I Binge-Read a Bunch of Lurlene McDaniel Novels

If you haven’t heard of Lurlene McDaniel before, then congratulations, you probably didn’t grow up in the 90s with a strange passion for morbid stories about teenagers dying from serious illnesses. Aaaand I just outed myself with that one sentence, didn’t I?

I used to love her novels. I read pretty much every one I could get my hands on. Couldn’t tell you why I found them so fascinating. I always had an interest in medicine, dating right back to childhood. When I was a kid, I would tell people I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when I grew up, and I knew what those words meant. McDaniel’s novels about teens dealing with illnesses like cancer, HIV, cystic fibrosis, were thus right up my strange little alley.

McDaniel apparently started writing these sorts of books after her son was diagnosed with diabetes, as a way of coping with the implications of a young person dealing with a serious illness. After a while, though, I suspect that the books became less about a coping mechanism and more about capitalizing on tragedy, as so many of her novels involve the protagonist dying.

Now, I can’t say that for certain, because I’m not her. But a lot of the books I read as a kid featured death as the end-point. Not characters coping with the idea of mortality, but then dying beautifully and tragedy when their respective illnesses progress too far. There were some educational aspects to the stories, informing readers about what a lot of disabled and chronically ill people experience in their lives, but for the most part, it was pure tragedy/inspiration porn.

The first book of hers that I ever read was Sixteen and Dying, the story of a teenage girl who contracted HIV through an emergency blood transfusion as a child and who just learns of her diagnosis.It was published in 1992, when the odds of surviving and thriving with HIV or AIDS was significantly lower than it is today. As a kid, I thought it was an amazing story of a girl trying to overcome horrible odds but succumbing in the end because disease is just too powerful.

As an adult, I think, “Damn, that girl could have lived a much better life if she hadn’t been more concerned with completely denying her diagnosis for 3/4 of the novel.”

That was often a big theme with early McDaniel novels, when I think back on it. A lot of the protagonists ended up dying because they didn’t take care of themselves properly. Not freak accidents, not pure rotten luck, just… denial and poor health management. The characters were often pretty caught up in trying to appear “normal” that they would hide and deny the realities of their lives (especially from The New Cute Boy in Town) that it ended up biting them in the ass in a very fatal way. A lot of the characters were Quintessential American Teenage Girls, after all, so naturally it’s just perfectly understandable that they’d be more concerned with dating than staying healthy.

This wasn’t the case for all of them. But it was enough of a recurring theme, even in the books I read recently, that it got old very quickly.

Another theme I noticed while rereading a lot of these books was that all of the characters were from very comfortably well-off families. If there was a novel where the story’s tragic aspects came from someone getting diagnosed with a chronic illness that was easy to treat but they couldn’t afford the medication, I didn’t encounter it. No, the characters nearly always came from families who owned sizable houses, had parents with good solid well-paying jobs, where cost was never a real issue even when it very much should have been. There were some poorer characters in the books, but they were often side-characters. The struggle was never about the protagonist being able to afford necessities.

This was doubly true in the One Last Wish series, in which characters are given a huge financial gift by a mysterious benefactor, to allow them to have one great expensive hurrah and make their dreams come true before they die. Only a couple of times do I remember reading that some of that money went toward caring for their health. Most of the time, part of the story’s conflict was about how they should spend that very large amount of money.

Also… Okay, I know that in many ways, I am not the target audience for these books, and my priorities are not the same as everyone else’s. I also know that even when I was as old as most of the characters in these novels, my mindset toward fashion and attractiveness were not the average person’s mindset. But… There is a damaging mentality behind a lot of aspects of these books when it comes to appearance. In I’ll be Seeing You, the protagonist has a slight facial deformity, so when she start falling for a blind guy, she starts hoping he’ll never see her oh-so-ugly face, and part of the novel’s triumph is that her families agrees to get her cosmetic surgery to make those pesky imperfections disappear. In Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever, the rich character reflects that she was able to buy a real-hair wig for her best friend who was undergoing cancer treatment, and when her parents say that she probably ought to back off and focus more on her own life than that of her friend, she says, “At least I made her pretty again.”

I’m sorry, but that attitude is toxic as hell. Imagine being a kid or teen newly diagnosed with cancer, and coming across one of these books. You think to yourself, “Wow, there are books written about people like me. Maybe I’ll read this so that I don’t feel so alone and like nobody understands what I’m going through.” And then you come across crap that reinforces the idea that oh yeah, when chemo makes your hair fall out, you’re not going to be pretty anymore. Not until you have long luxurious locks again. And don’t get dare end up with any scars!

A Time to Die had a “delightful” line in it about the how when the main character, a girl with cystic fibrosis, breathed, it sounded like a kitten purring. This line was said by the dude she had a crush on (the crush was mutual, but I don’t think they actually got together in the book). This is supposed to be all sweet and sexy. Now, I don’t have CF, but my asthmatic lungs have harboured some nasty infections over the years, and lemme tell ya: the wheezy crackle of lungs filled with mucus? It ain’t sexy!

I’m going to be completely honest here: a lot of these books fed into young-me’s desire to grow up disabled. That sounds horrible. It is horrible. But between this stuff and some early disability activism, I got it into my head that the only way I would ever be special was to be sick. Look at those kids on the Easter Seals stamps! They might have cancer, but they’re smiling, and god knows my face will never be on a stamp. Look at the characters in Lurlene McDaniel’s novels. They’re pretty and tragic and people like them, and nobody’s ever going to write a book about my boring-ass life. Not unless I get terribly ill like them.

Maybe it’s universal payback that I ended up becoming disabled as an adult. “Oh, you think that makes you special, do ya? Well, enjoy pain so bad you sometimes can’t get out of bed, declining mobility, and the idea that it might take years and years of seeing multiple doctors to ever get a diagnosis or treatment plan. And still nobody’s going to write a book about your boring-ass life.”

I read a while ago that tuberculosis used to be used as a romantic plot point in old-timey novels because it gave female characters that breathy voice and retiring personality and was “a pretty death” that could be exploited for a tragic angle. McDaniel’s novels have that in spades. Not all of them… but the vast majority of them. And since they’re often fairly heavy on the romance (never fear, it’s “appropriate romance” where kissing is the most anyone does and rarely do people actually think about sex unless it’s to think about how they’re Not Ready For It), chronic illness and disability in her novels are used very much the same way tuberculosis used to be. AIDS lets you just slip gently away. Cancer lets you just slip gently away. Cystic fibrosis just lets you slip gently away. And aren’t those attractive boys just so good for loving girls who are so very sick, when any relationship is doomed to genteel tragedy?

