Friday, December 16, 2011


(first in THE BLACK JEWELS trilogy)

First off: I adore this book, this entire trilogy actually. Anne Bishop is now one of my favorite authors and the discovery of this scintillating, addictive series revitalized my love of reading and reminded me why it’s worth devouring book after book in search of the gems like these. Anne Bishop is up there with Laini Taylor on my list of favorite authors (even if it’s off topic, I have to toss in that Tamora Pierce is my first author love). As I’ve mentioned in my reviews Taylor’s work tends to hit my emotional sweet-spot, striking right past my intellect to visceral feelings and reactions. Bishop’s work does make me feel as well; don’t doubt that, because this high conflict series dredges forth every emotion I can imagine and not in small doses. However, THE BLACK JEWELS also engages my mind by presenting countless tantalizing questions about gender, class, power, honor, love, and violence, to name a few. Long after I put down her books, I’m thinking: about the world, the plot, the characters, and the questions it poses about real life.

Bishop has created a complex, intricate society that intertwines gender and power, creating a sharper and often more violent battle between the sexes. The thoughtfully crafted magical system fascinates me with every new detail, not to mention the very structured society in which everyone has a clear place depending on ranks both fiscal and magical, and, of course, depending on gender. I’m reading the trilogy as an omnibus that includes an insightful introduction by the author, wherein she describes a little of the intriguing “what if”s that led to THE BLACK JEWELS. If you don’t have that introduction in your book, it’s worth checking out!

In this world, different jewels represent magical rank. People have their Birthright Jewel, which varies from the lightest - white, yellow, tiger-eye, and rose - to the darkest: red, gray, ebon-gray, and finally black, the strongest and most dangerous jewel. (There’s a nice list of all the different jewels at the start of the book, including the middle ones that I didn’t mention.) Around puberty, individuals can make an offering to the Darkness, a ceremony that will hopefully descend their power to a darker jewel, though one can only descend a maximum of three jewels from their birthright and are not guaranteed to descend even one. Now here’s where Bishop changes up the status quo a little: women tend to be more powerful than men, often outranking them in jewels (magical strength). This society also hands women authority in numerous ways. To name a big example, women rules territories. Always. There isn’t even a question of men ruling in this book, though there are plenty of questions about different, better women ruling. Traditionally, a queen’s court is a positive example of mutual trust and protection. A good queen looks after all those in her court, is in fact fiercely protective of those who serve her. In return, the males protect their queen and other women in the court at times when the females might be more vulnerable. I mentioned that Bishop interlocks power and gender and this next twist is another example: women might be the more powerful gender but they are weaker at two points in their lives - before they lose their virginity and during their periods. In this world, a woman’s first time is less about love and passion and more about trust. A woman who is raped or treated roughly her first time can be “broken.” At the best, that term means the loss of her magic, but at the worst it also means the tortured, inescapable insanity Bishop coins the Twisted Kingdom. After their virgin night, though, women are much more secure in their own power. The only catch remaining is that their magic weakens during their moontime, meaning they must look to others for a web of mutual support. I’ve only described the society as it once was, but now a few malicious queens have contorted a social structure of trust and reciprocated respect into a corrupt, never-ending crusade to ensure males remain the subservient, ever-suffering gender, existing only for the whim of powerful females. Not that all the villains in this story are female. Many males who have been tortured, whether emotionally or physically, by pitiless, vindictive queens for too long (and let me mention that these supernatural “people” lives thousands of years) then look for weaker women on whom they can take out their frustration. For many of these men, it becomes a vengeful sport to “break” as many young women as possible before they can grow into the powerful but heartless queens these men fear.

Buckle up, because I’m not wrapping up yet. That’s only my condensed description of Bishop’s complex, imaged society. I still haven’t even grazed the plot of this specific epic. The story jumps between many different characters, but we have five clear heroes and heroines. Lucivar: an ebon-gray jeweled Eyrien (meaning he’s from a race that has wings) who opens the book but plays a relatively small role in DAUGHTER OF THE BLOOD. Saetan: the demon-dead (kind of like a cross between vampire and zombie stripped of most of the now common stereotypes) black jeweled High Lord of Hell who is both rash and terrifying as well as gentle, sweet, and grandfatherly. Daemon: the only other black jeweled male in this world, a pleasure slave who has a reputation for snapping in a very violent way every now and again when he’s tired of the abuse of his malevolent queen. These men have more in common than they know. All of them are waiting for a savior: Witch. That capitalized “W” counts for a lot! There are plenty of witches in this world, but Witch only comes every few thousand years at times of great need. She is referred to in the singular sense although throughout the years there have been many women who are Witch. (Never more than one at a time, mind you, and always spaced far apart.) Witch is an embodiment of hope, power, and change. She is both an individual woman and a pool of greater wisdom millennia older than herself. All that keeps Lucivar and Daemon from killing themselves to escape this cruel world is the hope that Witch is coming soon, that she will change everything. Daemon takes his longing to a new level, nourishing a fantasy that one day, rather than being an unwilling whore, he will become Witch’s eager and adored lover. Then there’s Surreal: a sly, cynical prostitute turned assassin who, though unapologetic for her flaws or past sins, seems more than a little lost. While the three male leads all share the same grand dream of Witch the savior, Surreal seems more focused on immediate goals and surviving each day in a harsh, lusterless world. Last but certainly not least there’s Jaenelle: Witch.

