Gemsigns (®Evolution Book 1) by Stephanie Saulter (book review)

A few decades ago, thousands of young people were dying after a strange technological plague swept the world. Almost a whole generation was lost before scientists found a solution, a genetic modification that would prevent people from succumbing to the disease. The modification was also used to create specialised workers, Gems – identified by bright neon gemsigns such as coloured hair – to fill the labour gap left by losing so many. Now the plague has gone and the Gems are ready to take back their human rights, unwilling to continue to be slaves earning money only for the corporations that own them. The upcoming conference on Gem rights will determine their future but, as tensions mount and violent attacks start to occur, which way the decision will go remains unclear. Will the Gems earn their freedom or will the corporations retain ownership, dooming the Gems to lives of servitude?


It’s been a long time since I’ve been captivated by the opening paragraph of a book, but from the very first page of Stephanie Saulter’s ‘Gemsigns’, I was completely hooked. The language is very precise and tells you exactly what you need to know, painting a vividly realised world without ever straying into the territory of lengthy exposition. I really enjoyed reading it.

The theme of this book is largely political and we follow Dr. Eli Walker, an anthropologist who has been given the task of assessing the human behaviours of the Gems. How they socialise and interact with others, whether they display ‘normal’ human behaviours, if there’s anything other than physical characteristics of the bright hair and modified attributes that suggests they are anything other than ‘human’. It’s a really interesting process to follow, journeying with him as he meets representatives from the big corporations and people from the Gem communities, preparing to deliver his findings to the conference on Gem rights. You very soon start questioning what it means to be human and the story makes you think long and hard about the way in which we, as both individuals and a society, behave on a day to day basis. There’s plenty of material in here to ponder and that’s part of the reason it’s so enjoyable to read.

Of course, a non-fiction treatise on behaviours could achieve that kind of thought-provoking response, but this is a novel so there needs to be something more to it than a set of interesting intellectual ideas. I have no hesitation in saying that it certainly delivers on all the other fronts, too, from wonderful characters to detailed world-building and a neat network of sub-plots that combine to make a great story. The action only takes place over a week – an unusually short time frame for Science Fiction but it packs a lot into that time and in fact makes you focus on the little details, which turn out to be plentiful!

Eli is an interesting chap on his own, but when you put him together with the enigmatic Aryel Morningstar, the Gems’ appointed leader, the pair really come alive. They interact beautifully and so realistically that it feels like you’re in the room with them. The community of Gems, the troubles they’re facing and the prejudices they work so hard to overcome was quite touching at times and at other points was distressing. There are many similarities with the prejudices and struggles still faced by many minorities in today’s society, Saulter just takes these issues and transplants them very well into a future Earth.

In case you’ve not already guessed, I got through ‘Gemsigns’ pretty quickly, reluctant to put it down before I’d found out how everything turned out. It was a bit like avidly following a news story, but with more moments of hope and compassion brought to the front amid all the violence and oppression. ‘Gemsigns’ was a very impressive debut novel and a thoroughly engaging read that’s left me eager to read the sequel.

Vinca Russell

October 2015

(pub: Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus, 2014. 339 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (UK), £10.69 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-62365-160-2)

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