I’m being very scathing in this post, and that’s entirely intentional. McDaniel’s novels may have been some groundbreaking representation back in the very early 90s, but once you read a few of them, the gloss really starts to rub off and you see so many of the problems underneath. I had hoped, upon doing this binge-read, that I might find something really positive to say about them, something to redeem the stories I once perversely enjoyed.

Really, the one I can speak most highly of is To Live Again, the 5th novel about Dawn Rochelle. Diagnosed with leukemia at age 13, she goes through chemo, a bone marrow transplant, worry about rejecting that bone marrow, enduring the loss of friends while she keeps living, and she does a whole lot of growing up over the course of the series. To Live Again actually addresses a less commonly-known side effect of her cancer treatment — in her final year of high school, she has a stroke that was caused by side effects from her medications, and she has to learn to deal with partial paralysis. I don’t see too many stories address the fact that just because you’re in remission, just because you might even be past that 5-year milestone and be considered cured, sometimes you’re going to have to deal with additional struggles brought on by the very thing that saved you.

When so many stories about cancer either end in death or, “Congratulations, you’re cured, now cancer is just this bad memory tucked firmly away in your past,” it was actually refreshing to encounter something that said, “You’d think that, but.”

So do these books hold up to my youthful memories? Not one freaking bit. They’re honestly quite bad, and not even just from the standpoint of being tragedy/inspiration porn. Where once I thought that the pure medical aspects of the story were fascinating and educational, the ones I read recently had so very many errors. In one, a lumbar puncture was confused with a bone marrow aspiration. One involves a needle stuck in your spine, the other involves a needle stuck in your hip. And I’d hand-wave this as a simple mistake if I hadn’t seen both procedures referred to correctly in multiple other novels. They are so terribly bad, filled with misinformation and toxic attitudes and characters that could be carbon copies of other characters, just with different names.

When Rachael Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart came out, I read it. It had its problems (contradictory medical info, a Bury Your Gays trope example, etc), but it was a lot better than McDaniel’s stuff. A lot of people in the disabled community liked it. I saw a lot of people with cystic fibrosis comment that it was good representation for the lives that they live. I had my reasons for not liking it, but I can appreciate that others do.

Then Lippincott wrote All This Time. And The Lucky List. And they’re getting the same kind of good reviews I still see Lurlene McDaniel’s books get. And I can’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of a new wave of tragedy/inspiration porn in YA novels. Written better and with greater accuracy and representation, yes, and I’m not going to pretend those aren’t good things, but as someone who read a whole load of McDaniel’s novels, I can’t help but see loads of similarities, and it makes me anxious with the idea that someone (not necessarily Lippincott) will take the same road. Going from well-intentioned to capitalizing on the experienced pain of people who already find that most of their representation is, well, Lurlene McDaniel novels.

Here’s hoping that’s not what happens.

Beyond, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 15, 2021

Summary: Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and “milking” of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor’s Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?

Thoughts: Valdemar’s founding has been something of a mythical thing ever since it was first mentioned in the very first Heralds of Valdemar novel, Arrow’s of the Queen. A Baron from a brutal imperial regime in the east sought to free his people from tyranny, and so took them on a long journey far away, beyond the reach of the Empire, where they settled in what eventually became the Kingdom of Valdemar. One of those situations where one man who cared people but was powerful to change an abusive system, so he left the system and created a new one. A different kind of heroism than the kind you see in fantasy stories where one man takes down an entire corrupt regime, but heroism none the less.

In Beyond, we start on Baron Valdemar’s journey to freedom, shedding light on the myth and making it real and relatable, at least within the confines of the world’s lore.

Now, I’ll grant you, this wasn’t quite the story I was expecting. It’s not that the description of Baron Valdemar’s journey away from the Empire was different than how it was briefly described in a few other novels and short stories, but as is often the case with more recent Valdemar novels, it’s all the stuff in between the story’s bones that make me raise an eyebrow in confusion. It seems lately like Lackey wants to tie everything together in neat packages, to have everything connect to everything else, to the point of creating weirdly complicated setups to explain things that didn’t really need an explanation in the first place.

Case in point, the vrondi. Now, vrondi are little air spirits that were largely introduced in the Last Herald-Mage novels and are a key reason why mages were driven insane if they tried to do magic in Valdemar for so long. They were sort of roped into a plan to have them keep an eye on any mages who weren’t also Herald-Mages, watching them until a Herald-Mage could come check them out. Then the Herald-Mages died off, and for a long time mages in Valdemar were just constantly watched by a growing number of invisible presences. Vrondi are also the reason why Heralds can do what they call Truth Spell, which can detect lies or even force someone to be honest. Okay. All makes sense. Nothing contradictory here.

Except that in Beyond, it’s established that vrondi weren’t just “we exist all over the world” natural spiritual creatures; they came with Baron Valdemar to these new unexplored lands after he freed them from a convoluted Imperial scheme that bound them to living dolls and forced them to become slaves. And while I can understand that they felt indebted to Valdemar for his actions in freeing them, it seems rather cruel to have bound them to the spell that made them watch for mages in the first place. They gave permission then, yes, but it begs the question of whether feeling indebted to someone’s legacy, hundreds of years later, would actually make them so willing to bind themselves to that task. It created a weird moral quandary when reading Beyond, and when this book’s story is added to the whole of Valdemar’s lore, it contained aspects that made me quite uncomfortable.

Which would have been find if it was something designed to make the reader uncomfortable, something done to provoke thought and consideration. Instead it felt more like Lackey didn’t think that journeying into unknown lands and trying to keep people safe from dangers on all sides would be an interesting enough story, and so tried to shoehorn in something for long-time readers to recognize, even when it didn’t need to be there and made later books on the timeline make less sense.

It wasn’t that Beyond was a bad book. It was pretty on par with a lot of Lackey’s recent work. But for me, the series peaked a while ago, I think, and each new foray back into the world leaves me increasingly disappointed. From stories complicated in ways that they don’t need to be, to her new strange habit of trying to make modern references that don’t really make any sense (this time it was characters calling a dog a “doggo” and a “pupper,” and yes, they were mages so old it could be argued this was just slang from another era, but really, it’s just a nod to modern real-world slang… which I guess is still better than commentary on the Quiverfull movement or the Scooby-Doo references…) The characters were interesting, the tyrannical debauchery of the Empire was honestly a fascinating setting, and I was interested in seeing how things would play out, but it didn’t hold my interest the way earlier books in the series have done in the past.

And yet, every time I say that I’m done with the series, a new book comes out and I’m dragged back in, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

If you’re of like mind to me, thinking that the Valdemar series peaked before the books with Mags started, then this is one I can safely say is easy to pass over without missing much. If you’re a fan of Lackey’s more recent entries into Valdemar, then this one will still be right up your alley, since it’s very much indicative of her modern writing. I can’t say it’s one I’d recommend, per se, but as I said, it isn’t bad, and I can still see it appealing to a certain subset of fans.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Long Time, No Post!

