Humanity stands on the brink. Again.
Surviving 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’s 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.
I can think of maybe half a dozen authors I’ve given a 5-star review to for a debut novel. Stephanie Saulter is now one of them. Gemsigns simply grabbed me by the brain (and later, by the feels) and would not let go until I’d finished it – I read it over two sittings, and that break was a damned reluctant one.
The events of the book begin with the escape (from somewhere) of what we later realise is a runaway Gem (identity unclear), who somehow manages to simply disappear when she finally evades her pursuers (a gemtech company? If so, which one? Questions!). From there we jump forward to a few days before the all-important Conference, and the story starts to follow Dr Eli Walker as he sets out on the assignment he’s been given – to determine and present a report upon how human (or ‘normal’ – that word is key here) the Gems really are, before laws are put in place to govern their treatment and grant them legal rights. At this point they have freedom from the extremely limited lives they had as the property of gemtechs, their parent companies. Those gemtechs, particularly Bel’Natur – the most powerful of them – want the gems back in their labs. The godgangs, religious zealots who are, of course, violently anti-gem, just want them all gone. The gems themselves seem to just want to be able to live their lives like anyone else – although as the tension and violence levels escalate in the lead-up to the Conference, not all of them are willing to turn the other cheek.
Saulter gives us literally a day-by-day accounting of events, and so gives the overall story the feeling of a ticking time-bomb. At the explosive centre of it all is, of course, the Conference itself – and Dr Walker’s report doesn’t disappoint in that sense. What it touches off is nothing short of an edge-of-your-seat attack upon the story’s other central characters – Gaela, a gem with hyperspectral vision, her adopted son Gabriel, a telepath upon whom a great deal of the underlying mystery rests, and the other true curiosity of the story – Aryel Morningstar. Her story, as it emerges, is as gripping and intriguing as the more overt set-piece concerning the Conference, and Walker’s report. As the unveiling of his findings finally lights the godgang‘s fuse, so the revelation of Aryel’s deformity provides the final (and breathtaking) twist in this tale, and it’s a perfect note to end this part of the story on. While Saulter makes a spectacle of Aryel that the character had clearly hoped to avoid, we’re still left with plenty of questions to carry us into the second book. It’s a deft accomplishment on the author’s part, and I for one can’t wait to find out more!
Another aspect of Saulter’s writing style that I feel demands a hat-tip is how objective it all seems, even while I was, as I noted earlier, repeatedly kicked in the feels. The story doesn’t enter first-person POV, yet still switches neatly between focus upon each of those central characters – including, I should note, Zavcka Klist, who is another character I’m left with plenty of questions and suspicions about… Then there’s the leader of the godgang responsible for the attack on the protagonists in the final chapters. We see things from his perspective as well, and while I inevitably found that particular point of view repellent, I have to congratulate Saulter for bringing all of these elements and conflicting viewpoints together so well. It made for a thrilling read, and I’m incredibly glad I took that chance on it. I really hope this book does well; I’d love to see what comes next!
(This book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)