Deep Dive! Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop – Chapter 2

Welcome back to my deep dive exploration of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels. This week, we’re looking at chapter 2 of the first novel, Daughter of the Blood. I will give fair trigger warning on this one — later on, sections of this post and sections of the chapter involve discussing rape. I’ll mark the particular section so that people can skip it if they feel the need to.

This chapter starts off from Saetan’s perspective, as he searches for and confronts Cassandra, his former Queen. Cassandra, who he thought was long dead until Jaenelle kindly and inadvertently disabused him of that notion in the previous chapter.

Their discussion reveals something interesting. Now, Cassandra was Witch before, but not in the same way Jaenelle was. It’s hinted at more than said outright, left for the reader to piece together, but Witch is something of a ceremonial title given to Queens who wear Black Jewels. Of which there have been very few. It’s a noteworthy title, for obvious reasons, sort of paying homage to the legend of Witch as a powerful mythological being. Cassandra was that type of Witch. Cassandra, sensing the depth of power that already resides in Jaenelle, suspects that Jaenelle will be Witch in the same way, once she makes the Offering to the Darkness and reaches her full adult strength in later years.

Cassandra gets a shock, though, when Saetan reveals that Jaenelle won’t become Witch. Jaenelle already is Witch. The same Witch that Cassandra knew Saetan was waiting for, yearning for, to make her make him promise to live half an eternity in order to see.

They talk, briefly, about how someone like that could be controlled, to avoid having them hurt themselves or others with power that is, by all logic, too much for anybody to handle, let alone a child. Saetan, rather wisely, points out that they shouldn’t try to control Jaenelle, they can’t, because as soon as Jaenelle figures out that she’s being controlled, they would lose all hope of her ever being able to trust them again. If he or Cassandra want to play any part in Jaenelle’s life, now or in the future, one of the worst things they could do would be to try and control her.

What should they do instead?

“I will teach her. I will serve her. I will love her. That will have to be enough.”

Later, Saetan decides to go snooping. Jaenelle dropped hints that he was not her only friend, after all, and she wants to find out more about her and her life. He enlists the help of old friends and allies to track down the names of the people that Jaenelle mentioned when they last met.

Now it’s Saetan’s turn for a shock, though. He expected the names to belong to children who lived in Terreille, the same realm that Jaenelle lives in. Instead, he finds that they live in Kaeleer, the realm that lies between Terreille and Hell, which has been closed off for centuries. Jaenelle, by all rights, should not be able to travel there at all.

But then, she shouldn’t be able to travel into Hell, either. Somehow, that Jaenelle has friends in Kaeleer shocks Saetan more than the idea that she travels to Hell to visit demon-dead children.

In fairness, he’s had a very strange day.

~*~

TW for this section: rape, child abuse.

Now we shift perspectives to Surreal, who is a very exclusive whore. And assassin. She prefers the latter work to the former, but the former is a very good way of getting close to people when they need… disposing of.

Surreal has conflicting feelings about her heritage. On one hand, she didn’t really get to know her mother’s people, but she does carry their legacy and appearance in the form of gold-green eyes and delicately pointed ears. But she also has Hayllian blood, courtesy of the man who raped her mother. The man Surreal wants to find and to bring a grisly end to.

Much of Surreal’s section is a flashback to her childhood. When she was young, her mother, Titian, dragged home a babbling Tersa because reasons. Tersa, who eventually regains some sense of reality and drags home Daemon. Tersa points out a young Surreal and comments to Daemon that she’s Blood and has the right to live as Blood if she wants. Daemon provides Titian and Surreal a place to live, rent-free, and extra money besides, on the condition that they allow Tersa to also use it whenever she needs. Life improves. Surreal learns, and has her Birthright ceremony, and comes away with a Green Jewel.

Two years later, Surreal comes home to find her mother murdered.

The book gives ages, and lets the reader reach their own conclusions. Surreal was 12 when this happens. Titian had just turned 25. Allowing for pregnancy time, this would mean that Titian was raped when she was 12, gave birth to Surreal at age 13.

This chapter is something of an early warning sign for what’s to come. The world being as corrupt as it is, men fear powerful women, and attempt to break them as young as possible, before they come into their full strength, so that they won’t be a threat. Women fear men’s ability to break them, and seek to control them via the Ring of Obedience. Or other means. It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself, abuse piling on top of abuse, and one of the signs of such a ruined society is Surreal’s story. If this is too much for you, I can’t blame you one bit, but you should know that this isn’t the worst you’ll see in these books, and it feels fair to give that warning here.

Continuing on, Surreal runs from the crime scene, finds herself living on the streets, and, like her mother, is also raped. Unlike Titian, though, Surreal manages to hang on through the assault, barely avoiding crashing into her core and being broken and separated from her Craft, so that when the horrible act is finished, she remains a witch.

Not knowing what else to do, she becomes a prostitute in order to make enough money to eat.

Within a month, she made her first kill.

She begins to get revenge against the men who would and abuse young girls that way. The deaths attract Daemon’s attention, who decides he’s going to take a hand in her future. But not in a way I first expected.

For a long time, Daemon’s actions confused me. He clearly has enough money to just hand Surreal a bunch of notes and tell her she can stay at one of the many places he owns in order to keep her safe and to prevent her from having to sleep with strangers to get by. But he doesn’t. Instead, he gets her training. Not just training in how to better kill people, but also how to be a better whore. Why, Daemon? Why, when you could free her from a life she obviously only chose in order to barely get by, would you do that?

But strangely, it was actually the best way to keep her safe.

Surreal’s birthright Jewel was Green, which was already on the darker and more powerful end of the spectrum. She could, upon maturity, descend as dark as Grey, which is exactly what she ended up doing later on. Surreal’s strength would have made her a target for people like Dorothea, who wanted to wipe out strong witches who might pose a threat, or even just annoying opposition.

And with Surreal’s growing penchant for revenge killings, she was most certainly the kind of person who would have come to Dorothea’s attention. Surreal was never the “lay low and keep quiet” type.

So what better way to hide her than in plain sight? Anyone who might have considered her a threat would have dismissed her as nothing more than the plaything of paranoid rich men, a toy for the bed but hardly someone who could pose a threat. Especially when many prostitutes were like Titian, raped and broken and unable to find a better way of supporting themselves. Surreal could slip under the radar of those who would want her destroyed if they knew of her, and while slipping under that radar, she was free to kill the people who deserved it.

It seems cruel, it seems like Daemon also thought of young Surreal as nothing but a sex object, but in reality, he did what he did to protect her as best he could. Especially because at the time, he was a slave, and couldn’t always be around to help her. Any moments he took to himself were moments stolen, and potential punishment always waited.

Of course, in her relative youth, Surreal made a fatal mistake to fracture her friendship with Daemon.

He asked him for sex.

Daemon, a pleasure slave, known as Hayll’s Whore, a man who used sex and sex appeal as a weapon, did not take too kindly to this request. To say the least. Surreal got what she asked for, in a sense, though she regretted it, and their friendship didn’t recover. Long-lived races know how to hold a grudge.

