Friday, March 22, 2013

TWILIGHT'S DAWN


Review of TWILIGHT'S DAWN by ANNE BISHOP
(ninth in THE BLACK JEWELS series)

I enjoyed this collection of four stories, but it's the only BLACK JEWELS installment that didn't win my drooling adoration. Perhaps this volume had a rushed deadline, but regardless of the reason the stories stray from what I loved about the series and actually caused quite an outrage among many of Bishop's fans, particularly regarding the last story, "The High Lord's Daughter." I did like TWILIGHT'S DAWN, but many loyal fans of the series might be happier avoiding this collection or at least the fourth story, "The High Lord's Daughter." Reader discretion!

The first story, "Winsol," consists of light, fluffy fun. It held my attention throughout, but left me bemused when I reached the end. There's not much of a "story" here; it's simply a peak at the SaDiablo family celebrating a holiday and, thus, would only appeal to those already in love with these characters. However, the plot thread about Jaenelle and Saetan adds more depth and leaves a warm feeling about father/daughter love.

The second story, "The Prince of Ebon Rhi," showcases standard BLACK JEWELS stuff and, of the four stories here, will most likely still appeal to series followers. Falonar, Surreal's ex-lover, plots a rebellion against Lucivar - "the halfbreed bastard." Typical BLACK JEWELS "don't cross the main characters; it never ends well for those who do" formula that still satisfies. Only Falonar threw me a little. His character has evolved, for the worse, quite a bit over time. In QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS, it's established that he bears a grudge against Lucivar and he's certainly not without some serious flaws. However, for all appearances, he puts pettiness aside in favor of what really matters and his relationship with Surreal seems genuine. Of course, our glimpses of him in that book are so minor that they leave plenty of wiggle room for interpretation. Then in TANGLED WEBS, we learn it didn't work out between Falonar and Surreal. Through Surreal's musings, it's revealed that Falonar resented being with a former whore and struggled even more being involved with a woman stronger than himself. While not endearing failures, one can still interpret Falonar as a nice person with fairly common prejudices. However, in "The Prince of Ebon Rhi" any trace of redeeming virtue disappears. In Falonar's perspective, we learn that he never cared about Surreal; he only slept with her because he figured a former whore would make a good ride and only stayed with her when he realized how many powerful and dangerous men might come after him if he hurt her. His prejudices shine stronger here, too: women should serve men, his race is superior to all others, wealthier people earn the right to control poorer people, etc. He's abusive even to those he claims he loves and his pride without honor attitude proves dangerous. Lucivar still trains everyone in fighting, more for fitness in these peaceful days than because they're preparing for battle, but in this story Falonar repeatedly turns innocent sparring matches into potentially fatal duels. The Falonar in this story is completely plausible, since we didn't see that much of him in QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS and only heard Surrel's view of him in TANGLED WEBS, but this side of him still might throw readers who painted a more forgiving and empathetic image of Falonar in their own minds.

The third story, "Family," dives in headfirst with the violent death of a beloved secondary character. The story can be dissected into a sentimental plot thread (what happens after this character dies - as we know by now, dead doesn't mean entirely gone in this universe) and a thriller/horror plot thread (the actual murder and the follow-up hunting down the culprit). The sentimental element shines, both heartwarming and tragic at once, but at the expense of the thriller plot thread, which tappers off after the death scene with a rushed resolution and an underdeveloped villain.

The last story, "The High Lord's Daughter" remains the most divisive by far and, whether you love or hate it, it's easy to understand why it enraged some readers. I wasn't quite sure how to approach this one without too many spoilers, so I'm breaking my review of this story into three paragraphs. This first paragraph will be generalized, spoiler-free. The next has minor spoilers - events and twists that take place early on in the story. The last paragraph won't be spoiler-censored at all, allowing me to speak freely. So, my spoiler-free analysis: many readers protested plot twists on principle. (Ex: "I can't believe that character did that!") I actually don't have a problem with any of the plot points Bishop employed. However, I do think these elements could have been better handled. A story of this magnitude (spanning decades and packed with shocking, emotional twists) probably needed to be a full-length novel in order to allow for any real depth and to give the readers a chance at understanding and following the characters' emotions and motivations.

Now, some minor spoilers. "The High Lord's Daughter" takes place after Jaenelle's death. That alone set off many fans who simply didn't want to imagine a Jaenelle-less world. She lived a full life and died of old age, though, so I have no complaints. The real tragedy here is something Bishop has only hinted at before: Jaenelle came from a short-lived race and only lived to ninety years, while Daemon's from a long-lived race and will live thousands. This story follows his efforts to move on. (Failing efforts, which depressed me far more than Jaenelle's death.) Brace yourself for some more spoilers (still early in the story, though). After about twenty years, Saetan, too, dies (well, permanently, since he was demon dead before). Consumed by grief, Daemon and Surreal end up in bed together and Surreal winds up pregnant. They marry and the story spans years of their efforts to find contentment in their new life. From that alone, it's easy to sympathize with displeased readers - that's a bucketload of drama. As I already said, I don't have a problem with any single twist, but this short format doesn't allow the reader time to adjust to each development before they're slapped in the face with another, leading to a cheap sensational feel. As a full-length novel, the story might have stood a greater chance of exploring how the characters reach each point.

This last paragraph makes no effort to avoid spoilers - consider yourself warned. As I've touched on, the characters fall a little flat in this drama-driven story. Surreal didn't feel like herself, but a vapid, passive version and many of her decisions didn't click with my interpretation of the character. Unlike many readers, the story didn't depress me because Jaenelle died, or even because Daemon married someone else. What depressed me is that Daemon isn't happy with someone else. He gives Surreal full warning that he will never love anyone the way he loved Jaenelle. Not a positive start to a marriage. Since Surreal might be the only character who suffers so many romantic missteps, I had far greater hopes for her than the second wife trapped in the first wife's shadow, quietly swallowing her own pain. On paper, Daemon and Surreal work great. They both had traumatic childhoods and worked as sex slaves, so they can understand each others' emotional scars. They have a history that pre-dates Jaenelle and have always had a close bond throughout the books. Unfortunately, that bond struck me as sibling-like, so I balked when they wound up in bed, having almost forgotten entirely that they aren't really related, and the sex scenes just felt incestuous to me. That's an area where a novel might have worked better, because the greater length could give the reader a longer look at how their relationship altered from platonic to sensual. Also, while they don't sleep together until about two decades after Jaenelle dies, it doesn't read that way. To the reader, it's only a few chapters, a few pages. Readers, too, mourn the death of a character and are likely to need some time to accept that loss before they can move on with other grieving characters to another stage of life. My last big problem with this story is that Daemon and Surreal's daughter doesn't feel like her own person, but instead a vicarious means both of keeping Jaenelle alive and of giving her a chance at a happier childhood. The daughter becomes a substitute for Jaenelle (they even name her Jaenelle) and that made me physically ill, imaging that kind of pressure on a child. Also, I've always loved Jaenelle as a character, but this story represents the first time that I resented her. We learn later in the story that she used her magical talents to manipulate Surreal and Daemon together after her death and gift them with a child and that she has been visiting their daughter in her dreams and somewhat “molding” her. While some might find this a sweet way of keeping someone's memory alive, to me it felt intrusive that even after her death Jaenelle still holds the reigns to Daemon's life. Even his failed attempts at moving on are crafted by Jaenelle.

Now that I've written about all I can on the subject, what do you other BLACK JEWELS fans have to say?

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