Fran Wilde’s debut novel Updraft was a New Weird Secondary World story about growing up, finding one’s place in the world, and soaring on the winds around towers of bone. Her newest effort, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, shows how broad her talents are with a story about the end of empire, and how the last member of a dynasty comes to terms with her world’s destruction and transformation, and what she can find deep inside to survive.
The world of The Jewel and Her Lapidary is of a remote valley kingdom where members of the royal family, together with their lapidary courtiers who complete the design needed to be able to make use of the magical jewels, have long stood in safe isolation. When greed and betrayal shatter that protection, and the valley is overrun, the jewels that hid the valley, and the palace, and could move mountain and river are no longer defenders and tools, but prizes to be won.
Fran Wilde takes a macro lens shot of what could be an epic story, a 500-page fantasy of the end of an Empire and the struggle against its end, and provides a narrow, carefully composed perspective in Lin’s story. And yet even within that tight and carefully set framework, the story threatens time and again to break its frame, right in its first words, which shows that we are looking back on Lin’s story from a future so far away that her life is now just a note in a guidebook. The conflicting tensions of the composition of this story are a high wire act. By any rights, this should be the first in a fantasy trilogy, with maps, large-scale dramatis personae, family trees, and a glossary in the back. By the magic of her writing, Wilde has managed to boil this down into less than a hundred pages, into the last couple of days of Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima.
The use of language in the story is, even more than the fascinating epic in miniature, a success and triumph of style. Wilde uses passages from that future guidebook to set us in time, letting us see the valley in its present and providing not quite a framing device, but rather parallax to the events in the story itself. There are also repeated and reworked phrases that echo and pattern throughout the story. It reaches for the same sort of layering and repetition that one might hear in, say, an epic poem.
And the story has interesting things to say about freedom, control, duty, desire and the settings in which we are all set, and try and break free from. Lapidaries must obey their Jewels, but the gems themselves have desires of their own, desires that the lapidaries cannot help but hear. The mountain kingdom that has swept over the river valley has a commander with desires and duties of her own. The strictures of what Lin needs to do, and must do, are opposing forces of action that twist the wires of her own soul and mind, crafting a psychological setting to hold the gemstone of the rest of the story within.
The Jewel and her Lapidary is a small, personal, keystone story, a cunningly faceted gem of a story in a setting carefully crafted to show off its brilliance.