~*~

Now we cut back to Hell, where Saetan’s day is interrupted by Jaenelle and Prothvar having a very loud argument. Jaenelle is angry because Prothvar won’t teach her to fly. Prothvar maintains that Jaenelle, unlike him, has no wings, and when told that she can fly anyway, tells her she lacks control. (Jaenelle counters that this is only because he refuses to teach her. He can’t really refute that one.)

Jaenelle and Prothvar are ordered out of the room, and after some discussion between Saetan and his friend Andulvar, the true reason for the argument becomes clear. Jaenelle does know how to fly, yes, but she wants to learn how to fly “like a hawk, like an Eyrian.” Prothvar laughed at her, so Jaenelle forced the issue by jumping off the highest tower of SaDiablo Hall.

…Just let that sink in for a moment. Imagine you’re Prothvar. Imagine you just laugh at someone who insists they can fly, when you see no obvious way of them flying. You have wings, they do not. Now imagine they just give you A Look and step off the cliff’s edge.

Naturally, you’re going to dive after them, aiming to catch them before they splat on the ground.

Naturally, you wouldn’t be prepared for them to be floating just below the edge of the dropoff, perfectly fine. Naturally, you smack right into them, because you weren’t expecting them to be there.

Naturally.

Saetan calls Jaenelle back in and explains to her that Prothvar was only so angry because she scared the everloving hell out of him. As you do. Then she scares him by telling him she’s already flown through incredibly dangerous areas of Hell, easy as you breathe, and having so much fun with it because she was so confident of her powers and so ignorant of the danger. Anything can be fun when you’re certain you’ll come out of it safely and you can get lost in the exhilaration.

It seems to be Jaenelle’s day for scaring people.

There’s one throwaway line here that caught my attention upon rereading this chapter, though, which I think prompts a little discussion.

“And even Eyriens need a little Craft to fly. Prothvar said so.”

Despite their wings, it’s fairly safe to assume that Eyriens, the great warrior race, don’t have hollow bones like birds do. It makes sense that they’d need some Craft to hold themselves aloft, to keep their bodies supported by their membranous wings.

So what about landens, those non-Blood that, as we’ve already read, are present in all races? Eyrien landens, then, must not be able to fly at all, the wings on their backs vestigial and useless.

It made me wonder how bitter they must feel to see Eyrien Blood be able to soar up in the sky, to have so much of their culture dominated by flight, knowing that they could never do the same.

Or perhaps Eyrien landens have much smaller wings now, or none at all, having been bred out as useless over the generations. We don’t know. The books never show us any Eyrien characters who aren’t Blood. This is never addressed, and is left to speculation.

Anyway, after this little debacle has been sorted out, we’re introduced to another of Hell’s inhabitants. A Harpy seeks audience with Saetan. A Harpy, by this world’s mythology, is a demon-dead woman who died by a man’s hand. A Dea al Mon Harpy, from a secretive race known for ferocity and cunning and protectiveness, clearly identifiable by, among other things, their delicately pointed ears. This Harpy is also a Black Widow and a Queen, a powerful combination.

This is Titian. Surreal’s mother. More influential and powerful in death than she was in life, but even so, in life she was strong enough for her essence to hang on after her death and transition to demon-dead, to continue on in Hell. This is Titian as Surreal never really knew her.

This is Titian, wanting to know where Saetan stands on the issue of a strange mysterious little girl, because Saetan’s ex-wife and self-styled “High Priestess of Hell” has been sniffing around and asking questions. Questions that Saetan does not want answered.

Titian suggests giving Jaenelle to a certain Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince she once knew, one who showed her kindness, but Saetan stops that idea before it gets started. He doesn’t think Daemon would willingly hurt Jaenelle, but he knows what Jaenelle’s concept means to Daemon, what Witch means to Daemon, and he also knows what a man might do when he’s backed into a corner and has no other options. Daemon is, after all, a slave, and someone else holds his reins as much as anyone ever has, and Saetan doesn’t trust them for an instant.

The Three, by Sarah Lotz

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he’s right?

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

Review: I had been looking forward to reading this book for so very long by the time I finally found a copy at the library, and let me say, I’m glad I did. The Three is a very engaging book, a heck of a page-turner, with a mystery that really keeps you going, wanting to unveil the next piece of the puzzle so that the picture becomes complete, little by little.

After 4 disastrous airplane crashes on the same day, with only 3 child survivors, the world starts to pay attention. Doubly so after odd things begin to happen around those children. Strange behaviours, conspiracy theories, whispers about the end of days, the whole shebang. Part of the mystery of this novel is sorting out truth from fiction, to figure out what’s really going on, and rather than present this story in a rather standard format, Lotz instead opts to tell it in a series of interviews and articles, chat logs and book excerpts, so that every view we get is tainted by bias and unreliability and subjectivity. The reader has to sort through what they’re given and see which interpretations make the most sense, much as we have to do whenever anything big hits the news. We’re presented with dozens of different viewpoints, some contradictory, some inflammatory, some with a kernel of truth inside, and we have to figure out what fits from the pieces we’re given.

The format also contributes to the way the book engages with the reader, pushes them just a little further onward. Most of the chapters aren’t very long, so it’s very easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” trap. The location shifts often, with the story spanning the globe as not all of the planes crashed in just one country, nor do all the surviving children live remotely near each other. If you’re not too keen on one particular story arc, not to worry, because Lotz switches you back to another one regularly, keeping things moving and going round. On one hand, this manner of storytelling did compel me to read more, with short snippets and frequent plot advancement. On the other hand, when taken as a whole, the plot does move somewhat slowly regardless, with progress happening in one place and then switching to another so that progress can happen there, and so on. There’s something new every time, from every viewpoint, but I will admit there are times that this sort of circular progression made things feel a bit slow, even if I still enjoyed watching the story unfold.

Lotz also does a fantastic job of commenting on the media circus through The Three, if I may be so blunt. The sensationalism behind the miraculous survival of the three children, the theories that spring up around them, the way people see bad within good and good within bad and spin those things out of proportion… I can’t say it was tastefully done, since in some ways, rampant consumption of any and all info can be rather tasteless, but it was well done, never the less. We get a feeling almost of rubbernecking over Paul’s downward mental spiral and paranoia around Jess, intruding on a private tragedy. We experience Ryu’s anxiety through his chat messages with Chiyoko, whose general disgust with life we also get a strong sense of. The book itself even makes mention of this, as it’s pitched as being a book written by the fictional Elspeth, documenting and compiling what information she can about The Three. There are passages that talk about her own bias regarding the events, sensationalizing the stories and prying into aspects of people’s lives that she has no business with.

I will say that the book dips into some cultural awkwardness now and again, however, which is a mark against it. It’s hard not to wince a little bit at the character of Ryu, a Japanese shut-in, or the doomsday cult that spring up around an American pastor. That isn’t to say that people like those characters don’t exist in the real world, but enough media attention has been made that sometimes it feels like those stereotypes are meant to be representative of an entire culture’s failings.