Time slips by so quickly; I didn’t realize that it had been 2 months since I last said anything on this blog. Yeesh!

Part of that is because, sadly, I haven’t been reading much. I have been reading some, but… not much. There are times where my health sadly doesn’t allow me the attention span to actually read for longer than 10 minutes without my eyes just sort of unfocusing. It’s brutal. It honestly hurts sometimes to see that within the space of 10 years, I’ve gone from reading 5-8 books a month to consider myself lucky if I finish a single book in the same span of time.

Never get a chronic illness, folks. Never. But if you absolutely have to, make sure it’s one that’s easily treatable and doesn’t interfere with doing the things that used to bring you such joy and comfort.

I have read a few things, though, and over the next little while I’ll try to get some reviews out. I don’t want this blog to be totally dead, even though I know it’s sorta on its last legs at this point anyway. The reviews might be shorter, might be less detailed than they used to be, but eh, very few people read my reviews anymore anyway, so I don’t think anyone will notice. :p

Not self-pitying. I’ve already accepted that the blogosphere has moved on from when I was in my bloggy prime. That’s fine. I don’t want to be a rising star or something. I just want to still be part of this. Even if I can’t handle a lot of it like I used to.

So, now you know I’m still alive, still reading, still having opinions on things.

Oh, also, I’m going to be moving again in a month or so, since my partner got offered a job teaching at another college! So we’ll be moving back to the city we used to live in soon. That’ll be exhausting, honestly, but I’m kind of looking forward to it, since we’re looking mostly into 2-bedroom apartments and so I can have my own bed again, and not have to sleep on the couch when I need to sleep at night! (My partner and I have vastly different sleeping needs, especially with my pain issues, so sharing a bed is really difficult, sadly.)

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’ll get to writing some of those reviews. Expect a new one next week!

Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline

Buy from Amazon.com, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 24, 2020

Summary: AN UNEXPECTED QUEST. TWO WORLDS AT STAKE. ARE YOU READY?

Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything.

Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.

And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who’ll kill millions to get what he wants.

Wade’s life and the future of the OASIS are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

Thoughts: I enjoyed Ready Player One a lot. It wasn’t until later, after reading some other opinions and giving the book a second look that I really started to see some serious problems with the pop culture glorification and the truly terrifying amounts of gatekeeping the characters embodied. I can see why there was gatekeeping, given who the characters were and what they were doing, but geek culture already had a huge problem with that, and Ready Player One seemed to say, “Yeah, okay, but what if making other people feel like they know less actually gets you cool things in the end?!”

Now we come to the sequel, Ready Player Two, and wow, there are just so many more problems! Where the first book was at least fun to read during many scenes, this one was mostly the opposite, I’m sad to say.

Strap in, friends, because this is not going to be a positive review. Nor a short one.

The premise of this novel is that new tech has been found that allows users of the OASIS, that gigantic MMORPG upon which 99% of human interaction and economy relies in Cline’s near-future world, to essentially port their very minds into the game, allowing for total immersion in a way that resembled a directed lucid dream. Only the once-founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, did the same thing at one point, leading to a faulty but autonomous NPC version of himself running around and demanding that since he once scanned the mind of his lifelong crush, Wade and his friends should set out on a quest to bring her to life, so to speak, as an NPC, so that he can have another chance to be with her. To ensure that everyone complies, he locks all of the mind-scanned users within the OASIS and won’t let them log out, holding millions of people hostage and giving the group a 12 hour window in which to solve all of the riddles and quests that will lead to his goal.

In other words, the characters from the previous novel have an even greater quest to accomplish with less time, fewer resources, higher stakes… and of course they manage, because what once took years now must obviously take less than a day because that’s just what the plot calls for.

It felt very much like a problem a lot of sequels have, though usually I see it in TV shows and movies rather than books. It’s not enough to meet and match what the first thing accomplished. There’s this assumption that one has to go even further beyond, to top the previous story or else nobody will be interested. Got to make things bigger, make the consequences or the quest more grand, or else nobody will care because they already saw this story.

The problem comes when you reach too far, and give the audience a higher-stakes plot that must be (and will be) fulfilled within a tighter time limit, despite it not making sense to do so. It could be argued that the characters have so many more resources at their disposal this time around, since they’re all in control of massive wealth and in-game power, but they had a significant amount of that by about the halfway point of the previous novel too, and the omnipotent powers that Wade gained for winning Halliday’s original east egg quest have been stripped from him in Ready Player Two, so you can’t even excuse it through that. The stakes might be higher and so the group might be more motivated, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean they can actually accomplish everything in the given time period.

But the plot demanded it, and so…

Wade, for his part, comes off as initially a pretty terrible person in this book. It’s a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” since he openly admits that he used his in-game god-powers to bankrupt and destroy the characters of people who so much as said mean things about him and his friends. And in a world where there are no second lives, are no backup accounts, killing a character means that characters starts over again with nothing. Since so much of out-of-game economics are tied to the game… Well, let’s just say it’s like whenever you die in a video game, the bank shows up at your door to repossess your house and all your belongings.

Yes, Wade does change from this mindset thanks to therapy and effort, but then you get to the part where he can stalk any account he chooses, and gives Aech and Shoto the benefit of respect and privacy, but decides he’s still so hung up on Art3mis that he has to keep tabs on her at all times, and oh yeah, this definitely presents him as a character I want to give a shit about for an entire other novel…

Cline’s writing throughout the book was fine, if a bit unbalanced at times. Some scenes rush by relatively quickly, others take for-freaking-ever to resolve, to the point where I legitimately considered skipping past large chunks of the whole “battle 7 versions of Prince” section because it was just a whole lot of running around, gathering items, and listening to Aech talk about how awesome Prince was. The characters themselves… Honestly did not quite feel the same as they were in Ready Player One, occasionally feeling like I was reading a tolerable but not-quite-there fanfic presentation of them. This was especially true in Shoto’s case, as he went from being rather formal in the first book to spouting English-language jokes and slang in this book. Perhaps that could be hand-waved because he was using translation software and it could be argued that’s the fault of the software… but that’s a lot of reading between the lines to do to explain some character degradation.

Though I will admit that the constant pop culture references got stale very very quickly here, and for the record, I didn’t find them stale in Ready Player One. Every character’s obsession with 80s pop culture made sense, given what they were working toward. But in Ready Player Two, the pop culture craze seems to still stay decently in the 80s but also occasionally skipping forward a few decades to reference popular things from later decades. But only up to current day. And sure, it can be argued that Cline doesn’t exactly know what media is going to be popular in 2025 and so can’t reference it, but it gives the peculiar impression that after a certain point, no new media was really made in Wade’s world. It’s all just stuff that was popular in the past, because something something reader nostalgia.