Let me sidetrack a little now, or rather step back. Daemon’s romantic fantasy surrounding Witch is the one reason some people I know dislike this book. Believe it or not, it’s not the violence; it’s that. Why? Because it turns out Witch is twelve. In Daemon’s defense, he never saw that coming. He assumed she would be a grown woman when he first meets her and this revelation strikes him as a cruel twist on what should be a joyous event. Contrary to some opinions, I don’t label Daemon a pedophile for this development. In fact, it raises a good point. He was never in love with a person; he was in love with an idea. Witch represents everything he wants and so he built her up in his mind exactly as he hoped: a mature, powerful woman who needs him both physically and emotionally. Now the reader has the captivating experience of watching a real relationship develop between Daemon and Jaenelle. Witch doesn’t need a lover at the age of twelve, but she does need a friend. Daemon realizes that, as usual, reality has turned out to be very different from the fantasy, but the fact remains that he wants to serve Witch, even if it isn’t in the manner he originally expected. 

Aside from a fascinating plot and complex characters, Bishop makes some interesting stylistic choices with her writing. One decision that jumped out at me is that there isn’t a single excerpt told from the perspective of Jaenelle, our twelve-year-old Witch. This elevates the sense of mystery surrounding a girl who does things that shouldn’t be possible, who seems lost and isolated in her own power, and who must find a balance between Jaenelle the child and Witch whose wisdom makes her seem older than any other character in the book. I have heard Jaenelle accused of being a Mary Sue, but I argue against that. Many characters do feel strongly towards her, be it adoration or hate (a typical Mary Sue marker), but there’s also a shocking number whose opinion of Jaenelle is, well, apathetic. Much to the anger of Daemon and Saetan who cannot escape their awe of Witch, most people don't recognize her for what she is. Though Jaenelle’s Birthright Jewel is Black (something entirely unheard of), her power is so strong that she struggles controlling it and hasn’t yet figured out how to target her magic to simple, small tasks. When she can’t perform any basic magic, her family assumes she has no power whatsoever, one of the many reasons she is their shameful secret, the black sheep.

The characters in this book sometimes feel like hyperboles of actual people. They are all extremely passionate, and everyone is always furious, despairing, or brimming with hope. Mundane moments or milder feelings are few and far between. Normally, I find this type of exaggeration falls into flat melodrama, but in this case it works. While the characters closely resemble humans, they’re not. They live longer and they feel more intensely. They’re also more animalistic, and Bishop even pulls on terminology from nature to describe traits or tendencies of these fantastical beings. She tosses in words like “growl,” “snarl,” and “hiss” in her dialogue with a frequency that might frustrate me if it didn’t seem so fitting for this society. Increased power comes hand in hand with increased hormones so that the strongest queens and princes can fly into rages at the smallest frustration. “Temperamental” is the diplomatic word Bishop often employs. Also, this is a work of romantic fantasy, and I believe (though I don’t read much in genre so I’m no expert) that impassioned characters are often a staple of the romance genre. It must be said that neither genre suffers for the other’s presence. Bishop manages to meet the usual genre expectations for both the fantasy and the romance elements without sacrificing the content in the other. If you need further proof, she has both devoted fans who read fantasy but rarely romance and ones who read romance but rarely fantasy. Ultimately, we’re all looking for a good story.

I want to go on. I warned you in my first paragraph that this is a series that starts my brain turning and I have yet to find an end to the list of questions THE BLACK JEWELS forces me to consider. If people can only increase their magical power so much from their Birthright Jewel, does that mean we cannot run far from whatever status we’re born into? Do women lead and men serve in this society because it’s in the very nature of these semi-human supernatural beings…or have they been socially trained from birth to believe this is the norm? Does violence beget more violence; are victims doomed to become abusers? Where’s the line between love and obsession? Does power always come with loneliness? Is it ever impossible for one to shake off the traumas of their past? Are the best epic stories those that follow a single, absurdly powerful individual or those wherein even the strongest can’t overcome evil without help? Okay, okay, I’ll stop listing questions, though that hardly means I’ll stop thinking of new ones.

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