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?