Yes, I’m being caustic here. But if you give me a reason for characters to talk in pop culture references from the 80s all the time, I will believe you and accept it, even when I don’t get the references. Give me no reason that they’re familiar The Matrix, though, and I call bullshit.

Which brings me to a very personal gripe about one reference… Art3mis mentions that putting your whole consciousness into a game is a bad idea, because hasn’t anyone ever seen Sword Art Online? And yeah, SAO does involve that. But you know what other anime involved that, which was before SAO’s time? Freaking .hack! You know, that series that had multiple anime seasons and spin-offs, multiple video games, manga adaptations, novels, and also involved people getting dangerously stuck in an MMO. A series which seems to have been largely forgotten in the wake of SAO’s popularity, to the point where it seems like many people have no idea that the concept of people getting stuck in a video game even existed before Sword Art Online was conceived. SAO is more popular now. But .hack had the Western stage first, and it bothers me a lot to see people continue to overlook it, especially in a novel where characters once argued constantly about how relevant obscure 80s movies were. Things like that made it seem as though Cline was writing not so much what the characters were likely to know, but what the book’s audience was likely to be interested in at the time of the book’s release.

This isn’t me gatekeeping. This isn’t me saying, “If you only know Sword Art Online but don’t know .hack, then you’re not a true fan of a very specific subgenre.” This is me saying that the characters probably had as much reason to know about both, but the author chose to reference only the one that the book’s audience was likely to know, despite throwing out all sorts of references to things the audience probably didn’t know in the previous novel.

But now I want to talk about the book’s serious moral quandary, and for that, I’m going to have to discuss some huge spoilers, so if you still plan on reading this and don’t want to book’s ending to be ruined, then feel free to not read the rest of this review.

Okay, so a thread that runs through the bulk of the novel is that Art3mis does not like this new brain-scan technology and refuses to use it, being the only holdout of the group. It contributes to the huge rift that has formed between her and Wade. She’s of the opinion that it hooks users too much into the game and prevents them from existing in the real world, which is something the group actively took pains to prevent at the end of Ready Player One, ensuring that players absolutely had to log off sometimes and go interact in meatspace. But at the end, when it allows for Og and Kira to be reunited as sentient NPCs even after their physical bodies have both died, she basically pulls a, “Oh Wade, you were right all along, this technology is so wonderful!” as though all of her other objections just don’t matter anymore.

(Plus their relationship just sort of starts up again almost randomly, without any resolution to their problems. They go through danger together, beat a great foe, and then it’s just sort of casually mentioned later that oh, they’re back together now. Readers didn’t even see them discuss getting back together. It just happened off the page and we have to take Wade’s declaration of it as fact, I guess.)

But there’s more. The reason that Kira is in the game as a sentient NPC to begin with is because Halliday ported her mind in there without her consent, an act which many characters are horrified over and think was despicable. But when push comes to shove, they make the decision to turn the minds of every brain-scanned OASIS user into sentient NPCs in a self-contained OASIS simulation without their knowledge or consent, to keep their self-contained OASIS simulation fresh and full of real minds during a long interstellar journey and to keep consenting sentient NPCs company, because getting informed consent would just be too tricky. They take the attitude of, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them,” even though they acknowledge it was a clear violation when someone did that to Kira.

And at that point, I was thankful the book was pretty much over, because the self-righteous hypocrisy made me very angry.

Ready Player Two isn’t a bad book, per se. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s reasonably entertaining. But it has a lot of problems, both moral and technical, and I found it considerably less enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s not one I regret reading, per se, because unless I absolutely hate a story or series, I tend to want to see if through to the end, even if I’m not always having the best time with it. But it is one that I’ll mostly end up remembering for all the issues I had with it, rather than the sort of exciting high-stakes adventure it was meant to be.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, by K S Villoso

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of her kingdom, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves. It nearly tore her nation apart. But her arranged marriage to the son of a rival clan heralds peace.

However, he suddenly disappears before their reign can begin, and the kingdom is fractured beyond repair.

Years later, he sends a mysterious invitation to meet. Talyien journeys across the sea in hopes of reconciling their past. An assassination attempt quickly dashes those dreams. Stranded in a land she doesn’t know, with no idea whom she can trust, Talyien will have to embrace her namesake.

A Wolf of Oren-yaro is not tamed.

Thoughts: Before I get into the meat of this review, I’d like to state that I’ve started taking some new medications to try and help various health issues in my life, and those medications make me a little bit spaced out at times and make it tough to fully gather my thoughts. So if anything in this review doesn’t make sense or makes weird leaps of logic, please take it as a given that it’s because of my meds, or because this book was just that good, or a combination of both.

It’s probably both.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is one of those fantasy novels that seems, right from the outset, so very well planned and plotted and expressed that sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re not reading historical fiction. The world is so finely detailed, the mix of cultures and mentions of different languages and dialects, all of it combine into something that feels incredibly real. As we follow Queen Talyien’s journey to reunite with her runaway husband, layers and layers are peeled back, revealing a rich and complex story coming out from what at first seemed relatively simple.

Well, as simple as politics and “It’s Complicated” relationships are, at any rate.

Talyien is one of those characters who I think it’s easy to both like and dislike, depending on the situation. I can’t help but admire her tenacity, her desire to do what she thinks is right, and her sharp mind, and in many of the situations she found herself in, I agreed with her judgment calls. On the flip side, those traits came with drawbacks that kept her from seeing things she didn’t want to see. Her strong desire to reunite with her husband, partly from love and loyalty and partly due to the political arrangement that came about from their marriage, could seem admirable… if it wasn’t for the fact that she kept overlooking that he really didn’t want the same thing, and that he didn’t view her in the same light she viewed him. Talyien wasn’t what I’d call a trusting person by nature, but she seemed to have difficulty recognizing the machinations of others, the way she was constantly maneuvered into positions that were very much to her disadvantage. While she was committed to doing her best for the kingdom (queendom?) she led, she did have more than a touch of naiveté about her, which was frustrating at times.

So Talyien’s journey throughout The Wolf of Oren-Yaro wasn’t just the physical journey of getting her husband back, or trying to solve the increasingly complex set of circumstances surrounding the reunion (assassins, betrayal, and disappearances abound!), but her journey to see the world in a new light. She’s not the same person at the end of the book as she was in the beginning. She’s seen the lengths people will go to get what they want, she’s seen the reality of life for people she wouldn’t have even noticed in the past, and she learns far more about the what’s going to be expected of her as even her political situation changes. She’s still very much herself at the end, but it’s a self that’s more mature, in some ways, or at least more apt to see the sheer amount of deception around her.

