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A Rumor of Gems
Ellen Steiber
Tor, 464 pages

A Rumor of Gems
Ellen Steiber
Ellen Steiber was raised in Newark and West Orange, New Jersey; attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; then moved to New York City where she worked for a Japanese trading company before entering the publishing industry. For many years she worked as an editor in the children's book field. She lived in New York City throughout the 80s and in 1991 she moved to the American Southwest. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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A review by Donna McMahon

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Lucinda, has always lived in the cosmopolitan port city of Arcato. A strikingly beautiful woman, she works as a model for the exclusive clothing designer, Tyrone, a flamboyant tyrant who is also her only friend. Angry and fiercely defended, Lucinda uses and discards men before they can hurt her.

Although she keeps to herself, Lucinda has heard rumours of odd happenings in Arcato. Gems are appearing throughout the city: "...a girl in the park spilling out a sack of marbles and watching spheres of aquamarine and moonstone roll out in their stead; a punk pulling a knife on a onetime friend only to find he held a small obelisk quartz crystal in which the image of an even smaller tiger roamed."

Those charming, quirky miracles are occurring amid other, darker supernatural events. As an atmosphere of fear grows in the weeks before Carnival, impromptu shrines to the gods spring up everywhere.

Lucinda ignores all this superstition until a beautiful red-haired man lures her into his bed and she discovers that she has been enspelled by the Hindu god of love, Kama, and that her lover is a fox -- a trickster who can take human form. And it seems the only one who might be able to help her is a mysterious, infuriating stranger, Alisdair, whose perspicacity and compassion bother her more than she cares to acknowledge.

The first thing that's striking about A Rumor of Gems is its atmospheric setting. The imaginary city of Arcato feels like a Mediterranean port, gently idealized and brushed with magical realism. Lucinda lives in modern times, furnished with cappuccino, hospitals, taxi cabs and women's equality, but notably lacking in freeways, advertising, smog and cell phones. Arcato is a patchwork of colourful districts, each specializing in restaurants, art galleries, bookbinders, lacemakers or graphic artists. And elements of the fantastic lurk just beneath the surface, like the footbridge Lucinda finds which leads her into the 1880s.

In this world, the gods are real, and they interfere unpredictably and arbitrarily in mortals' lives. Ellen Steiber has selected her pantheon from various mythologies. For instance, Tyrone arrogantly dresses as the Aztec lightning god, Ilyap'a at Carnival, and pays for his presumption. Alidair is upbraided by the Roman god Janus, and Lucinda is rescued by Hermes (Greek god of travellers).

Steiber also creates strong, believable characters -- most notably Lucinda and Tyrone. Only the novel's pacing leaves something to be desired. The plot is slow getting off the ground, and although we eventually learn that all the complex events are linked, the explanations that tie them together are slow coming. The novel also loses steam around the half-way point during Lucinda's trip to the lost towns -- a rather unconvincing journey that drags on far too long.

A plot thread involving Michael, a neglected eleven-year-old street kid who has become a murderer, is also less than successful. This character and his problems never felt convincing and were extraneous to the rest of the story.

A Rumor of Gems is very obviously a romance. It has a beautiful woman meeting handsome, mysterious men in an exotic setting, and it's clear from the outset that Lucinda must overcome her own emotional wounds in order to find trust and love. Still, there is so much more going on in this novel that most SF/F readers should enjoy it, regardless of whether they like romance. This would also be a great introduction to Fantasy for a mainstream reader.

Copyright © 2006 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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