Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Jewel

It's been a couple weeks since I read The Jewel, a young adult novel by Amy Ewing (busy month for us!), so this review will mostly be overall impressions. What attracted me to the novel in the first place was a pretty cover and a fascinating premise: teenage girls sold to rich women as surrogates to birth their babies for them. In addition, these girls have magic powers (the why of this is never quite explained...maybe a topic to be covered in future books of the series?) that allow them to manipulate the color, shape, gender, and growth of the babies. All this takes place in a world separated into tiers of wealth, with the rich at the center of the city, a ring of merchants after that, an industrial ring, a farming ring, and finally a ring for the poorest of the poor, from which the magic surrogate girls come. It's a pretty nice set-up for a dystopian world.

(SPOILERS follow.) The thing is, some of the subject matter is a Teenage pregnancy is still kind of frowned upon in modern USA (though maybe less now than it used to be). Though it's been a part of other cultures for millennia, it's not something our kids are really prepared for. Violet, the main character, does manage to avoid pregnancy in this book despite her enslavement, but she does undergo doctor's appointments and tests that my younger, teenage self might have found a little freaky to read about. Fortunately, nothing is overly graphic, so I'd still consider it teen-appropriate material.

I was more bothered, really, by the other morally degraded content of the book. Girls are not the only ones forced into certain lives. Teenage boys can sell themselves as companions who entertain rich females in every way except the actual sexual act. But since the mothers buy these boys to entertain their daughters, some of the mothers are a bit proprietary toward the companions and use them to meet their own sexual needs (again, not graphic; this is only spoken about and not depicted at all).

In The Jewel, Violet falls in love with Ash, who is one of these companions. Both of them find themselves slaves in the same household and reach out to each other. At least that's the way the book tries to sell it. I had a hard time buying Ash's "slavery" since he basically chooses to lead this kind of life. While the surrogates have no choice and little freedom in their new lives, the companions are paid and are even considered acceptable company in the upper echelons of this world. I had a hard time respecting Ash as the love interest (I had someone else in mind, actually) and rooting for the romance. I never like it when the teenage love interests of a book have sex, but when a character is basically a male prostitute, whatever the book is trying to say about the wrongness of that gets a little muddled when he has no problem having sex with a girl he gets to choose. I get the difference there, but I'd rather see more realistic repercussions to an enforced lifestyle of prostitution. I didn't want the sex to be there at all, but if it had to be, difficulty being vulnerable with Violet, difficulty giving her more than he might give a paying partner, would have been more realistic. I just didn't buy it.

One other minor moment in the book bothered me because it was cheap conflict. Violet is a slave, and she knows that Ash is essentially one, too. After they have an intimate moment together, she sees him with the girl he's been paid to be a companion to and she gets mad. It just annoyed me. She knows what he does, knows he doesn't have a choice (according to the book, at least). Her anger comes off as petty in this situation. If he doesn't have a choice, she doesn't really have a right to be mad at him. If anything, she should understand him and forgive him because they are both being forced to do things they don't want to do.

Without the companion parts, I would have liked this book more. It was different and intriguing. It offers a lot of interesting moral discussion without being too over-the-top. (For instance, the girls are impregnated in a lab by doctors and not by having to sleep with their owners' husbands or anything too heinous like that.) So, I give it three out of five stars.

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