On the other hand, that may have been part of the point. That doomsday cult, for instance, is of the opinion that the Three are signs of the end times, that they’re three of the four horsemen, and maybe the very fact that respective societies have failed and produced certain types of people is a sign not of the flaws of cultures or people in themselves, but of the flaw of everything. Everything has gone to pot and needs to be wiped out and started over, the cycle beginning anew.

That interpretation doesn’t make things much better, since to be honest, there are so many ways of avoiding the use of those stereotypes to begin with, but it does improve it a little, at least in my mind.

The Three is the kind of novel to get you thinking, and specifically to get you thinking in circles, spiraling back and coming at things again and again as you try to fit together the whole narrative in a cohesive way. It’s a wonderful creative endeavour, and it had me pausing often to consider what was happening, and wondering how I might react in similar circumstances. Even if you never get particularly invested in or attached to many of the characters, they’re still rather interesting characters to follow, and they play their parts in the story well, showing the human element in an international tragedy/mystery. Even though it leaves itself open for a sequel (and indeed there is a sequel, though I have yet to read it), it’s still a complete story in itself, and could serve as a standalone novel; even if there are still unanswered questions at the end, they still come with a sense of story’s closure. If you’re a fan of slow-burn horror or supernatural thrillers, then you’d do well to give Lotz’s The Three a read.

 

Deep Dive! Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop – Chapter 1

Welcome back to my deep dive exploration of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels. This week, we’re looking at chapter 1 of the first novel, Daughter of the Blood.

The chapter opens with Lucivar, enslaved to Zuultah, the Queen of Pruul. We see the punishment of a slave who tried to overthrow the guards and escape slavery — things didn’t end well for him, and he is tortured by essentially being confined in an enclosed boat with a hoard of hungry rats.

For all that Lucivar is established as a man with a very violent and explosive temper, he is also capable of gentleness and mercy. He comforts the condemned slave, and eventually kills him swiftly, ending the man’s pain even though Lucivar strongly suspects he himself will be punished for that hard kindness. Lucivar did not participate in the slave revolt, did nothing to stop it or further its cause, but gave them only one piece of advice: Sacrifice everything.

He would escape himself, but there is something even he is not willing to sacrifice: Daemon. Daemon, who is played against Lucivar, his life and safety held over Lucivar’s head to ensure good behaviour.

We see here small pieces of the world start to be revealed. There’s a difference between Blood and landens (non-Blood of each race), though what that difference is will be revealed later; for now, it’s enough to know that the Blood have some degree of separation from others.

We learn that the land of Hayll, and specifically its High Priestess Dorothea, is a corrupting influence that spreads outward, corrupting other people and lands over time, perverting the Blood and their society, twisting the intricate dance of their people’s lives.

Among the Blood, males were meant to serve, not to rule. […] He […] refused to believe that serving and groveling meant the same thing.

For all that Lucivar has never lived during a time or in a place away from Hayll’s influence, he still knows that the way life is now is not how things are meant to be. This is meant, I’m sure, to be a sign of Lucivar’s good character, a sign that he hasn’t fallen under that corruption, though to be fair, I’m sure many people who are enslaved are certain that their lives and the culture around them that led to their enslavement are fundamentally flawed. Even the slave Lucivar mercy-killed began to wonder if the Blood are actually evil, because of the life he lived and the way he was treated.

Lucivar reflects on all of this and wishes, above all else, that some day he could meet a Queen that he would be proud to serve.

A wish, offered with blood, is a prayer to the Darkness.

And them BAM, suddenly a little girl appears. This is Jaenelle. Jaenelle, who is not particularly pretty (Lucivar thinks that “calling her plain would be kind”), but she has sass, and there’s definitely more to her than she first appears. She does not live in Pruul, has never even heard of Pruul or its Queen, and the only way for the Blood to travel long distances (using the Winds, which are psychic webs through the Darkness) is something that Jaenelle doesn’t really do… normally. Most Blood would travel along the lines of the Webs. Jaenelle, on the other hand, just kind of goes wherever she wants to go, traveling blind through the Darkness and ending up exactly where she wants to anyway.

Where she wants to… or needs to. And she heard Lucivar’s need for a Queen he could serve…

~*~

We cut to Daemon, who most emphatically does not like being a pleasure slave.

Daemon is also a fairly controversial character, not for his violence but for his devotion to a concept and person even before meeting them. Daemon has already decided for himself that he is in love with Witch, whoever Witch might turn out to be, and he wants very much to be Witch’s lover. Who is Witch? Daemon sure doesn’t know. But he’s made that decision, has his goals, and won’t be dissuaded from them.

It’s hardly a spoiler to state here that Jaenelle is Witch, so yes, at this point in time, Daemon is in love with an entity that resides in the body of a young child. And many readers, understandably, have a problem with this. For my part, I don’t have a problem with it, because the books establish quite clearly that Witch is far more than just Jaenelle, and vice versa. Daemon is not in love with a child, definitely not sexually attracted to a child, and later scenes in this book talk about his disgust over even thinking of such things. It’s more accurate to say that Daemon is in love with a concept, and idea, and that idea resides within a person, and eventually that person will grow up to be someone Daemon can relate to on more, um, intimate levels.

I can see why this is a complicated mind-twist for a lot of people, and honestly, I think it’s largely my own personal spiritual views that make it easier for me to see the difference between loving a child and loving the essence that dwells within that child. Nor do I think that this setup is some thinly-veiled justification for pedophilia — there’s a difference between love, romantic attraction, and sexual attraction.

Anyway…

blackringIt’s established that Dorothea gained control of Hayll by eliminating women strong enough to rival her, ensuring that she was the most powerful and thus the one that people would flock to for leadership and protection. As for men, the ones who are supposed to protect and serve, the strong ones are largely controlled by threat of pain and torture by the Ring of Obedience. Which is, for all intents and purposes, a cock ring. Because everything in these books comes back to genitalia, whether we want it to or not. Rings of Obedience can send excruciating pain at the behest of whoever wears the Controlling Ring, and even the strongest men have trouble fighting back when it feels like their balls are being torn apart.

This is a very violent and very twisted world we are stepping into with these books. Interestingly, they read like the nightmare of a men’s rights activist, a terrifying glimpse of what things might be like if evil feminazis have their way. Women ruling through pain and humiliation, men subjugated and enslaved, forced to do terrible things because they occupy a lower rung on the social ladder, subject to the whims of angry dominatrixes with no say in their own lives. It’s easy to get caught up in that mindset, because it’s established over and over that women, in the world of these books, are superior to men, that men serve and women rule.

It’s easy to forget, oddly, that it’s also established over and over that things are corrupted and out of balance. That even if society in balance would still involve female superiority, men still have plenty of rights and say in what happens to them, and there’s a delicate and intricate dance that involves just as much give and take on both sides. Things are how they are, with one gender so much higher and more powerful than the other, because things are unbalanced, society broken and fractured and twisted beyond what it ought to be.

