashioning gemstones because an uncut gem is nothing but possibilities and magic can be tied to jewelry in several unexpected ways.
The plot of the story extends beyond Jena’s personal struggles to the kingdom’s political unrest. In keeping with the overarching theme, Kerr creates an imaginative government system of ruling Houses each represented by a gem. The head of this Diadem is the Diamond. Succession in the Houses comes by birth, but rather than the Diamond’s heir being a birthright, the heir to the Diamond comes from one of the other members of the Diadem. Each year, the heir changes to a new House so that each of the ruling families has an equal chance of producing the next Diamond. However, as with any governmental system, a villain attempts to manipulate the system and trouble ensues. The Emerald House dies out. The Diamond is old and bedridden and suspicions of an evil enchantment (magic is frowned upon by most members of society) are spreading. The Ruby, who is currently the heir to the Diamond, is unknowingly tangled in an ambitious schemer’s plot. And Jena Gemcutter stumbles right into the middle of all of it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book for several reasons. Jena is a likable, resilient young woman whose ambitions in her trade are not simply erased because she is also able to use magic. She integrates her love of her craft into her newly growing love of magic. This is representative of Kerr’s book as a whole: the magic, the plot, and the characters are all carefully brought together by the single image of a multi-faceted, brilliantly cut gemstone.
As Christmas approaches, I hope you will have time to read and enjoy a few new books. Perhaps Emerald House Rising will be one of them!