Saturday 23 May 2015

A Rumor of Gems by Ellen Steiber

Ellen Steiber has written many stories for younger readers plus some X-Files spin-offs, none of which I have read. A Rumor of Gems is her first adult fantasy novel. I have a vague recollection that this book was recommended to me by someone who had noted that I loved Sheri Tepper's Marianne Trilogy, but it took me some time to find a copy.

The story is set in the present day but in the imaginary city of Arcato, where people live normal lives except that the existence of gods – from all faiths – and of magic are widely believed. The heroine is Lucinda, an unhappy young fashion model with a spiky personality and a long history of failed relationships, both familial and sexual (which is where the "adult" bit comes in – the language is explicit). Her only friend is Tyrone, the fashion designer she works with, and she is uninterested in the stories of valuable gems which keep suddenly appearing around the city. The reader is soon aware that these come from Alasdair, a visitor from the "lost towns", whose inhabitants have a special relationship with stones in general and gemstones in particular – in their hands, they can indeed produce magic.

The stories of these individuals soon combine, along with those of tricksy shape-shifters and even some of the gods, as Lucinda reluctantly combines forces with Alasdair to solve a series of abductions and murders which are threatening the city's inhabitants.

The story is original, intriguing and beautifully written; the characters are strong, easy to identify with, and are not simply divided into "good" and "evil".  Arcato is a magical creation which comes to life in the text. I was puzzled by an initial focus on a strong plot line concerning a street urchin which abruptly concludes and is then almost forgotten, but I can't think of anything else to criticise. How does it compare with The Marianne Trilogy? In most respects it is better, but it lacks the strongly bizarre and surreal flavour which is what appeals to me most in Tepper's story.

A Rumor of Gems was published in 2005 but appears to be the most recent novel from this author. That is a pity, as I would like to read more by her. This is one of those rare novels which I was genuinely sorry to finish; it is not a short story (around 450 pages) but I wanted it to be longer.


Bill Garthright said...

Wow! A 450-page book that you wanted to be longer? Now you've got me intrigued, Tony. :)

Thanks for the review. I'll put it on my list.

Anthony G Williams said...

It's true that I don't usually like long novels, but that's because IMO too many of them are padded, with the effect of slowing down the plot to no great benefit. In this case I never had that feeling, I was drawn in to the author's world and was enjoying the visit.