But getting back to the story…

wine-glass-for-webTersa appears and drags Daemon off to give him some cryptic advice. Expect this a lot through the books. Tersa, her mind stuck in the Twisted Kingdom, sees reality very differently than most people, metaphorical and shadowy and veiled. Here is where we get to our introduction to the metaphor of the chalice, which is symbolic of a person’s mind, their sanity. Tersa refers to herself as “a broken chalice.”

This is different from the Inner Web, which is a person’s centre, their core and their very sense of self. Taking this back to Daemon’s attraction to Witch, this further cements that there is a difference between mind and soul, the person on the outside and the spirit that lives in the flesh. As I said before, this involves a bit of a mental twist to really understand, I think, but it is something firmly established in Bishop’s writing.

~*~

It’s Saetan time!

That’s the first line of my notes for this section of the chapter, so it felt fitting to begin that way. Saetan, the Prince of the Darkness, the High Lord of Hell, is seriously one of the best characters in this entire series, and I love sections involving him. He looks like an older version of Daemon, is powerful and feared and also misses playing games with his sons when they were little. Like Lucivar, he is a combination of terrifying and gentle.

Which makes sense, as he is Daemon and Lucivar’s father.

Saetan is also a Guardian, which is a fancy way of saying he sacrificed much of life’s pleasures and benefits in order to extend his lifespan, a promise made to his previous Queen so that he could await the coming of Witch, whom Saetan considers to be the daughter of his soul. Like Daemon, he is entirely sure of his role in Witch’s life, whoever Witch might end up being, whenever she may come. He has overseen Hell for a very long time, dozens of millennia, and he is tired. So many years, so much time waiting, without even a hint that what he is waiting for will ever arrive, all the while knowing that his sons are being tortured in another Realm, and him powerless to intervene.

But something strange is happening in Hell. Something most un-Hellish. Hell is a place where the Blood go when they die if their selves are too powerful to just fade quietly and return to the Darkness, a place drained of life and colour. But suddenly, on an island of demon-dead children (demon-dead being what the Blood are called when they linger on in Hell, so yes, this is a place where dead children live), there appears a brightly-coloured butterfly, made by some mysterious power that has never before been seen.

So of course, Saetan wants to know what’s going on.

Saetan expects an exceptionally powerful demon-dead child. What he gets is Jaenelle, who is very much alive.

How did she get into Hell? Oh, you know, the same way she gets anywhere else. Screw following the rules that others are bound by, up to and including the laws of physics and reality — Jaenelle has the power to do what she wants, with all of the mindset of a child who doesn’t yet know a thing should be impossible.

Jaenelle, who shies away from being touches by unfamiliar people. Jaenelle, who cannot do basic Craft, the magic that the Blood possess and that every Blood should typically be able to do unless they have been broken.

Jewels, by Oshirigaitai

Art by MooseFroos

Jaenelle, who has a Jewel of every single colour, and 13 Black Jewels. People are only typically supposed to get 2, you see: 1 at their Birthright ceremony, and 1 when they reach adulthood and perform the Offering to the Darkness. The darker the Jewel, the greater the depth of a person’s power. But Jaenelle has far more than that, and claims to have been given them by Lorn, a mythical figure and the last of the dragons.

Naturally, Saetan is… a touch surprised.

He knew Jaenelle to be Witch almost immediately. He knew who she was and what she would become. He didn’t expect Jaenelle to hold so much power. He doesn’t know how she manages that while still staying sane…

But for all that power, she is still abysmal at basic Craft. Saetan tries to teach her to move a paperweight toward herself, using psychic power instead of her hands, of course, because this is magic we’re talking about. But she can’t. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot move the paperweight.

She can, however, move the entire building in the attempt.

Jaenelle is so powerful that doing small simple things, the things most power would start out with while building up their own power and control, requires too much finesse for her. Saetan makes an analogy involve crayons: essentially, Jaenelle needs something big to wrap her mental hands around, but the fine control required to, say, write like an adult would, is beyond her. Where most people need to start small and work up, Jaenelle needs to learn almost in reverse, to figure out how she does the things that impossible to those with less power and then scale them down.

This is how Jaenelle can travel through the Darkness and end who wherever she pleases, whereas others have to ride the Winds and rely on the Webs to guide them.

I should add that at this point in the story, Jaenelle is 7 years old. All of this power resides on a tiny body, possessed by a tiny mind too young and inexperienced to really understand what she can do and why it is so extraordinary. Nobody expected Witch to be that young when in possession of such power. It’s a burden even for adults, as Saetan knows well, as he is one of only 2 men in the history of the Blood to wear a Black Jewel.

The other? The other is Daemon.

Deep Dive! Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop – Prologue

Starting off small with the prologue of the very first Black Jewels novel today. The prologue is short, and mostly serves to do a tiny little bit of setup and introduce a couple of characters.

Set long before the events in the rest of the trilogy, we see this section through the eyes of Tersa, who we’ll later come to know and love for her forthright and baffling statements. Right now, she’s the entertainment for a gathering of Blood aristos, fortune-teller, with a few tricks still up her sleeve despite being broken and separated from the powers she ought to have.

The prologue is where we first get to see hints of the true problem that plague Blood society in this trilogy, though the brief mentions it gets here are nothing compared to the reality of the situation. She establishes that Terreille has become twisted, perverted, “a mockery of everything we are,” though she doesn’t say how, or why. Just that things within Blood society have been warped out of context from what they should be.

spiderwebThe prologue introduces Black Widows and one of their talents, “weaving tangled webs” which can provide glimpses of the future. Prophecies on demand, so to speak, though interpreting what one sees in a tangled web isn’t always easy. Being separated from her powers after being broken (breaking will be discussed in a future post; I don’t want to have to start this whole Deep Dive series off with trigger warnings…), she can’t actually do this anymore.

Unless…

Tersa states that there is a way to regain her powers, and that she has done so, but it involves surrendering to the madness of the Twisted Kingdom, something that is both euphemistic for insanity and a sort of real psychic experience that distorts the perception of the real world. Tersa never really says what, specifically, she did. Nor whether others can do the same. But it was done, and she regained the craft of the Black Widow, and in so doing, she wove a tangled web to see the coming of Witch.

Witch, a powerful legendary woman, celebrated and feared by the Blood.

Those who survive will serve.

The very concept of the Twisted Kingdom makes me wonder, though: why Kingdom. The Blood are matriarchal, and it is Queens who rule. There is no equivalent title to a Queen. There are no kings. So why a Kingdom?

Chances are the choice of words has no deeper meaning, the author just using the word to describe something that the reader would better understand. I’ve long been of the opinion that fantasy novels are often best approached like one is reading a translation. We know the characters aren’t speaking English, so what they say, what we read, are words chosen for our benefit.

However, there are words that could be used that would fit better with the world. Realm, for instance, since we see later on that Terreille is just one of three Realms (the other two being Kaeleer and Hell). Why not the Twisted Realm?

