Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear. ★★★★
This little novella is probably one of my favorite things Elizabeth Bear has ever written.
Bijou the Artificer is a wizard of Messaline, and she has remained such for over eighty years. Now, near the end of her life when she only wants to create her fantastical metal animals in peace, a former apprentice has brought her a feral child, poisoned by a sorcerous spell. It is the clear work of Kaulas the Necromancer, Bijou’s old enemy. He has plans afoot, and both Bijou and the unnamed child will find themselves being swept into them.
Bone and Jewel Creatures is set in the same world as several of Bear’s other fantasy stories. Most notably, this is the home of Range of Ghosts, the first book in her epic fantasy trilogy, and The Stone in the Skull, a new novel and the start of a swords and sorcery series. While it is a second world setting, it draws heavily on our own world, specifically Central Asia. The cultural analogs range from Nepal to Mongolia to India to Arabia. Messaline is a trading city, similar to our own Silk Road cities. However, you don’t really need to know this or need to have read any of her prior work to make sense of Bone and Jewel Creatures. But the world building is wonderous and gorgeously wrought!
Bijou rends down dead animals for their bones, then refashions the skeletons into fantastical animals, embedded with jewels. She brings these creations to life with her magic, and they serve as friends and companions. Hence, the title. Still, there’s a large difference between Bijou’s bone and jewel creatures and the still-living child she’s given to raise. The interactions between the two are one of my favorite parts.
The child in question is mute and doesn’t consider herself human. She was raised by the jackals that haunt the city’s shadows, and those jackals are her family. Yet, she has capabilities that surpass them, as she is beginning to realize. I love how Elizabeth Bear always creates such vibrant female characters, and she again achieves this in Bone and Jewel Creatures. How often have you read about a girl raised by jackals and a ninety-something-year-old female wizard?
So what makes Bone and Jewel Creatures stand out from Bear’s other work? Why is it one of my favorite? Simply put, I think it’s stronger in plot than many of her other stories, even if it is shorter. The other stories in this world I’ve read are always beautifully imagined and full of interesting characters, but the plots tend to feel fairly standard. Bone and Jewel Creatures might have had a necromancer for a villain (not an unusual choice), but it never felt stale, boring, or trope ladened.
I loved Bone and Jewel Creatures, and I’d love more about these characters! It’s a truly gorgeous novella with a bit of a fairytale feel. I recommend it to anyone looking for an enchanting story.