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Emerald House Rising
by Peg Kerr
It took me three trips to the bookstore to buy Emerald House Rising. I kept picking it up, looking at the dippy title and back-cover hyperbole, and putting it back on the shelf. (I'm shy of any book that claims to have an "irrepressible heroine," which usually translates into "obnoxious teenager." The heroine turns out to be fairly repressible after all, but I'm getting ahead of myself.) I'm glad I did finally take it home with me. Emerald House Rising is a very enjoyable lightweight story with rich background detail and engaging characters.
Jena is a gemcutter's daughter and an apprentice jeweler herself, but the Jeweler's Guild has refused to elevate her to journeyman because she's a woman. Her options begin to seem a bit less limited when the touch of a mysterious nobleman's ring reveals that she has the ability to learn magic. Unfortunately, magic is even less socially acceptable than female jewelers, particularly among the nobility. When Jena is suddenly transported by magic to an unfamiliar mountain keep and stranded in a house full of curious nobles, her newfound gift for lying turns out to be even more useful than her developing magical skills.
Emerald House Rising features several strong, complex women (and one weak complex woman), and even the minor female characters gave the impression that they'd be quite interesting if the plotline hadn't breezed right past them. In contrast, the men are a bit flat, and a few significant male characters are conveniently swept aside for much of the story.
Kerr does commit the first-novel fault of dropping large heavy chunks of exposition on the reader's tender head, and the plot occasionally relies a bit too heavily on coincidence. The characters also have a deeply irritating tendency to sermonize, even when they could be be doing more useful things like trying to zap the bad guy. The nice thing about a first novel is that I can attribute that sort of clumsiness to the author's lack of experience rather than a lack of talent; and Kerr does have talent.
It's the descriptions of gemcutting and jewelry design that distinguish this novel from the half-dozen other frothy fantasies that hit the shelves this month. The details of casting a gold buckle and shaping an uncut stone are fascinating. The magic system is annoyingly vague (enough so to fit the demands of the plot), but it's most interesting when Jena's developing magical awareness meshes with her skill at jewelry making.
A romance is central to the plot, but I wouldn't characterize Emerald House Rising as romantic fantasy; everyone's too busy with magic and politics to flutter eyelashes at one another. The depth of character and setting would have supported a more complex story, and I suspect Peg Kerr will be writing sequels. I look forward to them.
-- Christina Schulman.
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