I have a theory on this, and yes, I am probably reading too much into it, but hey, that’s part of the fun of fan theories sometimes. I figure it’s the Twisted Kingdom precisely because it’s so twisted. It’s madness, it’s insanity, it’s representational and metaphorical and painful and full of despair and confusion, and given the Blood’s matriarchal nature, what better to represent that than a place named after the rule of someone who is not supposed to rule?

This implies that the word king is something connected to a concept more ancient than the Blood themselves, for the word to even exist. And honestly, there’s a conversation much later on that could support this. One of the characters later talks about his theory on how the original Blood were all female, and that males chose to follow them for strength and mutual protection, but that doesn’t mean the society and people they came from were matriarchal. A great change begat great change. It could well have been that before the Blood, there were kings. They’re just irrelevant now, the concept of them diminished and attached to madness because really, who in their right mind would let males rule anything?

(She says, bitten tongue in cheek…)

We’re also introduced to two main characters, vitally important to the story: Daemon, and Lucivar.

And if your reaction to those names is an eye-roll, I assure you, you’re not alone. When I first read these books, the names were a huge source of annoyance for me. They reminded me of a line from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

baddybadbad

Fortunately, the names take a bit of getting used to but they can be overlooked, even appreciated by the end. Especially given a little theory my partner and I have about these books, which I shall hopefully remember to discuss once this deep dive has concluded.

Daemon and Lucivar, two of the most powerful men in Terreille, volatile tempers always at the ready because they’re Warlord Princes, the highest caste of Blood male. They’re feared, and desired, and leashed for both reasons. They’re allies who occasionally fight just to witness the destruction they cause, because when you’re powerful and held in bondage and will live for thousands of years, well, why the hell not?

Oh, also, they’re brothers. Tersa springs this on them rather randomly, in an almost, “kthxbai,” moment before losing herself to madness, leaving two powerful men who have known each other for the better part of a millennium to suddenly figure out the implications of this.

Thanks, Tersa. Much appreciated.

We close on the hope and fear that accompanies the pronouncement that Witch is coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

On on that day, change will begin.

Marked, by Sue Tingey

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: In a world filled with charlatans, Lucinda “Lucky” de Salle’s psychic ability has always made her an outcast, even as it has also made her a sought-after (if reluctant) investigator of paranormal phenomena. With no remaining family and very few friends, she has only one “person” she can rely on–Kayla, the ghost girl who has been her constant companion since she was born.

When Lucky is called in to investigate a spectral disturbance at the all-girls school she attended as a child, she isn’t surprised. She herself had had a terrifying confrontation with the troubled spirits of two girls who died in the attic room. But when Lucky goes up to the attic, she discovers that the vicious little girls are the least of the problem–a demon has been released into this world, a creature of such malevolence that even the spirits of the two girls are afraid. When the demon demands that Kayla be handed over to him, Lucky realizes that this case will be like no other she has ever experienced.

For one thing, it seems that her chatty, snarky spirit companion is not what she has always seemed to be…

Review: Sue Tingey;s debut novel, Marked, centres around Lucky, a paranormal investigator with psychic powers, and quite frankly, she doesn’t want them. They haven’t done her much good in life, and her abilities have served to alienate her from friends, family, and any potential romantic relationships she may have developed over time. She isolates herself, sticking instead to the company of Kayla, a ghost who has been Lucky’s friend and companion for years. Ghosts, she’s used to.

Demons, not so much.

And demons now seem to want to get very familiar with her.

Sue Tingey’s Marked is one of those books where, just when you think you get a proper handle on where the story is going, it changes direction and you end up in a different place entirely. It’s not out of the question to think, from the early pages and the back-of-the-book description, that this is going to be a book mostly about investigating a haunting, or hauntings, and maybe things escalate when it turns out it’s not just ghosts involved but actual demons. Only then new information comes to light which shifts the tone and sends the plot spiraling in a new direction. This does well to keep the reader engaged, to keep us wondering what plot twist will be just around the next corner.

In my opinion, the book really takes off once Lucky’s heritage is revealed, and the Underlands come into play. I tend to enjoy books that involve “fish out of water” experiences, especially where culture is involved, so seeing Lucky try to navigate a new society and figure out what’s going on around her when social norms are different from what she’s used to was just plain entertaining, at least for me. That being said, though, it did create some awkward moments when Lucky companions, mostly male, kept telling her not to do things, or outright blocking her from doing things, “for her own good.” I understand that they knew the society and world better than she did, but scenes like that always make me cringe a bit, because they echo so many incidents in the real world, where men tell women how to do things “for their own good,” without any thought to what they might want or need. Especially when most of the advice for Lucky was, “Stay quiet and let us do the talking for you.”

In many ways, Marked feels like a typical YA novel written up for adults. Which is no bad thing, really. Plenty of adults enjoy YA. I enjoy YA sometimes. No shame in it. But what I mostly mean is that Marked follows a fairly standard SFF YA novel formula. “Main character is different, discovers something about them that makes them even more different and special, is involved in a love triangle, and is part of a book written in first-person POV.” Props to Tingey, though, since I was at least interested in the love triangle this time around; most of the time, I roll my eyes and wish that trope could die a death. Rarely does it actually add any tension or interest to the story, and it’s been done so many times that it’s pretty much an industry standard, and I’m rather tired of that. If an author has to rely on, “Which guy will the girl pick?” as a way of manufacturing tension, then the rest of the story isn’t actually that interesting. Give me tension cause by the plot, not just the romance.

Which Tingey does, to be fair. And the characters are far more than just pretty faces and their positions within said triangle, which helps. Jaime and Jinx each had their own motivations beyond an interest in Lucky, and vice versa, so I can let this trope pass because it wasn’t the all-consuming issue that a lot of authors make it.

So why isn’t this book rated higher than 3 stars? Honestly, I think I’d give it 3.5 if I have half-star ratings here, as I think it’s somewhere between good and very good. While it definitely has moments of good creativity and some interesting characters, and even threw a curveball or two, it was still pretty formulaic in a lot of ways. I like Lucky’s sass, but I’m not so fond of yet another story being told about a woman who’s super special, most special of all the special people. Stories don’t often get told about mundane people, sure, but this story could have been told in the same way without Lucky also inspiring the loyalty of multiple different factions of supernatural entity, as well as being given a dragon. A freaking dragon.

(Don’t get my wrong. I love that dragon. It’s awesome. But it’s another sign of Lucky’s super specialness, and when combined with everything else, it actually loses some of the special value because damn near everything about her is special and unique. Pyrites becomes part of Lucky’s uniqueness overload.)

Is Marked a bad book? Not at all. It was a fun read, and there’s plenty to enjoy about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was well-paced, written quite well, and full of interesting characters and situations to move the story along. But it did suffer in some areas, and when it did have flaws, they were pretty glaring flaws.

