Book: “Newt’s Emerald” by Garth Nix
Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2015
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful, nicknamed “Newt,” will inherit her family’s treasure: the Newington Emerald. A dazzling heart-shaped gem, the Emerald also bestows its wearer with magical powers.
When the Emerald disappears one stormy night, Newt sets off to recover it. Her plan entails dressing up as a man, mustache included, as no well-bred young lady should be seen out and about on her own. While in disguise, Newt encounters the handsome but shrewd Major Harnett, who volunteers to help find the missing Emerald under the assumption that she is a man. Once she and her unsuspecting ally are caught up in a dangerous adventure that includes an evil sorceress, Newt realizes that something else is afoot: the beating of her heart.
Review: After reading “Angel Mage,” I found myself on a bit of a Garth Nix kick, as I had been clearly reminded just how much I enjoyed his writing. Not wanting to bite off the large task of re-immersing myself in the “Sabriel” world and series, I was happy to come across this short-and-sweet, standalone fantasy!
Lady Truthful, or “Newt,” is due a large inheritance, but more important than the money is a priceless, magical heirloom, an emerald with unknown but great powers. When the emerald is stolen from beneath her nose, Newt sets out on an adventure to recover it. Disguised as a man, she finds herself wandering dark alleyways at night and aboard ships raging through storms. And as a woman, she is caught up in an even more dangerous endeavor: a young woman debuting for her first season in London! By her side she finds the mysterious Major Harnett who also might be hiding his own secrets.
This was a strange little book. And really, I think that’s where many of its strengths and weaknesses lie, with how little it is. From my research, it seems that this was originally written as a novella and then expanded out into a full-length, albeit still short, book. Reading it, it is easy to see these backbones through what we are presented here. Everything that is given is excellent: a solid main character, a firm touch on both the genres its straddling (fantasy and historical romance), and a succinct, but clear, storyline. And I enjoyed it all. However, I do wish there had been a bit…more of everything.
In some ways, it feels that this was a novel born from a writing exercise on Nix’s part. That he went into the story wanting to dabble in historical romance, but, being a fantasy author, wanted to include his own trademark worldbuilding and fantastical elements to the standard elements. Perhaps readers not familiar with his other works would be less surprised by this book, but for those of us who have read those, this book feels remarkably light on the fantasy. There is the titular emerald, of course, and it seems that characters in this world are prone to having some level of magical abilities themselves. The ins and outs of these abilities, their range, scope, or power, is never really explored and the few times we see people use them, there isn’t much there other than a flash and bang. From an author that I know is capable of writing complex and thorough magic systems, it ended up reading a bit bland.
The characters themselves fared better, though even here it seemed we were getting only modestly adjusted variations on the stock historical romance characters one often sees. Newt’s time spend dressed as a man is a saving grace for her character, raising her above the tropes that often befall historical romance heroines. I particularly enjoyed the time spent between her and the love interest when she was still thought to be a man and their friendship began to develop. Once the secret was outed, the story fell quickly back into the more expected beats of a romance.
There was a strange moment, however, when the reader is allowed to see behind the curtain on the Major’s side of things. I’m not quite sure what the goal of this inclusion was, but from my perspective it took the bite out of a few of the mysteries at the heart of the story. Newt has her own secrets, but so does the Major. Being privy to the truth before our main character quickly defangs many of the conflicts and makes Newt’s own agonizing and confusion read as more of a bore, knowing the truth and likely outcomes ourselves already.
Again, this isn’t meant to be all critical. I did enjoy the romance, it was sweet and funny. The action and adventure was probably the strongest portion of the story, with several good chase scenes and fights. And the writing was perfectly matched to the Recency romance style that Nix was clearly attempting to reference, most especially noticeable in the dialogue, which was witty and fun. Most of this seems due to the length of the story; it’s simply too short to fully flesh out all of its characters or expand on the magical system and world to the extent that I might have wished. It was a quick read, however, and a fun story. Readers who are looking for a light, beach-read-like story will likely enjoy this. Just don’t go into it expecting to see the full power of Nix’s abilities on display.
Rating 7: Reads a bit more like a primer of Nix’s work than as a fully completed work of its own.
“Newt’s Emerald” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Girls Disguised as Boys.”
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