by Amy Ewing
2014 • 368 pages • Harper Teen
I enjoy a good referential pitch as much as anyone else. I myself constantly convince people to watch Plunkett and Macleane by describing it as “A Knight’s Tale Gothy, romantic older sister,” only for them to rage about how hard it is to get ahold of. (It is one hundred percent worth it.) But seeing The Jewel marketed as The Selection meets A Handmaid’s Tale gave me pause. It’s not the latter title, as everybody should read A Handmaid’s Tale, especially teenage girls, but the former. It just ties in so neatly to the young adult juggernaut narrative, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games to Divergent to the current interregnum. The Selection itself was marketed as a riff on The Hunger Games. Obviously, there’s very good marketing sense to invite comparisons to The Hunger Games, but I have mixed feelings about the young adult juggernaut narrative.
But in this case, I’m fine with it, because if it gets more teens reading The Jewel, the better.
The Jewel’s premise is, as promised, along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the Lone City, the royalty is so inbred that they cannot produce live births. Fortunately for them, a rare genetic mutation found, for some reason, in the lower classes gives girls the ability to do limited and hardwon magic—magic useful for fixing royal fetuses, once implanted. The surrogate system, where girls are taken from their families for training after they manifest their powers, trades luxury for freedom and bodily autonomy. Violet Lasting is Lot #197 for the upcoming auction. Already ambivalent about her role, her purchase by the cold and mercurial Duchess of the Lakes whisks her into a world of privilege, servitude, deceit, and danger. As she comes face to face with the fact that she will be impregnated against her will, she discovers a way out—a way out that will compromise her budding but secret relationship with a male companion.
I can’t remember the last book I had to read. Not in the sense of being assigned, but in the sense that I kept compulsively picking up The Jewel to read and couldn’t stop myself from flipping ahead in order to make sure everybody was okay. Debut author Amy Ewing’s writing style is not particularly gorgeous, but it’s efficient, gripping, and, most importantly, makes Violet sound like a person. She may be smart and cognizant of the hideously oppressive system she lives in, but she’s also a sixteen year old girl who feels conflicted over her enjoyment of some of the trappings of the Jewel. Most importantly, she loves music. Her skill with the cello gives her the one thing that gives her an identity outside of a surrogate.
Well, that and her relationship with Ash, a companion. Based on the cover description, I dreaded the inevitable romance, but it actually works. Violet does fall a little quickly for my taste, but there’s a reason—when they meet for the first time, Ash mistakes her for his client, and treats her as if she’s free. The two argue over music, discuss agency, and enjoy spending time together. Violet, being a surrogate, has no control over her reproductivity; Ash, being a companion (a male courtesan), has no control over his sexuality. Both are hideously objectified by these roles in society and talk about it. I wish their relationship was a little more organic, but it does what a romance should: it adds to the story.
That story being largely about royal politics, bodily exploitation, and Violet’s determination to stay alive and get out. While the politicking isn’t as intricate as I’d like, it’s certainly murderous enough. The personal politics are more interesting, from the power games between Violet and the Duchess to the glimpses of how even Violet’s situation is one of the better ones. Ewing captures all the small freedoms that never add up to actual freedom. And that, ultimately, is Violet’s conflict: what freedoms is she willing to give up for the system? For the cause? For herself? It’s heady, necessary stuff for the young adult market.
And, mercy of mercies, The Jewel is the first installment in a series that’s actually a satisfying novel to itself, with a climax and a hook and everything! (Occasionally I fear that series structure is a lost art. Ewing has reassured me that it’s not.) There’s some nods to diversity. Racially, the Jewel isn’t monochromatic, but still largely white. More interestingly, the ladies-in-waiting operate on a genderqueer spectrum. Both men and women can serve as ladies-in-waiting (we’re told they’re trained since childhood, but not how they’re identified), but they’re desexualized via castration (cis boys) and shaved heads with top knots (everybody). Violet sees things in a gender binary, alas, but Lucien, a male lady-in-waiting, plays a massive, serious part in the novel, to my utter delight. It’s a step in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing Ewing continue further down that path as the series continues.
However, I must lodge a complaint about the corset abuse in this novel. Unless the corset is specifically stated to have been put on incorrectly, I do not buy that it’s painful. It’s a support garment, y’all. It’s specifically built to support, not crush.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.