Tag Archives: Fran Wilde

Book Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

I adored Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, so I was thrilled when I learned she had written one of Tor.com’s novellas. The Jewel and Her Lapidary was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of 2016, so imagine my surprise and dismay when I turned out to just not care for it very much.

Where Wilde excels, of course, is with world building, which was proven amply in Updraft and confirmed here. I loved the idea of the Jewels and Lapidaries in this novella, and I found the magic system Wilde describes interesting enough. And I liked the framing of the story as piece of folk history. Unfortunately, for all the fine world building on display, there’s just not a whole lot else going on here. I knew going in that this novella was somewhat on the shorter side, but there’s barely even a short story worth of actual story buried under all this world building, and it’s not that interesting of a story.

Instead of a proper novella, this feels like background work for a novel, which would be a much better use for such a complicated premise and would have given the characters, in particular, much more room to breathe. It’s hard to really get a sense of Lin and Sima and their relationship with such limited exposure to them, and most of what we learn about their friendship feels like an awful lot of telling rather than showing. For that matter, it’s unclear whether we should even consider their relationship a friendship or not, as the bond between Jewel and Lapidary is kind of weirdly symbiotic, not entirely consensual (they are assigned to each other in infancy), and has the Lapidary in a decidedly subordinate position. The thing is, none of the implications of this—which are all genuinely fascinating—are examined in the text, and instead Lin and Sima’s relationship is portrayed as somewhat simplistically sister-like.

Worst of all, the story, such as it is, ends so abruptly that it feels unfinished and was certainly unsatisfying. While I don’t require a happy ending, the melancholy of this one was an unpleasant surprise; the vague cover art and the book description suggested something that was going to be much lighter in tone than what I got. Sure, one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one is misleading at first glance, and being an ebook reader I only really looked at the cover the one time. Things get fairly dark very quickly in this little book, and then they just end bittersweetly—with a distinct emphasis on the bitter part. Which would be fine if this story was part of some longer work to give it some context, but the framing device (much as I do like it) of it as folklore just isn’t quite enough to keep it from being rather unrelentingly and yet meaninglessly sad.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary isn’t the worst thing I’ve read this year, but it wasn’t great. There are the bones of a potentially great fantasy world here, but they’re wasted without a compelling story to bring them to life. I’m bummed by how little I liked this much-looked-forward-to book, but do I have to say that I’m definitely here for it if Wilde decides to revisit this universe in a longer format. In the meantime, I can always reread Updraft, and I’ve got Cloudbound to look forward to next month.

Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde

Updraft is an exciting, inventive debut novel with a delightful protagonist and a unique and totally unexpected setting. I often think that authors have to pick and choose where they want to do things that are new and fresh and different, and Fran Wilde has chosen really well here by writing a relatively pedestrian story in a fascinating new fantasy world.

Kirit has never wanted to do anything other than become her mother’s apprentice and learn to be a trader between the tower communities that make up the world of Updraft, but her plans are derailed just days before she’s supposed to take her flight test so she can travel freely around the cities. The plot of Updraft is a simple one, really, a fairly classic coming-of-age-with-complications story as Kirit finds herself forced into a role she never wanted and starts uncovering secrets that make her question everything she thinks she knows.

­You can tell when reading Updraft that Wilde has really thought about every aspect of this world, and probably her greatest achievement is in the society she’s invented for the people who inhabit her bone tower cities. The largely oral traditions are well-thought-out in a world where lack of trees and paper would make for minimal written communication, and this is also, to a large degree, where the major ideas and themes of the novel come from. In a world without written records, who controls information, who has the power, and how does that affect a civilization?

Also, there are huge monsters called skymouths that sound something like enormous aerial squids and something like flying gulper eels. And it’s never exactly spelled out, but the bones these people are living on might be growing out of the back of something even bigger.

While I’ve read reviews that class Kirit as an “unlikable” heroine, I adored her. It’s refreshing to read about a girl character who isn’t anxious from the beginning to sacrifice herself for some greater cause, and I love that Kirit has a bit of a stubborn, selfish streak. Kirit doesn’t want any part of being some kind of chosen one, and she only participates in “destiny” under duress and with no romantic notions about it. Kirit is a tough girl from the start, and Updraft is the story of how she grows into a strong woman with a well-developed sense of civic responsibility.

Also a nice change from many other books about young heroines, Kirit isn’t neatly paired off with a man at the end of the novel. Instead, she’s made over her society and stands ready to be a significant part of a future that is very different from their history up to this point.

So far, it looks as if Updraft is planned as a standalone novel, but I rather hope that Fran Wilde returns to this world and these characters. For all that this is a book that deals mostly with the uncovering of secrets, I still feel as if there’s a lot more to be explored. I, for one, would still like to know what exactly the bone towers are the bones of.