Other people might not have the same problems with it that I did, especially if they’re more fans of the formula than I am. I’m interested in read the sequel at some point, to be sure, because I do want to see where the story leads and how everything plays out. I can overlook a lot of what I didn’t like about the book because other parts have such appeal. I think that says a lot. I’d call it a light read, the kind of thing I’d turn to when I’m in the mood for a book that doesn’t tax me or make me think too deeply about things, something where I just want to get lost in the action and ignore heavier issues. It’s definitely good for that.

So if you’re a fan of YA paranormal novels but fancy something that’s written more for adults, then definitely take a look at Marked.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

When Depression Kicks Your Ass…

I have not been doing well lately. Emotionally, I mean. I didn’t post here at all last week. I planned to post this week, but honestly, this week so far has been a horrible mess of emotions and feelings of doubt and lack of self-worth that I can’t bring myself to summon the energy to write reviews right now.

I posted about things on Facebook, if anyone’s curious about the whole story.

Depression’s darkest moments, it seems, make my emotional capacity behave much like the damaged nerves in my left leg. They only seem to be able to register numbness and pain.

It seems I’m slowly recovering my ability to have emotions, and with that, my ability to give enough of a damn to think about writing something, or thinking about something critically. But it’s still delicate, and I seem to wear out my emotional capacity pretty quickly if I’m asked to care about something for longer than half an hour at a time.

So, no reviews this week. I’m going to try to resume posting next week, but it’s tentative, and I don’t want to wear myself out again. I’m just going to try and slowly bring myself around.

I’m not at a crisis point. I still don’t know what the heck I’m alive for, if not for the sake of others, but I’m not at the point of thinking the only way to end the pain is death. And even when I do get to that point, I know from experience that there’s still a lower place to fall, because thinking those thoughts is just one step on the journey. I think a lot of things. I do something about them very rarely. There’s a gap between thinking it would be better if I died, and actually going about the process. I know, from experience, that even when I’m thinking about death, I’m not yet at the point where I’m going to do something about it.

So please be patient with me, and I’ll try to return to posting when I can.

The Groundwork of Captain Planet

Does anyone else remember watching Captain Planet and the Planeteers as a kid?

Lots of you? Okay, great!

Now does anyone else remember the time Captain Planet taught us not to be afraid of people with HIV?

CaptainPlanetAIDS1If  you didn’t actually see the episode when it aired on TV in the 90s, chances are you’ve probably at least heard about the rather famous episode, A Formula for Hate,  somewhere on the Internet. The episode centres around a teenage basketball player who has HIV, and one of the show’s recurring bad guys spreads rumours about him and about HIV, driving up fear and aggression in the community so that the basketball player and his family are persecuted, abused, discriminated against with open hostility. But along comes Captain Planet to tell us that hey, HIV isn’t something that deserves this treatment, you don’t have to be afraid of getting it just because you bump into an HIV-positive person on the street, so maybe simmer the hell down and stop being such asswaffles about it, okay?

…I may have spiced that last bit up a little bit, but the message is the same. The villain of this piece wasn’t so much the recurring character, but the attitude of the community, “led astray by lies” and causing harm to someone who was a victim of circumstance and had done nothing to deserve ostracization and fear.

When I first watched this episode, the message was clear. Don’t be afraid of people with HIV or AIDS. Don’t be a jerk to them either. It seemed pretty obvious, but hey, I was also a kid, and watching a TV show that often had similarly obvious messages, like, “Don’t litter,” and, “Don’t take pills from that guy in the alley.” The whole point of the show was to drive home messages like this. It seemed a little odd to have an episode about HIV when most of the show was about pollution, but even then I knew I was living in the era of Very Special Episodes, so A Formula for Hate was just another one of those.

Why have I spent all this time talking about an episode of Captain Planet? Because it occurred to me recently that I missed some context when I was young. It was context I missed by design, I think, and I doubt it ever would have occurred to me at all had I not been so involved with people dedicated to increasing diversity and positive representation in media.

You see, when I watched this episode, I took the message at face value, and in the same manner that I took every episode’s message. The message here was just another message that kids everywhere had to hear, one more lesson we had to learn in order to navigate life. Everyone had to learn it at some point.

Only recently did it occur to me that no, this was not a typical life lesson that every kid learned. It was not a message akin to, “Don’t litter.” The message in this episode was not something my parents had heard. It wasn’t something my grandparents had heard. This was a message targeted to my generation, an emerging generation. The message was relatively new.

The message was being aimed at kids my age so that we would grow up to be the kind of adults who wouldn’t do the things that people in the show did. It was aimed at us so that we would better understand things. It was a message designed to tell us how to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us.

Because those mistakes were made. And real people suffered due to fear and ignorance.

But as a child, I never even thought that I would be getting a life lesson that my parents hadn’t gotten. That’s not to say that my parents would have bullied someone with HIV, mind you. But it is to say that when they were so young, there was no helpful TV show to sit them in front of that would tell them a story about what happens when fear gets out of hand like that. Not where HIV was concerned, anyway.

That episode was memorable for how out of place it was in the show’s lineup. I, and lots of other people my age, remember it pretty clearly. We remember it. Not everyone took the message to heart, mind you, but I sure did.

Where am I going with this? Right back around to every other diversity and inclusivity measure I’ve seen, especially in youth media.

When adults complain that too big a deal is being made over having more people of colour in media, more people with disabilities, more people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual, they’re complaining because to them, the message seems like it’s everywhere. Everywhere wants to hop on the diversity bandwagon, it’s a cool thing to do, blah blah blah.

I wonder how many adults in the 90s thought that having an episode of Captain Planet talk to kids about HIV was over the top, out of place, a conversation that didn’t need to be had because ugh, we know not to be jerks to people with HIV, okay, we’re all adults here, we know better!

(Okay, yes, some of them are ranting about it because they just plain don’t like any media that doesn’t feature straight white able-bodied people. I have to be fair and admit that some people are just bigots.)

But the message isn’t for those adults. The message is for the kids who might not have had the chance to encounter anything, positive or negative, about other people before. It’s a chance to teach them that other people are okay, before anyone else has the chance to teach them otherwise.

When I first watched that Captain Planet episode, I was vaguely aware that HIV was a thing, that you can get it through blood or needles or sex, and that it made you sick. And to be honest, I might even be giving myself a little too much credit at that point. I was a nerdy kid when it came to medical stuff (when I was 9, I told people I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when I grew up, and I knew exactly what I meant when I said that), but there was still plenty I didn’t know. But even assuming I was aware that much, I know for a fact that I knew nothing at all about the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I knew nothing about the fear that grew out of ignorance over HIV, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, and the social hell that people went through at the time. Not a single bit of that was in my mind. The first exposure I got to how people can be cruel to those who are sick was through Captain Planet.

And that exposure laid some of the foundation that taught me not to be the same way. Not to make the mistakes that people before me made.

