This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 14 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Lin is a Jewel, one of the ruling class, and Sima is her lapidary, an adviser, servant and jeweler. The ruling class uses the power of gems to work magic, and Sima’s father has betrayed the king. The two girls wake tied and gagged in a pit in the throne room, and an invading army is fighting the king’s defenders. The king falls and the King’s Lapidary breaks his diamond, commits suicide. The girls try to escape but are captured by the invading army, led by female warrior Nal. She expects Lin to marry her young son Remir and demands the Star Cabochon which hasn’t yet been found. When the girls refuse to accede to her demands, she threatens to torture them to death. What can they do?

This story is about keeping vows, loyalty and self-sacrifice. It felt pretty intense right from the beginning, as it starts off with the battle already in progress and continues at about the same level of tension. There’s a prologue that indicates this an event from history, and that the castle now lies in ruins. This kind of commentary is also interspersed throughout the story, which I expect is used as a device to reduce exposition. It also provides a little relief from the stressful plot. Characterization, imagery, symbolism, etc., are all subordinate to the emotional component, so none of the characters are really well-rounded.

This is meant to have a strong emotional impact, but I must be getting jaded. Without a strong attachment to the characters, I found it didn’t affect me all that much. This might have worked better if the ending had been presented as a plot twist. As it’s written, we see the girl’s plans unfolding, so the ending isn’t really a surprise. Good writing, decent plot.

Three and a half stars.

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