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The Jewel

The Jewel (The Lone City, #1)The Jewel by Amy Ewing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The cover of The Jewel is off-white, with gold-embossed title text and curlicues, and a girl in a purple ball gown. It has everything I would usually run a mile from. Except that the cover also includes this tagline: “Today is my last day as Violet Lasting. Tomorrow I become Lot 187”. “Lots” are usually associated with selling things. At auction. How does a girl become an item for sale overnight? And, right there – I’m intrigued.
Violet is a surrogate. Assessed at age 12, she is taken to Southgate Holding Facility to learn how to control her natural augery abilities, and to be groomed for a life as a surrogate in the Jewel. The Jewel is the highest point in The Lone City – both in elevation and in status – and is surrounded by the lower circles of society: the Bank, the Smoke, the Farm and the Marsh. Surrogates are taken only from the Marsh, the poorest circle, which provides labourers for the other, richer circles. The Farm is the food-production circle, the Smoke has all the manufacturing, the Bank has all the commerce, and the Jewel houses the aristocracy.
Living at Southgate as a surrogate has benefits. “We get to dress how we want, eat what we want, sleep late on the weekends. We get an education. A good education. We get fresh food and water, we always have electricity, and we never have to work. We never have to know poverty – and the caretakers tell us we will have more once we start living in the Jewel”. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? “Except freedom. They never seem to mention that.”
In reality, Violet and her fellow surrogates are prisoners. Despite all the perks of being a surrogate, she hasn’t seen her family since being taken to Southgate by the Regimentals, hasn’t even been out of the grounds of Southgate, and is compelled to increase her skills as an auger, for what reason she doesn’t know. “When you start learning the Augeries, they’re hard to control, and the pain is always worse when you’re not expecting it. The first time I coughed up blood, I thought I was dying. But it stops after a year or so. Now I only have the occasional nosebleed.” Violet and her friend, Raven, are accepting of their life as surrogates, and understand the privilege that has been bestowed upon them, but they are also aware that they have absolutely no say in their current lives or their future.
We meet Violet and Raven on the day before their Reckoning Day, when they are allowed to return home for the first time in four years…and the last visit before they are sold off to the highest bidder at the Auction. At 16, Violet is sold to the Duchess of the Lake (the ladies of the Jewel are unable to have children because they are so inbred) and Raven is sold to the Countess of the Stone. The girls’ lives take an unexpected, and not at all happy, turn.
This novel has much to say about the commodification and position of women and girls in the society of The Lone City. Surrogates are highly valued as commodities, but have no value as people. The ladies of the Jewel are worth squillions but are ambitious, nasty pieces of work, hell-bent on clawing their way to the top. The men in this story are either absent, eunuchs or powerless. Society is organised but unequal. And it seems as if it’s going to stay that way for a long, long time. It’s the way it’s always been.
Violet and the other surrogates are innocents, thrust into a world they know nothing about, into a social dynamic that is set against them from the outset. Amy Ewing explores many ideas in this novel. On one level it’s a political thriller, exploring the machinations of a royal court. The Exetor and Electress wield supreme power over The Lone City. The hierarchy and alliances of the Jewel control the ladies of the Royal circle, who in turn hold power over their families, servants and surrogates. Power and powerlessness are currency in the Jewel, and it is a matter of life or death to find a path to survival for everyone, regardless of their status. Even love is controlled and the similarity between the privileged and the poor is that no one gets to choose – even though, of course, someone is always going to break those rules. But they are layers, upon layers, upon layers to discover here.
Despite the ‘girlie’ cover, this is a great read. I was captivated by the tagline, and became more and more involved in the lives of the characters as the story developed, especially Violet and Raven. It’s easy to dismiss the aristocrats as merely cruel, rich brutes, but as the story unfolds our sympathies transform and move as we find out more and more about the individuals and the pressures that are being brought to bear upon them. The first in a trilogy, this is a perfect setup novel – we’ve met the players, and in the next installment I fully expect to crying and gasping in equal measure. Ewing is exploring an interesting idea – to whom does one’s body belong, and at what point is power given or taken away – and I can’t wait to see how she resolves the dilemma that Violet and her fellow surrogates find themselves in.

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