TwoMommiesWhen a kid reads a book that has a character with two mothers, they’re not going to come home and demand a detailed explanation of low lesbian sex works. Chances are they’re not going to say a thing about it… unless they’ve already been taught that such things are wrong. Otherwise, they’re likely going to accept the message that having two mothers is fine, that two women can be in love and be married and have a kid together, and move on with their lives with that message subtly laying the groundwork for the day when they meet a girl who likes another girl.

When they watch a TV show where somebody comments that a character named Derrick used to be called Natalie, they’re not going to go to their parents and suddenly declare that they’re transgender (unless they are) or start demanding random hormone injections. They’re just going to have a little more experience to draw on if their friend John tells people that he wants to be called Kelly and be referred to be female pronouns.

The more we have positive representation and positive messages about inclusivity, the fewer mistakes the next generation will make, compared to the mistakes that we made. The point of making a point over inclusion isn’t to beat the message into the heads of adults (though that would be nice), but the help prepare the next generation for the world around them. And to prepare them better than we were prepared.

A friend of mine, who is a generation older than me, once told a story from his childhood about seeing the neighbour’s kid for the first time. The kid had epilepsy, and was essentially confined to the house or made to wear a helmet when in the backyard. He wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers. Even talking to my friend through a fence was discouraged, because then other people might know his awful shameful secret.

My generation got the message that kids with epilepsy don’t need to be hidden from the world. My generation got Teddy Bear Fairs at the hospital, where we could take in a stuffed animal and have them diagnosed and treated, and where we could learn about things like epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, and other things that might come up in playground conversation.

(We also got YA novels where characters with serious illnesses or disabilities overcame  obstacles or else died beautiful tragic deaths. I’m looking at you, Lurlene McDaniel…)

Generations after mine? They’re getting characters with epilepsy in books, where the whole story isn’t about them coping with epilepsy or being scared their classmates will find out and torment them for it.

And yes, these are absolutely messages that we can still stand to learn as adults. I freely admit that when I was young, my awareness and sensitivity to issues involving race were… cringe-worthy. And that’s putting it kindly. I was an ignorant piece of crap about a lot of things. Funny enough, shows having a Token Black Character didn’t actually do much to help educate me. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits as an adult, and am still learning better habits now. Childhood isn’t the only time to learn these things.

But learning those lessons as a kid makes it so much easier as an adult. Conveying those messages now, normalizing these issues now, is essential to creating a future filled with better adults than we were. Better adults than our parents and grandparents.

People crying out that having transgender characters in video games or black women in wheelchairs on TV shows is just pushing some political agenda have missed the point utterly. The point isn’t to tick off boxes on a diversity checklist. The point isn’t to shove minorities in your face until straight white people are crowded out. The point is that these people exist in the real world, and deserve as much positive representation as the straight white guy, the able-bodied white woman. And the next generation deserves to be prepared for the variety of people they will meet when they go out into the real world, and more importantly, deserves to be told that these people are as valid as themselves, deserve as much respect, and are not to be hated or feared.

Everybody deserve to know that the next generation will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Especially those in that generation.

The messages being pushed aren’t always for now. They’re for later. They’re so that the bad parts of now stop happening, and don’t happen again. They’re so we don’t need to revert to after school specials to tell kids that Indian people don’t smell bad.

(Yes, I actually watched an educational video as a kid, where that was the message. Mostly what it taught me is that there are a lot of people who think people from India smell bad.)

These messages aren’t new. I pretty much proved that when I pointed out that Captain Planet was doing it in the early 90s. The only difference is the topic, but the messages are generally the same. Tolerance. Acceptance. Normalization. Respect.

So maybe simmer the hell down and stop being such asswaffles about it, okay?

 

Diving Deep into Anne Bishop’s “Black Jewels” Novels

It’s not an exaggeration to say that these books really impacted me. At first, it was a negative impact. I couldn’t see what people saw in them, I thought they were too Darkedy McDarkDark, and some of the characters just came across as utterly ridiculous in their behaviour.  I could not understand what some of my friends saw in them.

Then I read them for a second time, and it’s no exaggeration to say the impact changed drastically.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that these books changed how I see life and some of how I interact with the world around me.

Black Jewels trilogyThey’re now comfort reads for me, and given the content, they really shouldn’t be. They’re disturbing. The violent. They’re filled with people I should want to avoid, and typically would want to avoid. And yet, the world remains one I frequently want to revisit.

Thus I wanted to take some time to really examine these books, slowly and carefully, and to talk about them here on Bibliotropic. Talk about why I love them, talk about problems I had with them, talk about things the books made me think about, talk about why, in a nutshell, they’re so freaking important to me.

Once a week, I’ll cover a chapter or two, depending on how much I have to say. If you haven’t read the books yet, I’ll warn you now, there will be spoilers. I’ll be tackling the chapters in order, but some things I want to mention at certain points will, by necessity, reference things that come later in the books. I’ll mark spoilers as best I can, but I wanted to warn people now.

But first, an introduction, some things you probably need to know about the overall world I’m about to jump headfirst into, at least as it pertains to many common issues that I know people will be concerned with.

Gender

Daughter of the BloodGender is a huge thing in these books, and yes, it is 100% binary. You’ve got male, you’ve got female, and you’ve got nothing else established. Caste is genetic and gender-linked. That’s a problem a lot of people have with these books, and I can’t blame them. It’s a huge erasure of transgender characters, and I dislike that.

I suppose it can be said that it’s never explicitly stated than trans characters don’t exist here. But they’re never encountered in text, and honestly, they’d face an even harder struggle than trans people do here, given the way the Blood work. There would be no transition, no escaping it. It’s in the blood, in the genes, in everything.

I suppose a merciful interpretation would be that self and gender are so inextricably linked for the Blood that they wouldn’t be born into bodies that didn’t match the soul’s gender to begin with. But while that’s a hopeful interpretation, the transgender experience is something of a unique one, and saying that nobody’s born into the wrong sex body still erases transgender people from the world, and leaves a lot of stories untold.

To say nothing of non-binary gender identities. I suppose, in some ways, there is no solid place for people like me in the Realms of the Blood.

Sexuality

Heir to the ShadowsSexuality is another incredibly important thing in these books, and yes, it is strongly heterosexual in nature. There’s strong implications that nothing’s really considered sex unless it involves a penis in a vagina, at least where some things are concerned. (Specifically, I’m referring to a woman’s Virgin Night, that make-or-break moment where, in having heterosexual penetrative sex for the first time, she risks having her power broken. Anything else I guess doesn’t count.)

That being said, I’m sure there are a number of characters who would disagree with that interpretation.

There are also multiple queer characters throughout the books, despite the strong hetero vibe of the Blood. Rainier is a gay man. Karla is said to not have an interest in men “in that way,” which most people interpret as her being a lesbian but honestly, could also mean that she’s asexual; nothing is ever clarified beyond stating that she doesn’t have an interest in having sex with men.

And then there’s Daemon, who is the very definition of demisexual.

A demisexual [person] is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone.

