Peg Kerr, Emerald House Rising (Warner, 1997)

There are first novels that make you wonder exactly what hold the author had on the publisher to get the book published, and you hope that the author (or publisher) comes to his or her senses. There are first novels that are so brilliant that you wonder how the author could ever write another as good -- and he or she never publishes again. Then there are first novels which may have weaknesses or flaws hard to forgive in a more seasoned novelist, but which otherwise capture your attention and excite you with promise. Emerald House Rising is one of these. Already an experienced short story writer, Kerr handles a complex novel with skill, freshness and originality.

Jena, daughter of Collas Gemcutter, has her life planned out for her. Apprenticed to her father, she expects to become a journeyman, then a master gemcutter, marry Bram Tailor and spend her days following the Diadem Court from summer city to winter city. The seven lords and ladies of the Court take on the names of gemstones, with the Diamond being the head of the Court, but beyond that, Jena knows little about Court intrigues and politics. But it isn't long before her plans begin to unravel.

A mysterious young lord visits Jena and her father, asking Collas to cut an equally mysterious stone. The young lord also wears a ring which only Jena can see. The strange stones transport Jena the young lord's family home far to the north, where Jena finds new friends and allies who help her learn to use the newly found magic that has suddenly awakened in her. She finds herself drawn into Court plots and schemes even as she is trying to control and conceal her own magic. For while the existence of magic is recognized and acknowledged, at the same time it is not held in high regard, and there are those who oppose it entirely. Jena's need to conceal her magic -- and learning when to reveal it -- adds to the suspense.

The plot moves rapidly, and Kerr's concepts of magic and the structure of the Court are original and carefully thought out. She leaves few holes, if any, in the narrative. Some of her explanations and descriptions cause the plot to lag occasionally, and at times, the dialogue is a bit too expository. These flaws never interfere enough to derail the reader, however, and time and experience should remedy them. Best of all, Kerr has a sense of humor, and she isn't afraid to use it. There are some very startling and funny sections in the book, but the humor is never so broad that it detracts from the story.

Kerr's characters are lively and memorable. Jena is a refreshing feisty heroine who makes mistakes but learns quickly. Many of the other women are strong and clever, and the one who isn't finds her own strength in a convincing development. Kerr also creates villains who are rounded and complex rather than caricatures, something some writers with much experience still fail to do.

The novel is packed with details, including lots of information about gen cutting and related crafts, with a particularly striking explanation of how one makes a brilliant cut: Jena remembers her father demonstrating the cut on a raw potato. The details sometimes weigh down the narrative, but for the most part, the information is thought provoking.

It is always exciting to find a new author whose fine first novel leaves you with a promise of more and even better things to come.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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