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.
They’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 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 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.
Oh 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.