Gemsigns – Stephanie Saulter

About the Book

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.

230 pages (paperback)
Published on March 28, 2013 (UK)
Sometime in May in the US (I think)
Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Author’s webpage


This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

Gemsigns hooked me instantly, directly from the back cover blurb. It didn’t take me long to realize that Saulter’s writing and the story itself was much more addicting than any blurb ever would be. In fact, for about a week there is very little else that I thought about. I ate, slept, and dreamed Gemsigns. This book absolutely captivated me.

Gemsigns tells a story that takes place in London in the not-too-future future. In fact, while this is in the future, it is incredibly relatable to our own social situations and complex problems we have in this day and age. That’s probably what makes so many of the deeper themes that are going on in the book so absolutely powerful. Saulter is telling a tale of a future time that is a direct result of our time, and it resonates because of that.

Gemsigns is Saulter’s debut novel, but it doesn’t read like a debut novel. It’s obvious that she put a lot of effort into making Gemsigns feel like something a tried-and-true author could be proud of. The writing is tight, and the world building is both subtle (in some ways) and complex. The prose is tight, and the perspective changes are done with thought so nothing really feels frivolous.

Gemsigns is an incredibly powerful story, the kind of story that will keep your mind engaged for a long time after you turn the last page. For example, I finished this book a few days ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Saulter is absolutely unafraid of looking at some despicable human conditions, like segregation, for example. Humanity is healing itself after a disease that nearly wiped us off the map, and in the process of this healing, they have to decide what to do with the gems (the scientifically created, genetically altered humans which lived in horrible conditions, including slavery, and are fighting for their rights).

Dr. Eli Walker is one of the main characters in the novel who is studying the gems so he can present his findings at a conference. His storyline presents some amazingly powerful themes as he really examines what makes humans “human.” Does our humanity go past our genetic makeup? How do people who are different than us deserve to be treated? How would a desperate situation alter how we act, feel, and think? These situations are presented with regularity through Walker’s story, and they can, at times, be incredibly uncomfortable. However, they are only uncomfortable because they are so realistic.

There is something incredibly powerful about a book that forces the reader to truly examine all their light and darkness in a mirror that hides nothing.

Another reason why Walker, and many of the characters he interacts with with regularity, are so captivating is because they present the feel of people who are trying to do the right thing in the face of so much chaos. Furthermore, until the book gets somewhere after the hallway point, none of these characters really understand what the “right” thing is. They are all trying to discover what is right, and what is wrong. It’s absolutely compelling. Added to this is the agenda of plenty of big businesses who are financially invested in the creation and usage of gems. There is powerful and believable evidence from these big business faces as to why the gems aren’t human, and are, in fact, dangerous.

Along with this is the added aspect of the Godgangs. This is, perhaps, where my fault with the novel lies. While I realize that Saulter needed to add religion in there somewhere (I mean, really, all you need to do is look at the Westboro Baptist Church to see how some “out there” religions will react to social change), I felt, in some ways, that their plight and plotlines felt the most contrived. That isn’t to say that they weren’t believable, but in the face of a novel as put together and absorbing as this one, the Godgangs stuck out like a sore thumb. Their story needed to be heard, but there was a contrived air about them that kept me from fully believing their storylines. The characters were less dynamic, less three-dimensional, and their single-minded devotion to their cause was realistic, but didn’t have the carefully planned, perfectly thought out air that the rest of the book did.

That also goes toward some of the other characters to a lesser extent. Zakva Klist, one of the powerful people in one of those big businesses I mentioned above, had a bit too much of a ‘cackle-like-a-mysterious-villain’ air about her. It isn’t until the last third of the book that her concerns start seeming like they are based more in reality than her drive to be some powerhungry woman in charge of a huge swath of gems so they can do her bidding. That’s unfortunate, as most of the other characters are so well thought out, so believable, and so deliciously flawed. I wanted to see more of that in Klist, and I didn’t. The thing is, when so many of the other characters, and the situations they find themselves in, are in that delicious moral gray zone I love so desperately, the characters that don’t inhabit quite so much gray and mystery really sick out.

There are a whole lot of compliments I can march out about this book, and in the face of all those compliments, I have to minor complaints. The point is Saulter’s debut novel Gemsigns was absolutely riveting in every respect. The writing was fantastic and the story was compelling. The futuristic vision of our world is so well realized that it brought me chills at certain points. The characters, for the most part, are easy to sympathize with, and Saulter left enough mystery at the end of the book to make me wait anxiously for her next book Binary to drop on my doorstep (“Anxious” might be more of an understatement. It’s all I’m thinking about).

Gemsigns is shockingly ambitious. It’s uncomfortable and telling. It makes its readers look at themselves in a mirror that hides nothing. This is a book about what makes us human, and inspects how we react to the things we don’t understand, when those reactions, however small, can make a world of difference.

I can’t, honestly, give this book enough praise. Saulter is an author to watch. Gemsigns is a must-read book if you are in the mood for something truly powerful.


5/5 stars

5 Responses

  • Its on my to-read pile…

  • Jo Fletcher folks publish some really good stuff, it seems!

  • I finished Gemsigns the other day, and it was astonishing. I liked your term “shockingly ambitious.” to describe it. my review pretty much matches yours – amazingness all around. I have some notes written up, need to actually type them. I was absolutely floored when I finished this book, was very close to being brought to tears. But crying in public? probably not a good idea!

    What did you think of Aryel? long before her big scene at the end, she’d already stolen the show for me.

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