Review of Emerald House Rising by Peg Kerr


of Peg Kerr’s Emerald House Rising,

by David Lenander.

originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Mythprint.

used by permission

The blurb on the front cover is from “Lois McMaster Bujold, author of The Spirit Ring.” An appropriate invocation, this book reminds me very much of Spirit Ring. Turns out, both Kerr and Bujold drew upon The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini in researching their novels, but both books were completed before either writer read the other’s, and before the two writers met up in the same writers’ group. The Spirit Ring seems a more finished book to me than Emerald House Rising, which shows signs of being a first novel, but Emerald House Rising has a more interesting ending. (Many elements shared between the books are also common to other fantasies, from Phyllis Eisenstein’s Sorcerer’s Son books to some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, Katherine Kurtz’s, Patricia C. Wrede‘s or many others). As a reviewer, I’m not a totally disinterested party, as I’ve known Peg for some time, and she has been an occasional participant in the local Mythopoeic Society discussion group, Rivendell. In fact, Rivendellers have been awaiting this book for several years, having heard a couple of early chapters at December “Readings” meetings in the early 90s.

O.K., so why should you read this book and not some other novel, perhaps another of the books to which I’ve already alluded? Well, if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings, I’d recommend that you read that first. But if you’re in the market for a pleasant ringing of those changes that echo through all of these similar fantasy novels, I think you might enjoy this one. Christina M. Schulman’s website review described this book as “almost” one of those romance novels with fantasy setting that are becoming a sub-genre. Almost, except that the single-minded devotion of Jenna, the protagonist, to her trade of gem-cutting and jewelry-making provides an unusual focus in the book, and along with excellent characterization, keeps the book from following the romance novel formula. I thought Schulman was perceptive, even though I don’t quite agree that the book nearly follows the romance novel formula, any more than certain novels by Jane Austin or some other fantasy novels do. Instead it confounds, rather than follows, the conventions of the Gothic novel in an interesting series of unexpected turns.

So what’s the plot? Young apprentice jewel-cutter, living in a sort of Renaissance Italianate alternate universe, who is prevented from advancing to journeyman by a guild prejudice against women members, discovers that she has the potential to be a wizard/magic worker as well as a gem cutter. She gets pulled into the political struggles between the half-dozen or so great houses who intrigue to control the high kingship of the Adamantine Throne, and along the way she must struggle to come of age while coming to terms with being a dutiful daughter, engaged to a young man that she really doesn’t know as well as she thinks, and a confusing relationship with a nobly-born heir to one of the great houses. There IS an evil sorcerer, mostly scheming in the background, but on the whole, this is a very pleasant read, a little comparable to the sort of book done by Caroline Stevermer in College of Magics, where the expectation that this will all work out somehow is never really in doubt. What is in doubt is whether the author will manage these much more character-driven conflicts believably and originally, and I was gratified to conclude that she does.

One might argue that Kerr cheats a bit, pushing the would-be suitor/future husband off on a separate quest out of the story, while our heroine can dally with that dark, mysterious nobleman, and learn all sorts of lessons from various older, helpful mentors. But, amazingly, though Jenna avoids the stupid, tragic endings so common to many Bradley characters, and seems to ultimately succeed in everything she tries, no character is perfect, even those wise mentors all prove to be at least partly mistaken. Jenna’s learning is laid out logically and convincingly, not to mention sometimes amusingly. At the end of the book, with most of the plot details pretty much tied up, what interested me most was the re-meeting of Jenna and her intended husband, Bram. Suddenly, two people who thought they had their future planned out realize that they are no longer the people they thought they would be, but they’re still interested, anyway, in exploring what kind of a future they might share together. It’s as if Kerr deliberately unties the conventional loveknot that should finish a gothic romance novel and half-ties the ends to other strands. I don’t know where that might take them, or Peg Kerr, in a seqel, but I find that I’m more interested in following that storyline than any developments that might occur in alternate world politics, wizardry or even gem-cutting. Yet, the interest will be partly in how a relationship will develop in the balancing of all those other factors surrounding it, not least Jenna’s continuing “partnership” with another man.

I don’t expect this novel to be a candidate for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, but based upon a couple of chapters heard at more recent “Readings from Rivendell,” Peg’s next book, the more ambitious The Wild Swans (forthcoming from Warner Aspect), just might be a contender for ’98. Keep an eye out for it. Incidentally, I’ve recently put up a web-page, linked to my “other mythopoeic fantasy writers” page about Peg’s work.