If you have read the books, you’ll know that this fits Daemon, one of the main characters, right down to the core. This makes Daemon one of the few demisexual protagonists I’ve encountered in a fantasy series, let alone a fantasy series written in the 90s. It also makes him one of the few demisexual men I’ve encountered in fiction, SFF or otherwise.

So while this series could do a lot better with its queer rep, it does actually have some, and it’s got one of the best examples of an underappreciated and underrepresented sexuality that I’ve seen in fantasy fiction.

People of Colour

Really, most of the characters are not white. Most of them have skin that’s described as brown or light brown. There are some with paler skin (Jaenelle, for instance), but by and large, this is not another fantasy world populated solely by white people with just a few scattered non-white people from far-off exotic lands.

Which, again, for it having been written in the 90s, is actually a bit remarkable.

Violence

Queen of the DarknessOh boy, do these books ever contain a lot of violence. And a lot of it can be very triggering. You have general violence, like broken bones and open wounds; you see that sort of stuff in just about every fantasy novel and it’s barely worth a mention at this point, but I’m mentioning it here because it may still be an important factor for some people.

But the really disturbing violence is everything else.

You have sexual abuse, sexual slavery, all over the place.

You have the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children.

You have rape and incest.

And contrary to some reviews I’ve seen of this series, none of this stuff is glorified. It’s portrayed as horribly as you’d expect, with clear statements about how sexual violence is wrong. Anne Bishop does seem to like clear dividing lines between the good guys and the bad guys in her writing. The closest thing we get to a sympathetic abuser is Kartane, who delights in breaking and raping women as a sort of payback to the way he was raped and abused by his own mother. You feel bad for what happened to him. You feel disgusted and horrified over what he does to others. It is made very clear in the text that he had chances to seek help, but he made his choice, and what he does is not condoned. He may be the closest thing to a sympathetic abuser these books give readers, but that does not mean he’s actually a sympathetic character and we’re supposed to forgive his actions.

Does that fact that this stuff is explicitly denounced make it any easier to read? No. No, it really doesn’t. And there are some scenes that can reduce a person to angry tears even if they don’t have a personal history of sexual trauma.


So. This is the series I want to take a long hard look at over the coming months. Do you see why I said, at the beginning of this post, that these probably should not be comfort reads for me? I’m not the sort of person who should find comfort in books that feature such horrific things!

And yet, there’s some unfathomable pull that makes me love these books, and the world and characters within them, to a very deep degree. If I say that these books supplanted the Valdemar books as my favourite fantasy series, I expect long-time readers of mine will probably get a sense of just how deeply my appreciation for Bishop’s work goes at this point.

So join me every Wednesday for the foreseeable future, as I take a deep dive into Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels, and, piece by piece, unravel the tangled web that has woven itself into my life.

 

Starlings, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2018

Summary: In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Review: When I first heard this novella described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, only with two women, and also with a heaping spoonful of Vietnamese mythology, I was sold. Over the past while, I’ve learned that I really enjoy fairy tale retellings, and long-time friends likely already know that I love positive LGBTQA+ representation in media, so I was on board with what de Bodard had to offer here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace tells the story of Yên, who is given by her village to the dragon Vu Côn, as payment for Vu Côn’s healing magics. She expects to be killed, but instead of given the task of educating Vu Côn’s children, Thông and Liên. Which doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, and definitely a lot worse than her expected demise, but living gives Yên time and opportunity to reflect on her feelings for Vu Côn. Feeling which the dragon reciprocates. But disaster looms, and everything threatens to fall apart when secrets are dragged into the light and things are revealed to not be all they seem.

I love the world in this story, inasmuch as anyone can love a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The reader is plopped down in the middle of it and expected to pick up things along the way, which honestly, is the best way of doing things. No, “Long ago, the Vanishers broke the world,” here. It makes for a bit of confusion in the early pages, but it’s a quick adjustment. Yên’s world is one of rot and destruction, of fear and ruin and scarcity, where gene-twisting diseases run rampant and danger lurks beyond the city limits. And the characters are all very much products of their world, shaped by the way life and society had to adapt and move and survive once the old ways were gone.

I’ll say here that one of the things that appealed to me about the world in which In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place is the way it doesn’t just feel like a world of thin metaphor for current problems in North America. I’ve read about enough post-apocalyptic worlds over the years to become familiar with common tropes, the general feel of how many writers envision the world after a cataclysm. And this is nothing like most of those worlds. Perhaps it’s because of the Vietnamese cast and cultural influences, which, rather than feeling superficially exotic, come across as breath of fresh air when compared to so many stale cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic worlds encountered elsewhere.

So much of this novella centres on healing and choice. Paraphrasing one of the characters, there’s always a choice. The choices might not be great ones, but there’s always a choice. And with choice comes the need to accept consequences, regardless of intent. Thông and Liên attempt to heal a very sick man without Vu Côn’s knowledge, believing they’ll have success and will have brought a bit of life back to someone and maybe found a new way to heal others… and it goes very badly. Their intentions were good, but the result was bad, and they had to live with and atone for the consequences of their choices. Vu Côn was forced to confront the consequences of her choice to make use of Yên’s scholarship to tutor her children, and her inaction in noting Yên’s illness and attempting to heal her. Yên made mistakes, and learned from them, and let that learning change her, and sometimes things worked out and sometimes they didn’t, but she always had her ideas of what should happen and tried her best to make those ideas a reality.

I loved that about Yên, really: she was determined and headstrong and wanted what she wanted, and she wasn’t about to let circumstance stop her from trying. In that was she was a great counterpart to the more reserved Vu Côn. Interestingly, it was headstrong Yên who was more concerned with traditional duty, and cool Vu Côn who was more of a transgressor, doing things because she felt they needed to be done rather than “the way things were done,” so to speak.

I mentioned healing being a central theme, and in this, I don’t just mean the obvious illnesses that Vu Côn heals (or attempts to heal), though that is part of it. Primarily I think of Thông and Yên. Thông must come to grips with a side of themself that they fear and hate, a side which is also feared and hated by others. There’s good reason for that fear, and a loss of self-control could prove deadly. In reading Thông, I felt they were a character with a deep soul wound, one caused by their nature warring with what they wanted to be. In Yên’s case, she was living with her heart in two different worlds, a self-divided, and in the end that proved to be a very literal thing indeed. They both had deep conflicts that needed to be resolved in order to fully heal.

And this healing doesn’t come about by the end of the novella. It’s not some neat pat ending where every single problems is nicely resolved. Trauma doesn’t go away so easily, and I like that the ending wasn’t some saccharine “happily ever after.” It was about as happy as it could be, all things considered, but it was made very clear that the journey isn’t over for these characters, that they still have work to do and healing to accomplish, but that they’ve started on that path.

There’s so much to enjoy about In the Vanishers’ Palace. Marginalized representation across multiple areas, brilliant writing, characters I loved reading about and sitting on the shoulders of. If you haven’t read any of Aliette de Bodard’s writing before, I consider this a wonderful introduction to her work, an excellent taste of the creativity and skill she brings to the table.

(Received in exchange for review.)