Bone and Jewel Creatures

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 1-59606-274-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 131

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Bone and Jewel Creatures is another of Subterranean's high-quality hardcover printings of novellas. This one, unlike Bear's previous Subterranean Press publications, is not part of Bear's series of vampire stories about Abigail Irene. It's set in a separate fantasy universe from anything else I've read by her, one that's very well-captured by the excellent cover art (by Maurizio Manzieri).

Bijou is an aging Wizard of Messaline, a large city full of magic and jackals that struck me as Middle Eastern or perhaps North African. She is an artificer: she makes creatures, of bone and jewels, and imbues them with life, something intermediate between animals and human intelligence. She is an old but strong woman, crippled with arthritis but still able to do fine work, and preferring her life alone with her creations despite her former apprentice's attempts to draw her into a more active teaching role. But then that former apprentice brings her a feral child with a maggot-infested wound, and she finds herself slowly drawn both to a companion and into a conflict with a necromancer.

As with any hardcover novella, one of the first questions is whether a slender story is worth the price tag. Short fiction is not my favorite length, so with previous Subterranean Press novellas, I've bought them mostly because I like the feel and look of a well-made hardcover book and because it's a good way to support an author I'm particularly fond of. They also appeal to my completionist streak. But I think the average SF reader will probably get more value for their entertainment dollar by buying regular novels instead.

Bone and Jewel Creatures is an exception, the sort of exception that makes me glad to have bought other hardcover novellas to support that publishing model and make it possible. This is an exceptionally well-crafted story, a beautiful bit of world-building and characterization, that's exactly the right length at 131 pages. It tells a complete story with a full emotional arc and multiple viewpoint characters, but it still has that focused intensity of a good short story. It was worth more than many novels I've read.

The world-building here is very good, but even better is the characterization of the two viewpoint characters. The first is of Bijou, who is one of the most believable portraits of an aging artisan I've ever read. She's set in her ways, frustrated at the failings of her body, and taciturn, but also wise in how to interact with others and able to be decisive. Bear shows in her relationship with her creations all the time-worn rhythms and silent comfort of a working relationship that's based on deep mutual trust and respect, and which has been exercised so much that it can be relied on without requiring analysis.

That gruff confidence also makes Bijou an unusual but very effective mother protector figure, which brings me to the second exceptional character: the feral child. I have a soft spot in my heart for this type of character, but I think everyone will love Bear's portrayal here. She lives on the cusp between animal and human and has a practical animal-like efficiency of purpose that mixes with human curiosity and intelligence in a way that I found very appealing and entirely engrossing. Some of the best parts of this book are told from the child's perspective, and the contrast between her perception of the world and that of the adult characters is always delightful.

This is one of the few hardcover novellas that I think is worth the price even for readers who aren't already fans of Elizabeth Bear or completionists like myself. If Subterranean releases an ebook version, it's an easy decision. It's an excellent fantasy with fascinating world-building that offers more enjoyment than most full-length novels. I think it's some of the best solo work that Bear has done, and I'm particularly delighted to hear that this world will be the setting for an upcoming novel series from Tor (starting with Range of Ghosts). Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-12-20

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