Villoso’s gorgeous writing really brings this Asian-inspired world to life, showing the reader the highs and lows of various locations, the best and the worst of people, and all their varied complexities; nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. With possibly one exception, though I’m not going to spoil that for people who have yet to read this book. Despite having very little ability to concentrate on things lately due to my ongoing health issues, once I started reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I kept being motivated to push past my limits, to read just a little further, even when my eyes didn’t want to focus properly or I realized I’d just spent 5 minutes staring blankly at the same page, because I was that invested in the story. I know I’ve said this about other novels, but it stands true here just as much as there: this is a novel that really draws you in and refuses to let you go. Once you give it even a slight chance to ensnare you, you too will find yourself pushing past your limits, doing the, “Just one more chapter,” thing, until before you know it, you’ve reached the end and there’s nothing else to do but reach for the sequel and continue the epic fantasy adventure.

Long live the Bitch Queen!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade War, by Fonda Lee

Buy from Amazon.com, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Thoughts: Sequel to the absolutely incredible Jade City, Jade War dives back into a world where jade means power and the two ruling/warring families of Kekon are still at each others’ throats against a backdrop of increasing social change. Political alliances are being made and broken, lines shift and change, and progress marches ever onward while people try to maintain a semblance of the lives they know while everything around them seems to grow less familiar by the day. Jade smuggling, underhanded deals, old vendettas, war on the horizon, and cross-cultural clashes are just some of the struggles the Kaul family must deal with in this story where nobody is safe.

And I mean that. Jade City and Jade War are books where you can’t get too attached to any character, because there’s every chance they’ll end up dead at some point. For all that I accepted this in the first book, it was still shocking to me every time it happened, because the characters are so well written and grow so familiar to the reader that it seems impossible for the story to exist without them. And yet. Death is the reality faced when clashing clans war in the streets, when old enemies raise their heads and seek vengeance, and when navigating the treacherous waters of unfamiliar and hostile societies. During a few scenes, I was especially tense, as some of my favourite characters were in danger of meeting the same fate as so many others, and I was on the edge of my figurative seat waiting to see how it all turned out for them.

Jade War wastes no time in asking some brutally hard questions. Can you still be part of a family when you’ve forsworn the thing the family is most concerned with? Is it acceptable to sell something sacred to people who don’t appreciate it the way you do, in order to gain advantage over those who seek to destroy you? Is it honourable to push someone to do something dishonourable? How much bloodshed is acceptable to keep valuable cultural traditions strong, or is it better to sacrifice everything you hold dear in the name of peace? And, in nearly every instance, where does the line get drawn? There are no easy answers here, there never are, but these are the issues that occupy the thoughts of so many characters, from the minor to the major. You get explorations of cultural value, of a culture’s place in the context of a wider world. You see a society where that which what we would deem as a seedy underbelly, a criminal organization to be stamped out, is actually just an accepted part of daily life. One that does a lot of good for the people.

The clans honestly remind me a lot about what I’ve read of yakuza families. Probably other organized crime families too. I remember many years ago reading about how, after a large earthquake in Japan, the yakuza were one of the first on the scene to deliver emergency supplies to those displaced in the disaster. They weren’t bound by the same red tape that the government was, so they could just show up and help people who needed help. Or an interview with a yakuza member talking about how one of his colleagues (probably the wrong word but it’s the best I can think of) ran an orphanage, and sure, that orphanage was a tax haven, but it also was a good place for kids to be when they had nowhere else to go. Handing out blankets and bottles of water after a disaster is exactly what I can imagine Hilo doing. I can see Shae in her office, smiling at the thought that an orphanage is both providing for kids and also making sure the family sneaks by paying less in taxes. Beating the crap out of someone who is harassing the owner of a clan-supported business? Sure, that’s absolutely a thing the Maik brothers would do. These are the sorts of characters you will come to know and love as you read both Jade City and Jade War.

The Green Bone Saga books are filled with grey-and-grey morality, where you might be able to identify who is wrong, but it’s hard to say that anybody’s really right. The best you can say of the characters is that they’re all doing what they think is best, whether that be for their families, their clans, or themselves. And that leads to characters doing morally reprehensible things in the name of what they believe to be right. It’s hard to call the Kaul family “the good guys” when they’ll undermine businesses for their own benefit, or when one of them kills in order to essentially kidnap a baby in order to raise it within the family. There are no good guys, not really. There are people who are worse than others, but I don’t think there’s a single character in these books who hasn’t done something awful in the name of loyalty and duty, nobody who hasn’t stepped over someone else in the pursuit of ambition.

And honestly, I kind of love that. There are plenty of stories out there where the lines are clearly drawn, where you know the right side from the wrong side, where people fight against injustice or evil or oppressive regimes. There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. I love them too. But sometimes I crave a good portrayal of the messy reality of life, where there are no easy answers and no clear examples of good versus bad. The world is full of beauty and brutality, love and honour and violence. It’s complicated and oh so real, and I love it so much. Lee has created such a complete world that every piece of it feels real, every piece fits into the complicated pattern that a fully fleshed out world requires. There’s a stunning amount of world-building in these books, and Lee should feel proud that it all came together so brilliantly, conveyed to the reader in ways that at no point feel forced or trite.

I find myself in a similar situation to when I read and reviewed the first book. Jade War was so astounding, so fantastic that I have a hard time collecting my thoughts into something coherent. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to just hand copies to people and say, “Read this because it’s so freaking good!” To so eloquently portray the clash and blend of technology and magic, modernity and tradition, is no easy feat, but Lee handles it all so well that I ended up finishing Jade War and wanting to pick up Jade City and start the whole journey all over again. My reviews can never do this series justice. The best book are always like this for me. I try to put something together to convey just how much I loved them, and in the end I sit back, unsatisfied, knowing that I couldn’t address half the things I wanted to, and none of them properly express my full thoughts and emotions.

In the end, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend this series. If you enjoyed Jade City then you will adore Jade War. I can’t think of another series like this; it stands proudly as a stellar example of what one might call “gangster fantasy.” I can’t do it full justice; it’s the sort of book you have to experience for yourself in order to see just how truly amazing it is, from beginning to end, in all of its glorious violence and heart. The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master. Do not miss your chance to read these books.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

State of the Ria

So I decide to phase out reviewing in order to focus on my own writing, and then, uh… don’t. I have written nothing. I haven’t had the brain-space for it.

