Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Black Jewels Trilogy, by Anne Bishop

The Black Jewels Trilogy – Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, and Queen of the Darkness – is actually the work that gave me the idea to write this blog, many moons ago.  (It took me about five years to actually do something about creating this blog – yup, I’m slow.)  And the thing I want to talk about regarding the Black Jewels books is what I’m going to call unrealized potential.

First, a little background.  The books are dark fantasy (definitely not for kids and also not for a lot of adults).  They're set in the universe of the Blood – a subset of people who are able to use magic.  Each of the Blood’s strength in using magic is determined by the color of the Jewel they wear, from White, the weakest, to Black, the strongest.  The Jewels serve as a reservoir of power that their owners can draw on.  The Blood are also able do magic independently of their Jewels – stuff like communicating mind-to-mind and “vanishing” objects into some kind of personal pocket universe for handy storage.  The Blood are a female-dominant society – women are heads of their families, and their government is series of territorial courts that are each ruled by a Queen.  There are three castes into which each gender falls – Warlords, Princes, and Warlord-Princes for men, and Queens, Black Widows, and Priestesses for women.  When a Queen wears Black Jewels, she may become the ruler of all the Blood.  All the Blood, regardless of gender, are incredibly temperamental; they always seem to be riding a razor edge between fairly normal and insane killing rage (more on that in a minute). There's a lot more interesting details to the world of the Blood - the kindred, the three Realms, the dragons - that I won't get into here because to do them justice would require several paragraphs.

So anyway, the trilogy (and the books that follow it) tells the story of Janelle, who is the only person in the history of the Blood to wear Black Jewels as a child; and Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar SaDiablo, all Warlord Princes who wear, respectively, Black, Black, and Ebon-gray Jewels.  Saetan and Daemon are the only men ever to wear Black Jewels; the three of them are the most powerful living men in their society.  In Jaenelle’s time, the Blood have been infected by a creeping social taint that is turning their normal gender relations, and the checks and balances that keep this powerful and temperamental race from destroying themselves, upside down.  Men are willing to subvert and dominate the normally more-powerful women by any means necessary, and women are willing to use any available method to protect themselves from these predatory men.  Trust between the sexes is gone, and the social and moral contract that they live by is rapidly decaying into anarchy.  Janelle has the power to create change for the better in Blood society; but the problem is that she doesn’t really want it.  She doesn’t want to be Queen or rule a court, but she can’t set her inherent power aside.  Isolated from, feared, and misunderstood by most of her people, Jaenelle’s power is both trap and freedom for her. 

So if I’ve done a good job of describing the premise of this book, and you have a taste for this kind of sweeping fantasy, you’re probably pretty interested in getting your hands on these books.  And you should; they’re worth reading.  (Fair warning – one of them describes sexual abuse of several children. I don’t want to be accused of sending anyone out unprepared.)  But they could be so much better.  Here’s where we come to my complaint about unrealized potential.

In the universe she created for the Blood, Anne Bishop achieved an interesting, layered world with it’s own culture, history, and problems.  She came up with a compelling story idea – an unusual child growing into a woman, desperately wanting love and friendship but set apart by the very qualities the make her special.  And there’s an epic problem to solve – how to save the Blood from themselves.  But the way she went about telling this story is, well...crummy.  She overshot passion by a mile and landed smack in melodrama.

For one thing, everything, EVERYTHING in Janelle’s world is influenced by (1) sex and (2) violence.  Apparently a man can’t say hello to a woman in this world without it being taken as a prelude to rape.  When the Blood’s mind-to-mind communication is described, it’s always in terms of “spear threads” and “distaff threads.”  Guess what the “spear” symbolizes.  You can only read “Saetan sent to Daemon, spear-to-spear, ‘Where is Janelle?  Protect the Lady!’”  so many times.  And Daemon is so incredibly sexy that women will risk their lives for the possibility that he might be willing to hop in bed with them, despite his literally murderous temper.  I don’t care how hot you are, guys, a little nooky isn’t worth getting my head ripped off because you’re feeling cranky.  Sex, sex, sex – that’s what the Blood spend 90% of their time thinking about.  It gets boring, frankly.

For another thing, I’m not impressed by temper tantrums, which seem to be the Bloods’ main method of communication.  There’s a scene in one of books where a group of men who are all connected to Janelle in one way or another are meeting for the first time.  They’re all trying stake their claim on Jaenelle and show that they belong in her inner circle of friends.  One makes some kind of lame, getting-to-know-you joke to another; the second guy’s response is “I’ll accept any challenge a male wants to make!”   (The conversation doesn’t even really make sense.)  The actions and traits that the author seems to want to us to accept as being confident and masculine are the very ones that I would describe as insecure and childish. 

So there’s my summation of the Black Jewels books – great world building, good concept, good characters (in theory), full of potential, but poorly executed.  Jaenelle is one of the few really powerful female characters I know of in the fantasy genre, whose power is inherently her own, not conferred on her by who her father or husband is.  Think of the Rowan, from Anne McCaffrey’s series of the same name, for a sci-fi parallel.  Jaenelle and her story deserved to be written better.  I’d love to see another author – say, Juliet Marillier or Jacqueline Carey – rewrite the Black Jewels trilogy, or write independent stories set in the universe of the Blood.  If only that wasn’t completely impossible because of various copyright laws.  A girl can only dream. 

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