Stephanie Saulter – Gemsigns

stephaniesaultergemsignsSurviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic.

After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone is happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

Eli Walker is the scientist charged with deciding whether gems are truly human, and as extremists on both sides raise the stakes, the conflict descends into violence. He’s running out of time, and with advanced prototypes on the loose, not everyone is who or what they seem. Torn between the intrigues of ruthless executive Zavcka Klist and brilliant, badly deformed gem leader Aryel Morningstar, Eli finds himself searching for a truth that might stop a war.

When I first read the description for Gemsigns in the spring catalogue for Jo Fletcher Books I was immediately intrigued. It sounded quite interesting and post-apocalyptic and more focused on humanity’s development than on hard technical developments. What I hadn’t expected when I started the novel, was how much I would enjoy it. I loved the concept of the gems and the norms and the emancipation of the gems poses one of the most elemental philosophical questions: what makes us human? While the question is formulated a little differently – or rather Eli Walker’s research assignment is to discover what makes us normal – in essence the question isn’t normalcy, but humanity.   

Gemsigns has an interesting narrative structure. It starts off with a third party narrator, who seemingly stands outside the narrative – we never learn their identity – and who introduces some of the main characters of the book. Then we have an omniscient narration but from shifting viewpoints with several main characters – Eli, Aryel, Gaela, Bal, John, and Gabriel – and some incidental viewpoints, such as Klist, George the reporter, and Mikal, to name a few. I haven’t encountered this type of narration often, usually third person is limited and first person is by definition limited, unless your narrator is a telepath, but I haven’t encountered that yet. It works beautifully, though, and the story flows very smoothly and well-paced. Scattered through the book are some articles and academic papers that provide background information to what has gone before and the origin of the gems. These are clever info dumps, but due to their nature not annoyingly so, as academic papers are by definition information-dense to the nth-degree.

I loved Eli; He is troubled by his assignment, not because he has trouble what to think, but because he desperately wants to deliver his conclusions in a way that will ensure that the right thing happens. Eli possesses a wonderful innate compassion, as shown by his reaction to the forced surrogate Wenda, thus I never doubted what his judgement would be. Similarly, I wasn’t as surprised about Aryel’s gemsign by the time it was finally revealed. While these elements are presented as mysterious and unsure, they are not the elements that create the tension that drive the narrative. Instead the tension in the book derives from the situations that surround them: the godgangs and their ilk, the societal tension, the mystery surrounding Gabriel, and the plotting gemtech conglomerates. I liked the tension between Eli and Aryel, there is nothing overtly romantic about their interactions – other than Eli’s remarking to himself that she is beautiful numerous times – but there is a sort of current there under the surface, which I really enjoyed.

The plot consists of a lovely mixture of politics, science, and action. There are plenty of recognizable elements to this future society – socialstreams, tablets, the godgangs, the Remnants – to let us easily imagine this future, but also enough new elements – the Syndrome, gemtech, and gemsign – to make it different and all the new stuff we see is gem-related. It seems as if any innovation after the appearance of the Syndrome has gone into perfecting genetic modification technology, as humanity raced to save itself. Keeping the general tech-level almost similar to what we have now, augmented with things invented as gemtech that turned out to have other applications—similar to all the new things that come out of NASA as fringe benefits of creating space tech. However, the tech is an aside to what is the heart of the story: the people. Gemsigns examines what makes people human and why people always try to dominate those they see as other; as such, it is an interesting piece of social commentary.

In Gemsigns Saulter has delivered an amazing debut, which had me pondering its themes long after closing its pages. Within the parameters of her world, she answers the question asked at the outset – what makes someone human – in a way that shows that humanity isn’t in how your DNA is configured, it’s in how you approach and treat others. But those answers provided engender a slew of new questions. What now? How do we reconcile the different parties? Who will step up and lead? I can’t wait to see what answers Saulter will come up with.

The book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • An unread review copy of this sits on my teetering TBR pile…

    Thanks for the review, Mieneke!

    • Thanks for reading, Paul!

  • I’ve heard some mixed reviews of this one, but even reading some of the more negative reviews, I was intrigued enough by the concept behind the story that I still think I’d like to read it. I, alas, wasn’t lucky enough to get a review copy, so I’ll have to buy mine or else hope that my library has a copy. :p Excellent review!

  • I got a review copy of this back when it came out, and it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year. Definitely thought-provoking, and I can’t wait for book two in this series! :D

    • Me neither! I really can’t wait to see what happens next :-)

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