I’ve made no secret of my ongoing health problems, but for those who don’t follow me on Twitter of Facebook and thus might not have heard my ranting and railing… In a nutshell, for a few years now, I’ve been dealing with worsening pain, which kind of came to a head last summer after a couple of nights of insomnia just sent me spiraling over the edge. Since then it’s been a non-stop rollercoaster of pain, of decreasing mobility, of continued insomnia broken up by periods of not being able to do anything but sleep, of fatigue that leaves me incapable of doing much beyond vacantly watching TV shows and YouTube videos that I’ve already watched a dozen times, because my brain has no space for anything new.

Which, sadly, includes writing. I’ve been plotting and planning a novella I want to write, to get me back into the swing of things before I tackle something longer and more complicated, but beyond taking notes, nothing’s been written. I sit down, I open a new document, and just… can’t focus.

Brain fog. Ain’t it grand?

Every day or night in which I don’t write something, I feel guilty. Right now, I’m not just a neutral presence in this household, but instead I’m one that takes but cannot really give back. I can’t work, I can’t earn money, and so we’re trying to get by on one income. One income which is keeping us afloat, because we know how to live frugally when we need to, but there are so many things that would improve our qualify of life and our health that we just can’t afford. And if I’m blunt, it’s mostly because of me.

Right now I live in that horrible limbo state of being too disabled to work but not so obvious disabled that I can get government assistance. The laws where I live are kind of bullshit in that regard: to qualify for government disability assistance (which would let me draw a monthly cheque of maybe $500-550, and that would help so damn much right now…), I’d need signed forms from a doctor stating my diagnosis and affirming that this diagnosis means I will never be able to work again, or else am going to die relatively soon. It seems that the government thinks that disability only ever comes from a sudden terrible accident, or is something that will kill you quickly. Nothing in between.

I do not yet have a diagnosis. I’m still waiting for 2 tests to be done: a muscle biopsy to see if I have something destroying my muscles (very unlikely, given other test results, but still possible) and an EMG to see if my peripheral nerves are dying. If either of those tests show anything, cool, I have a diagnosis. If not? …I dunno, fibromyalgia, I guess?

None of the likely diagnosis are curable things, either. Treatable sometimes, to a degree. Manageable, with lifestyle changes (such as ones I wish I could afford right now). But nothing I’d ever be able to face and say, “Ah yes, I know I’ll get my old life back at the end of this.”

And believe me, the stress of that hanging over me isn’t doing my attention span any favours, either.

I want to work. I want to earn money, to contribute to the household, to stop feeling like nothing but a burden.My partner’s pretty good about it, but I’m well aware of the reality of my situation. Unless I can do something at home, setting my own hours, then my options are practically non-existent.

Which bring me back to why I feel guilty for not writing. If I write, I might be able to sell. If I sell, I earn money. If I earn money, I feel like I’m worth something, because I can contribute and improve our lives. I might not be the best writer, and maybe I only have a snowball’s chance in hell at actually earning anything that way, but it’s something I can strive toward. I can try. Sometimes just trying makes me feel like I’m not entirely useless.

If only this damn brain fog would shift and let me actually do what I want to do!

But hey, maybe I’ll manage to pull myself out of these mental mists and put fingers to keyboard and in a few months, you’ll be critically eyeing my attempt at writing something with textiles and ghosts and sacrifices. Maybe it won’t even suck! Got to keep my fingers crossed, right?

A Change is Gonna Come

I mentioned this on Twitter recently, but I thought it bore mentioned here too: I’m going to be phasing out my reviewing.

I can see some eye-rolls already. Oh look, Ria’s stopping reviewing again, only everybody knows it won’t last for very long. Yeah yeah, I had this debate with myself already. :p

This time, though, I’m not so much stopping reviewing, so much as I’m scaling back on them in order to work on writing of my own.

I have learned a lot about writing from reviewing. A lot. People who have seen my before-reviewing writing and my after-reviewing writing have commented that the improvement is marked, and believe me, it wasn’t because I was writing my own original ideas all that time. But through critiquing the stories of others, I learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t, what pitfalls to watch for, what resonates with me, what I want to put my own spin on. I picked up a lot of lessons along the way.

And it’s time to put them to good use.

I have ideas in my head, and I want to get them out. There are some novels percolating in this noggin of mine, and I’ve gone over and over how I want to write them, and now I need to stop just talking about writing, just wishing I was writing, and actually get to the writing.

So. Fewer reviews. Probably a post here or there about what I’m writing. Maybe a snippet or two. Not sure yet what will become of this blog, whether it will stay mostly for reviews or whether I’ll use it to talk about my own work too. Probably the latter. I’ve made enough personal posts over the years, after all. It wouldn’t be entirely out of place.

So maybe in a year or two, you’ll be holding a new book in your hands and it’ll have my name on it. Fingers crossed!

I Scored an Interview with Anne Bishop!

You know me. You know that I love Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels. There’s more to it than just loving the story and the characters and the world, though. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be the same person without these books in my life. It’s thanks to them that I found a lot of courage to let my voice be heard and to not be cowed by people who saw me as weak. They helped give me the strength to not be as weak, and to find value in myself. It seems like a lot to credit these books with, but it really is true. When you read books filled with strong women, powerful women, people who are nurtured and encouraged to be the best they can be… When you spend time discussing the world of those books with those you love, when you role-play scenarios set in that world… It’s hard to not have some of that rub off on you.

Case in point, back when I could attend university, there was this guy who took the same bus as me, and no matter how much later he got to the bus stop than I did, would always deliberately make sure he got on the bus first. He had to be ahead of everybody. I would see the bus coming, and start walking to the curb, and he would always walk a little faster than me to get ahead of me. If we got there at the same time, he’d shift around and shuffle and eventually force me to take a step away to avoid him bumping into me, which gave him the opening to be first in line. It bothered me. I didn’t think he was being malicious or cruel. I just think that I was beneath his consideration, except as someone to overtake. A display of subtle dominance, a way of showing me that I was worth less than he was.

And one day, I’d had enough. Too many hours of reading the Black Jewels novels, too many evenings spent role-playing a Queen who knew damn well what she was worth and wasn’t the sort to be cowed by anything. Too much sense of sense-worth developing, too much confidence that I shouldn’t be overlooked and treated as insignificant. “Not today, puppy.” Just before the bus was due to arrive but before either of us saw it coming, I headed to the curb. Stood right at the edge. Waited patiently. By the time he saw the bus coming, he was left with three choices: stand out in the actual road in order to be ahead of me, push me out of the way, or wait his damn turn in a line like a polite human.

He chose the third option.

And he never tried that dominance shit with me again. Which makes me very sure it was a dominance thing to begin with.

