Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop



I read this 1200-page tome relatively quickly, on the recommendation of a friend. It's a fantasy series concentrating largely on the activity of magical humanoids, with various other races making appearances along the way. Characters move between the lands on threads of magic which interweave like roads, and you never see how the non-magic folk, the 'landens', actually live or do anything. Those with magic are called the Blood, and the most powerful possess magical Jewels, of varying colours depending on the strength (Black is the strongest). Anne Bishop has added a strong matriarchal flavour to this: each realm has a Queen, who is served by a circle of males and females, which means that ultimately females are more powerful than males. However, centuries of bitchy in-fighting and power-bloated females means that the Blood have been corrupted, and now the males who have been unfairly subjugated by these villains await the arrival of 'Witch', the 'dream made flesh'. She appears very near the beginning of the first book (which rather diminishes their apparent wait), and is a small, blonde, blue-eyed girl called Jaenelle, who turns out to have phenomenal powers and eventually purges the Blood of its evil taint (which means a mass slaughter, essentially).

One problem Bishop seems to have with this matriarchal premise is that she still portrays many of her female characters as healers and comforters, and almost all male characters as naturally violent, with filthy tempers. This means that most of the magical strength in the books comes from a trio of male characters, two of whom wear Black Jewels: Saeten, the High Lord of Hell; his son Daemon Sadi, the 'Sadist' and seducer of the series; and his other son Lucivar, an expert Eyrien (i.e. winged) warrior, who wears the second most powerful Jewel. I fell instantly in love with Daemon, the pleasure-slave turned Consort of Jaenelle, whose seductive power is everywhere emphasised. I especially liked the mix of feminine and masculine Bishop uses to create a character attractive to both men and women (there are odd prickly hints of an incestuous attractive between Lucivar and Daemon). Lucivar is pretty attractive too, although I couldn't help seeing him as a second-best to Daemon (the latter is characterised as a mirror of his father, whereas Lucivar often seems to have an ill-defined role), and indeed Bishop marries him off to a woman we've never met somewhere between the second and third books (I think), which is emotionally rather a blow for the reader - or at least this reader.

Since the book is dominated by these three, there isn't enough room for the other characters, of which there are A LOT. I found myself horribly confused between many of the minor characters, whose names were often very similar (there's a Lucivar, a Luthvian, a Ladvarian; a Titian and a Tersa, both old ladies; a Hekatah and a Hepsabah; a Karla, a Kartane, a Kaelas, and so on). There isn't a map included, either, so in between the various trips to the 'abyss' (the psychic location of magical power) and the 'Twisted Kingdom' (a physical imaging of madness), it's hard to imagine the physical existence of these places, and Bishop isn't giving much away. I found that there wasn't enough background information on the theory of Craft, the discipline of magic, or the interaction between the caste hierarchy of the realms and which level of Jewel you are allowed to wear. There are shops and shopping and occasionally money, but no real sense of where all these things come from - with the result that the trilogy ended up being rather limited and repetitive. Jaenelle's power is so much greater than that of her enemies, especially when bolstered by Saetan, Daemon and Lucivar, that you never once imagine she could possibly lose the battle against those lesser Queens who want to make her a puppet of their will, and the third book especially is a series of vague attempts at infiltrating this populous and absurdly powerful cluster of heroines and heroes, with predictably little success.

Stylistically, Bishop's prose is readable (apart from the eye-stumbles over all the near-identical names), but similarly limited: she endlessly describes Jaenelle's voice as 'midnight', which stops being neat after the eight-hundredth time. The characters always seem aghast to learn anything of how powerful she is - I wanted to scream at them, 'Haven't you learned to expect the unexpected??' - and always revert to a whispered 'Mother Night' to express surprise. The humour of the interacting characters becomes rather tedious because we're rarely allowed to see enough of the minor characters to warm to them.

I'm afraid the above has turned into a bit of a rant about this series' flaws, but that's mainly because it could have been so good, and ended up so disappointing. The first book is by far the best, with the most varied action and the least tedious repetition about the damages of rape and child abuse, which the other books obsess about (Jaenelle is raped at the end of the first book). One thing I did like is the unashamed inclusion of eroticism, and there's a nice little twist where we realise that Daemon, who has never been physically aroused by a woman until Jaenelle, must in fact be a virgin. If Bishop had been more restrained with the characters and worked on the plotting and the physical existence of her imaginative world, and let the reader see more of what is clearly a political as well as creative mind, then perhaps I wouldn't have been struggling by the end, and I'd be giving the trilogy more than 5.5/10. Read for the ideas rather than their actual crystallisation.


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