“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.

“The Jewel:” A YA Revelry In Horror and Splendor

The elite wield power over young surrogates in the Lone City of Amy Ewing’s The Jewel. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used under this post.

Dystopia and luxury combine in the most astute and inventive of ways in The Jewel, a 2014 YA sci-fi with comparison titles the likes of The Selection and The Handmaid’s Tale.

As incompatible as pretty dresses, court tension, and clinical horror may seem, The Jewel gives us reason to believe that these things go hand-in-hand in a society built on exploitation, where an insular inner circle results in birth defects and fertility problems, and thousands of poor women’s reproductive organs are readily available for leasing.

Amy Ewing’s work on The Jewel, her debut, was frequently derided at release for being unoriginal, but when half of YA’s tastes lie in subdued intrigue and people in fancy clothes concealing their feelings for one another, and the other half has a morbid curiosity for violence, squalor, and the sickening potential of the powerful left unchecked, combining the two, like Lauren DeStefano did in 2011 with Wither (another marvelous book), is actually kind of brilliant.

The Jewel follows Violet, a surrogate-in-training, as she leaves the holding facility she’s been kept in since she was twelve to go into service as a child bearer for a wealthy family––who can’t do it themselves because generations of inbreeding have rendered them sterile––and, to be perfectly honest, enjoy parading surrogates as symbols of their wealth, often literally on a leash.

Most of Violet’s life from this point on has been concealed from her: she doesn’t know how the system that created her operates, she doesn’t know what will happen to her after she’s fulfilled her purpose, and she doesn’t know why she’s been shut out from her family since the moment a doctor diagnosed her capacity to be a surrogate. She’s just been taught to live with this uncertainty. As a gear in a machine that never stops churning, it isn’t her function to know the work of the other ones. She just has to keep moving and hope no one in power singles her out.

Of all the genuine human experiences Ewing connects with in her book (and the reach is far broader than the love story this 2014 YA release is bound to include) the one she captures best is being someone in power’s means to an end. The most complex relationship in this book is the one between Violet and her more-or-less owner, the Duchess of the Lake, as Violet grapples with the position of being at her complete mercy, and struggles to retain a sense of self as her agency is stripped away. Sometimes this happens in obvious ways like the smack of terror that accompanies the first appearance of a human leash, and sometimes in quieter ones, like the way carrying the Duchess’ baby and her body’s slow unbecoming inch closer with every invasive doctor’s visit.

The thing is, the Duchess would insist, cross-her-heart style, that she’s one of the better ones, but Ewing never neglects the crucial component that makes every conversation with a landlord so uncomfortable and every “I’m your boss but also your friend” sentiment so hollow. The Jewel understands, in a modern, disconnected sense, what it means to be someone else’s product.

Not that the Duchess is having such a high time herself: Ewing’s depictions of the people in power can be just as interesting and multifaceted as her portrait of her protagonist in servitude, only enriched (pun intended) by a bitter spike of depravity. In the Duchess, we see a woman who quickly learned how brutal the rest of the ruling class would be if she weren’t brutal in their place. She also secretly has it out for anyone, like Violet, lucky enough to be ignorant of the depths of the ruling class’ malice.

But the most interesting depiction in this stripe is that of the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian, who has to sit and hold her tongue as her aunt publicly languishes over the deep, deep embarrassment of having a relation who hails from slightly less well-endowed circumstances. The way Ewing uses Carnelian (and to a different extent, the Duchess’ own son, Garnet) allows us a unique window into the calcifying process as it happens. Every time Carnelian’s youthful sentimental nature is rebuked, you can see a cruel, spiteful rich woman shaping up in her future. It’s in these characters’ dimensions that we can see how power propagates itself through its heirs: by destroying them.

The most vivid passages in the book, though, are all concerning the auguries, special powers related to manipulating matter that allow the surrogates to produce healthy offspring with the royalty’s DNA that the royalty can’t. The auguries, interestingly, don’t outstrip the clinical elements of the story, or come off as out-of-place. As a system of magic, Ewing’s creation is startlingly brutal and gives us a way to conceptualize the violence of reproductive exploitation when the politics of the book can sometimes obscure it from view.

The Jewel relies on a very specific kind of repulsion to get its point across: very little physical abuse crosses its pages, but these barely post-pubescent girls are being pushed to the limit in some right, and the way Ewing describes the dull ache that spreads with the use of the auguries, as well as what it feels like to have life literally sucked out with every use, brings to visceral detail the horrors of gestation that loom large in the fears of a sizable number of teen girls, but are only rarely, in YA, spoken into view.

The Jewel, in tradition with other books like it, ends with whispers of rebellion, but, with such keen nightmares as Ewing describes––how could it not?