A Rumor of Gems is an unusual, uneven but ultimately rewarding quasi-urban fantasy. Tucson native Ellen Steiber — whose previous works have been children's books and media tie-ins — exhibits a gift for character development few of her peers in modern fantasy share, and her strong, sympathetic characters help to ground a story that is often vague and meandering. Her worldcraft is also impressive, though perhaps not quite up to that of, say, Miéville (though whose is?). Still, she makes her setting, the fictitious somewhere-in-Europe port metropolis of Arcato, exceptionally vivid, and almost a character in its own right, as Miéville does with New Crobuzon. The unconventional setting, richly drawn cast, and novel approach to magic help this book rise above the pack in a genre that too often inspires feelings of been-there-done-that.
One protagonist is Lucinda de Francesco, a young woman with serious maternal-resentment issues, which have left her with fragile self-esteem that she tries to bury through casual sex. This already sounds clichéd, but in Steiber's hands, Lucinda rings true, her angst just understated enough to come across sincere rather than packaged. She's a little hard to like much of the time, but she does change and grow throughout the book in a way that will have readers rooting for her. We also meet Alasdair, a mage from the "lost towns" beyond the mountains (an area he calls the Source Place), who can work with the magic of gemstones, and has such an affinity for them that they literally materialize on his person and fall from his clothes while he walks. Alasdair has fled the Source Place to escape a private tragedy, but finds little succor in Arcato, where his presense in fact seems to be exacerbating latent tensions.
Arcato is set in a fantasized variant of our world, corresponding roughly to the modern day. Steiber smartly never gives us the city's exact location, but we glean enough to infer that it's somewhere near the Mediterranean. In this alternate Earth, every god of every religion not only exists, but many openly walk the streets of Arcato and its environs like regular folk. Lucinda was born "out of favor," meaning she has no patron god or goddess protecting her. To this, like so much else that's gone wrong in her life, Lucinda seems resigned.
For its entire first half, A Rumor of Gems is almost entirely character driven. Which is fine, because Steiber does such a good job making her cast flesh and blood. Numerous story threads are introduced, none of which Steiber seems in too great a hurry to tie together. Lucinda encounters an enigmatic seducer calling himself Sebastian, who plies her with gifts of gemstones that exert power over her, and who even lures her into the presense of the god Eros (amusingly depicted as a garrulous traveling rug merchant) to enhance his hold over her. Then it unfolds that Sebastian is a shape-shifting trickster, whose animal form is a fox, and further, that he hails from the same Source Place as Alasdair. And Sebastian and Alasdair have a history.
What does Sebastian — who Alasdair knows as Malachy — want in Arcato, apart from seducing Lucinda, that is? And why has he decided to help 12-year-old street urchin Michael de Fortunato, who has killed one boy and nearly killed Lucinda's employer, flamboyant fashion designer Tyrone (another wonderfully developed supporting player, and the only person with whom Lucinda has forged a true friendship)? Futhermore, why has the god Janus helped Michael, and why is there a mysterious ruined plaza deep in the heart of the city where the power of the stones has been all but destroyed by some unnameable past tragedy? And what is the nature of the unseen force that appears to be pursuing Alasdair?
Steiber introduces so many of these mysteries as her plot slowly unfolds that, to be honest, the book starts to feel like it's flailing after a while. There isn't much of a sense of urgency or dramatic tension conveyed, at least not until the final chapters. A few important ideas, I'm sorry to say, end up either unresolved or curiously lacking in closure, the most surprising of which is the character of young Michael: he literally disappears from the book after his role is played, when you are given the impression all throughout the novel's first half that he's going to be one of its major characters. He ends up having no role in the plot's ultimate outcome. It's as if Steiber just forgot about him.
As the book moves into its second half, its length (about 460 pages in hardcover) becomes an issue. One key scene in which Lucinda travels to the Source Place to seek help for the dying Tyrone turns out to be the dullest part of the book, laden with interminable exposition. There are points where patience wears thin, and you just want to plead with the book to get on with it.
And yet — wow, that cast. I don't wish to overstate things, but it seems that I read so many fantasy novels where worldcraft or adherence to formula has taken such precedence in the author's mind that their characters are rarely more than stock players. Lucinda and Alasdair are memorable and human enough that they often carry the whole book through its weakest moments. I also admired the attention Steiber paid to constructing the rules of magic in her world. Tying everything to gems is an original touch, and the amount of research Steiber has put into the subject of gems and geology (this is the first fantasy novel I can think of offhand with a bibliography) gives the concept authenticity.
Lucinda's personal journey of growth and healing — which, in the final analysis, really turns out to be what the book is about more than anything — is heartfelt and emotionally truthful, particularly in a tragic but moving climax that packs an emotional wallop. It's unusual these days to see a stand-alone fantasy novel (at least, I don't think A Rumor of Gems leaves much open for a sequel) that is so strongly focused upon its heroes' inward journeys as much as their outward ones. Whatever the failings of its overly complex plot, the humanity at the heart of Ellen Steiber's novel will be what makes it a gem for most readers.
A Rumor of Gems may be a rough diamond. But a diamond is a diamond is a diamond, after all. (Sadly, the book must not have performed very well for Tor. There has been no paperback, and Steiber's next novel is still M.I.A.)