Ridiculous to credit those books with my newly-emerging sense of self and value? No. Not really. Things affect us all in ways that we can’t always expect. I ended up taking some of the lessons of those books to heart. It changed me, for the better. I feel more able to not duck my head and be silent, because I so love a world where, were I there, I would be encouraged to hold it high and speak my mind.

So you might be able to understand why my jaw damn near hit the floor when I was approached with an offer of an interview with Anne Bishop, the author of these books that I hold so dear. No way in hell was I going to pass up that chance!

Now that I’m done setting the stage, let’s take a look at what she had to say in response to some of the more pressing questions on my mind.


  1. You’ve written a wide variety of characters in the Black Jewels novels, the good, the bad, and the terrible. Of all of them, who is your favourite to write? Similarly, who is or was your least favourite?

Pick one favorite? Really? Any day when I’m writing a scene with Daemon or Lucivar—or both—is a fun writing day. Or a sad writing day if one of them is in crisis. But scenes that have some zing in the dialogue are the best writing days. There is so much potential for getting the boyos in trouble, especially when they’re dealing with Witch or Karla. (Looking over the whole of the series, scenes with the High Lord were also good writing days.)

Least favorite to write? That’s easy. Dorothea and Hekatah.

  1. Daemonar steps up to the line and becomes a major player in The Queen’s Weapons. Back in the early days of the series, when you first wrote Daemonar as that little winged terror who shouldn’t be allowed in libraries, did you imagine him taking such a pivotal role in the series when he grew up?

I didn’t see him beyond who he was in each of the stories because that would have narrowed the possibilities of who he might be as he grew up. That said, Daemonar is his father’s son and his uncle’s nephew, so I had a feeling he would grow into a strong presence within the Blood’s society. And I’ve known from the beginning that Daemonar belongs to Witch in much the same way that Daemon and Lucivar belong to her. That has always had considerable influence in the shaping of who he would be.

But he still has some growing up to do, so he’s still a winged terror who boosts the adults’ blood pressure, just in a different way.

  1. Fans have long had many questions about various aspects of the lore in the Black Jewels novels, some of which have been answered in the books or the bonus stories on your website, but other things which go unaddressed as they weren’t pertinent to the story being told at the time. Could you ever see yourself writing supplemental material to answer some of these questions, in the same way that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages did for the Harry Potter franchise?

I don’t know. There are some things I find more interesting because they are only hinted at, and other things add to the layers and textures of that world but don’t resonate strongly enough by themselves for me to want to invest the amount of time required to write a story. Then again, if the Muse grabs me and says “Write this!” I’ll write the story.

  1. It’s no secret that there are some truly terrible events that occur throughout the Black Jewels novels. What was the hardest scene for you to write?

There were a lot of scenes that hurt my heart, but the one that always occurs to me first is the scene in Queen of the Darkness when Daemon is in the sunken garden raging and grieving because he believes Jaenelle is gone.

  1. Follow-up to the previous question: which scene gave you the most joy to write?

Jaenelle and Daemon’s first wedding. The scene in The Queen’s Weapons where Daemon meets Zoey (and following that, the scene where Daemon is telling Witch about his meeting with Zoey). Any scene where Lucivar has to deal with the fact that his kids have inherited a fair amount of what makes him a pain in the butt for everyone else.

  1. I often find myself turning to rereads of the Black Jewels novels (and the Others novels) when I’m in need of a comfort read. What are your favourite comfort reads or rereads?

The Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series by Louise Penny and the Sebastian St. Cyr series by C.S. Harris are the two I go back to the most because I can read those stories when I’m doing first draft of my next book.

  1. I’m sure this has been asked a hundred and one times by now, but could you take me through a bit of your writing process? Are you a “glue your butt to a chair and write until you’ve hit a certain wordcount” sort of writer, or do you wait until the right inspiration has hit before you start, even if that means a more sporadic writing schedule?

I write five days a week, reporting to the writing desk at 9AM. If I’m drafting a new story, I aim for 1500 words a day because that’s what I need to do to produce the length of book I write in the timeframe I have. For second draft, copyedit review, and proofreading the page proofs, I divide the number of pages by the writing days I have until that particular deadline to get a daily page quota. Then I work until I meet the day’s quota. Sometimes that is four hours, sometime it’s six. Six hours is about my limit. After that, my brain is too tired to stay focused on creative work.

While those things are going on, I also have to make time for the brain to wander and look at this and that as my way of gathering ideas and material for potential stories in the future.

  1. Movie and TV tie-in novels can be interesting, and there are even a few book franchises that have multi-author collections of stories set in their worlds. Could you ever see a sort of “Tales of the Blood” anthology being made, or is that the sort of project that doesn’t hold much appeal?

I won’t say never. However, I have a border collie gene in my makeup, and relinquishing any control of a place that has been a part of my life for over thirty years would be very hard. And that’s not taking into consideration the amount of work that would be required to create a useful bible for someone else’s reference. A lot of what I know about the Blood and the Realms is intuitive, which wouldn’t be helpful to anyone else.

  1. A burning question on everyone’s minds (or at least it will be once The Queen’s Weapons releases): do kindred Black Widows have a snake tooth and venom sac? (Inquiring minds want to know!)

I’m one of those inquiring minds, but the kindred didn’t tell me. However, I would be careful around any kindred Black Widows whose race has claws. Just in case.

  1. Anything else you’d like to add before I stop pelting you with questions?

Stories are about conflict of one kind or another. If my story makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you want to whack a character upside the head (or me for a particular scene, which is okay as long as we don’t live in the same state), then I’ve done my job because I felt all those things while I was writing the story. (Except the whack upside the head. I’m dedicated to my craft, not foolish.)


Thank you so very much for indulging this fan’s questions!

The newest novel in the Black Jewels series, The Queen’s Weapons, releases on March 9, and I highly recommend getting a copy of you’re a fan of the series. (If you haven’t checked out my review of the novel, it’s right here, along with purchase links.) Anne Bishop’s website can be found here, and contains bonus material not found in the books, which is well worth looking into!

The Queen’s Weapons, by Anne Bishop

Buy from Amazon.com, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 9, 2021

Summary: They are Warlord Princes, men born to serve and protect. They are the Queen’s Weapons, men born to destroy the Queen’s enemies–no matter what face that enemy wears.

Daemonar Yaslana knows how to be bossy yet supportive–traits he shares with his father, the Demon Prince, and his uncle, the High Lord of Hell. Within his generation of the family, he assumes the role of protector, supporting his sister Titian’s artistic efforts and curbing his cousin Jaenelle Saetien’s more adventurous ideas. But when a young Eyrien Queen, someone Titian thought was a friend, inflicts an emotional wound, Daemonar’s counterattack brings him under the tutelage of Witch, the Queen whose continued existence is known only to a select few.

