Elizabeth Bear appeared on the scene in 2004 as if she were Athena, sprung fully formed from Zeus’s forehead to be a major player in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Her first project was the science fiction thriller Jenny Casey space opera series beginning with Hammered, but in short order books by Bear began appearing at least every six months. In 2005, she won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Author; in 2008 the Hugo for Best Short Story (“Tideline”); and in 2009 the Hugo for Best Novelette (“Shoggoths in Bloom”). I briefly met her at Readercon several years ago, and expressed my astonishment at her sudden, prolific appearance. She assured me that she had been laboring for many years in complete obscurity, and was clearly relishing that she did so no longer.
Now Bear has a new nomination, this time for the World Fantasy Award for Bone and Jewel Creatures. I discovered only after I finished reading it that Bone and Jewel Creatures was marketed as a story for young readers from nine to twelve years old. I was surprised; this novella strikes me as a very sophisticated, adult tale with plenty of allusions and implications that would go right over the heads of all but the most well-read of children. It does not seem childlike in any way.
Bone and Jewel Creatures is a sort of fairy tale, though; a story of magic and wizards and necromancers. The protagonist is Bijou, a very old woman crippled with arthritis, a wizard who creates creatures out of clean old bones and sparkling jewels. Her former apprentice is Brazen the Enchanter, a man who clearly loves her as a mother. He has been trying for a decade to get her to take a new apprentice, “someone youthful and broad-back who could pump the bellows and heave the ingots, who might tend the maggots and the corpse-beetles, who would haul the ashes and stir the porridge.” She has consistently refused. But one day he makes the choice for her, bringing her a feral child who bears a terrible wound on her hand, one that requires that her arm be amputated at the elbow. Bijou takes the child in, performs the necessary surgery, and forms for her a new arm made from her own bones and beautiful semi-precious stones. She names the child Emeraude.
Emeraude’s appearance augurs more than a new apprentice, however; her wound is not natural, but the work of Kaulas the Necromancer. Kaulas, Bijou and Brazen have a shared history, and not a happy one. Now Kaulas seems to be creating an army of undead creatures to serve some unknown purpose, to be infecting the living with putrefaction that kills them but keeps their flesh animated. Bijou and Brazen must act to stop him.
That makes this novella sound like a very straightforward tale. In some ways it is; but it is also more complex than a plot summary suggests. Part of the story, for instance, is told from the point of view of Emeraude. This child, raised by jackals, must figure out where she belongs in the world, and that is not an easy task. And then there are Bijou’s creatures, described with elegance and a wonder to behold in one’s own imagination. This story would be a beautiful graphic novel, but left to my own devices, I was able to build Bijou’s home and illustrate her work with a lot of detail thanks to Bear’s lovely writing.
Set aside an hour or two to spend with this book. It may be a trifle compared to Bear’s more challenging trilogies or novels, but it is a lovely trifle — a jewel.
In Bone and Jewel Creatures, a beautiful new novella by Elizabeth Bear, Bijou the Artificer creates her own servants and companions by animating bones. When her former apprentice, Brazen the Enchanter, brings her a feral, mute child, she is presented with the challenge of fixing its misshapen arm… which is also infected by a mysterious disease that soon turns out be the first sign of a sorcerous plague.
At just 136 pages, Bone and Jewel Creatures packs a strong punch. Bijou is a fascinating main character — an aging wizard surrounded by her own wondrous creatures, some of which, by themselves, make this book worth reading. The arrival of the feral child sets off a complex plot involving Bijou’s past, the political history of the land, an intriguing religion, and three distinct modes of magic. There’s quite a lot more material packed into this short novella than you’d initially expect — and as with all the best novellas, you’ll be satisfied with the ending while at the same time hoping for future stories set in the same world.
The story is told in gorgeous prose, frequently very lyrical and on a few occasions even surprisingly funny. The combination of the poetic style and the main character’s occupation at times made me think of Bijou as an older version of Casimira from Catherynne M. Valente‘s Palimpsest — and readers who enjoyed that excellent novel may well enjoy Bone and Jewel Creatures. Recommended.