A Rumor of Gems

by Ellen Steiber

Published by Tor

464 pages, 2005

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Thin Borders

Reviewed by Andi Shechter


A remarkably detailed book, A Rumor of Gems succeeds in a number of ways. The world that author Ellen Steiber creates is plausible. She mixes real world places and things with fantasy elements. That's never easy, and not always successful, but it works in this story. The writing is often lyrical and the setting rich and varied -- all pretty darn skillful.

The world here is one where there are clubs and bands and drugs as well as old-style market places. There are telephones, but there don't seem to be cars and computers. There are hospitals with modern equipment, but the people live among gods, and there are some thin borders between the here and now and the past.

As I find myself saying all too often, this book seemed too long. I would have liked to have seen at least 50 pages less and I believe I know where the author could have done so without hurting the narrative. There were elements of a quest in this story and some of those journeys just take too darn long. While there are things to be learned on the trail, I got tired of dragging along with Alasdair for pages and I even found Lucinda's adventures trying to make it over the mountains -- albeit with some interesting help -- to take too long. And I'm sorry, but I admit to having had occasional images of the noble von Trapp family climbing the Alps. It's not that the book is cloying -- it avoids most of that in places where it might occur, but enough with the snow and the hills and the altitude already.

Alasdair's adventures were worse and I have to say, without giving anything away, that one entire element of this story there did not work for me. It felt as if late in the writing process, author or editor said "Hey, you need to add this element." Which, for me, just made a long book longer. In part, I just don't care for a lot of adventure. On the other hand, what I did find of interest was plentiful and well done, so let's talk more about that.

The personalities are well-drawn and believable, with the exception of Lucinda, who just once in a while struck a false note with me. Lucinda is intended to be a reformed druggie who has slept around a lot and now guards her heart and her feelings because she's been hurt. But she was truly oblivious at times. For a smart woman, she was convincing, but just every so often, she was as thick as a plank.

There was one character I felt got short shrift. He was critical to the early story and then just disappeared. His story was woven into that of several characters, and it should have played out a bit better. On the other hand, I truly appreciate what the author did with Lucinda's friend Tyrone. He was important to the story and the author stayed with him through the end. It was gratifying to know how his part played out in this tale.

Regardless of whether you buy into the mythology of A Rumor of Gems, the weaving of the properties of gems and stones was very artfully done. The connections that Alasdair and others had to the stones, whether moonstones or amber, diamond or turquoise, worked, and that is praiseworthy. The exposition was smooth and the passages were helpful to the reader without piling on heavy handed expository lumps.

As the title suggests, stone is important in this book. In fact, part of the dynamic between person and stone was, for me, the best part of the entire book. I loved a small jade dragon who, while he never utters a sound, is critical to the story. He is occasionally just a little stone piece, but he comes to life and is always a welcome sight. He's determined, funny in his own silent way and brought a spark to the entire tale. I hope to see him again, as funny as that sounds.

Overall, a lovely and well-executed story. I look forward to traveling in this author's worlds again. | October 2005


Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.