As Daemonar is confronted by troubling changes within and around the family, he sees warnings that a taint in the Blood might be reappearing. Daemonar, along with his father and uncle, must uncover the source of a familiar evil–and Daemon Sadi, the High Lord of Hell, may be forced into making a terrible choice.

Thoughts: It’s not even close to a secret that I adore the Black Jewels novels. I love the characters, I love the world, and I often turn to these books when I’m in need of a comfort re-read. And while I definitely had some issues with the previous novel, The Queen’s Bargain (mostly in that one of the characters kept doing things she absolutely knew very well to not do), I still overall enjoyed it. And I fully expected to enjoy this latest offering in the series, The Queen’s Weapons, just as much.

The Queen’s Weapons is set a good few years after The Queen’s Bargain, with Jaenelle Saetien and Daemonar fast growing up and showing just who they’re going to be as adults. In Daemonar’s case, he’s definitely turning into the model of a Warlord Prince, very much like this father. In Jaenelle Saetien’s case… It’s a lot more complicated, as she quite frankly grows up to be quite the brat, convinced that the only way to come into her own is to rebel against very idea of her namesake, the Witch and Queen that everyone around her knew and loved. This is understandable pretty damn upsetting to Surreal and Daemon, but it only gets worse when signs emerge that the taint, once thought wiped out, has set down in Kaeleer and is starting to grow and corrupt once more.

I admit, when I first read the description of this book many months ago, I had to raise a skeptical eyebrow. In the original trilogy, it was a huge deal when Jaenelle sacrificed herself and her power to wipe out the taint that was threatening the Blood. It was a major event that wiped out most of the Blood across an entire Realm. And here it’s just, “Oh yeah, that thing. Yup, it’s back.” I was a little bit wary of how this would be handled. Not because I thought Bishop couldn’t do such a concept justice, but because I’ve seen authors, over time, wanting to write more in their beloved worlds but lacking a solid idea for a story, and so just bringing back a once-vanquished evil. Even if it made no sense.

But thankfully, it did make sense here. A reason was given for the taint’s reemergence, and that reason stands up to scrutiny. That was quite a relief!

While the Black Jewels series started off with so very much abuse and torture and things that deserve a buttload of trigger warnings, a lot of those things were absent in later books. Their echoes were still felt, of course, because one doesn’t recover from centuries of abuse, for instance, just because they’re now in a happy relationship. Scars are still there, they don’t fade so easily. But in terms of scenes of active abuse and assault? No, they faded from a lot of the text in future books, which likely made said books a bit more approachable for new readers. (Someone could read Cassidy’s duology, The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, for instance, without having read the core trilogy and without needing so many of those trigger warnings.) It’s sometimes easy to forget that the series started with a corrupt culture filled with violence and rape. And since The Queen’s Weapons deals with the taint coming back, I feel it’s worth pointing out that some of those issues do rear their ugly heads once again, and it’s worth warning people that yes, this book does contain rape, and abuse, and a very unsettling scene in which a kitten is left to die. You might well need to know that before picking it up.

And it’s with that context that we see a depiction of someone who knows very well that such things are wrong, but who has her own agenda and is willing to turn a blind eye to some things, to make excuses, if those things don’t like up with what she wants. Jaenelle Saetien clung to the wrong sort of people, convinced that they weren’t using her and weren’t malicious and weren’t behind any of the increasingly concerning instances of abuse, because she needed something that she was convinced only they could provide. She’s a character study in desperation and willful ignorance.

Much as I hate to say it, I could relate a bit to Jaenelle Saetien’s concerns about living in somebody’s shadow. It’s something I’ve had to confront in my life as well, and that I still struggle with at times, so even when I hated who she was becoming and how she was behaving, when things switched to her viewpoint and we got a look at her thoughts and emotions, I couldn’t help but remember how many times I had felt the same way. It made me reflect on how I could well have ended up the same way, someone who was willing to overlook terrible things in order to be accepted by people who had no expectations of me. There but for the grace of something-or-other, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that Jaenelle Saetien is a bad person, so much as she’s someone who could easily become so, if not handled the right way. She balanced on the edge of a very particular knife, and it took extraordinary events to determine which side of that knife she’d end up on.

I do want to take a moment to mention something in particular here. I don’t know if it was intended this way or not, but the twisted nostalgia for Hayllian items and pieces of Dorothea’s abusive rule struck me as analogous to the way some people have this weird idealized nostalgia for times past, especially when it comes to Nazi propaganda and far-right ideology. A conviction that “the right sort of people” should be in power, that it’s fine to push others down if it comparatively raises up you and yours, you see that mentality expressed a lot in people who won’t call themselves racist, no, but will express that it’s “those people” who are keeping everyone else down. There are people out there who seek out and collect Nazi memorabilia, with an eye to glorifying the Nazi regime and all of its atrocities. Atrocities, of course, against “the wrong people.” I can’t say for sure if this was Bishop’s specific intent here, but it sure read that way to me. And given that Daemon et al are the good guys of the story, the ones we’re supposed to empathize with and agree with, and they’re all vehemently against bringing back the sort of culture that brought torture and death to themselves and those they loved… Yeah, it’s not hard to see which side of the line we’re supposed to stand on.

The Queen’s Weapons addressed many of the smaller issues that I encountered in The Queen’s Bargain, which I was happy to see. Chiefly, the relationship between Surreal and Daemon. I won’t lie here — I have never been a fan of those two together. I can see why they stayed together once Jaenelle Saetien came into the picture, absolutely, but the situation that led to it… Eh, I have strong feelings about it, and I may get around to discussing them someday. Either way, a good deal of the friction in the previous novel stemmed from their relationship, and from both of them trying to be who they weren’t, especially to each other. Especially after Daemon learned of Witch’s continued presence. But the way things worked out in The Queen’s Weapons felt satisfying. It felt like they figured themselves and each other out, and were prepared to move forward with what that knowledge meant. It might not be a happy conclusion, per se, but it was a very satisfying one.

As always with these books, there’s so much that I want to say, much of which can’t be fit into a review because then it would devolve into semi-nonsensical, “Ooh, does this mean that?” and, “So siddown and lemme tell y’all my theories about this scene!” What I can say for certain is that it was wonderful to return, once again, to a world I love and characters I adore, to walk a while in the Shadow Realm and revel in Bishop’s delicious dark fantasy narrative. It was a treat to see the younger characters mature and hold their own in the story. It’s a book I absolutely will reread, and discuss at length with my partner (because we’re both huge geeks for this series). Even moreso than The Queen’s Bargain, The Queen’s Weapons is a worthy addition to the series that holds a beloved place in my life, and I can absolutely recommend it to other fans of the series.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)