I was on a panel with Anne Bishop at Con-Volution 2016, and hearing her part of the discussion intrigued me to check out some of her writing. Her name was already familiar, though I don’t believe I’ve read anything by her, and know I haven’t since I started reviewing on my blog. Boy, was I missing out.
I jumped into the Black Jewels series way late in the game (on the final book apparently), but thanks to an intriguing opening with enough information to risk being a data dump if it were less evocative, I was well grounded in the story world and the circumstances leading up to Shalador’s Lady. This is the story of a people who had been oppressed or stuck under vicious rulers for far too long, and that history resonates throughout the story.
The main characters’ culture is heavily sex obsessed, but not in an erotic way with the mature content mostly implied. While clearly intended for an adult/near adult audience between the sexual nature of their magic and some vicious things that happen, it is in no way a dark novel overall. The violence is well blended into the cultural form, and the sexual elements include all aspects from virgin crushes to pregnancy and risks. Their magic is tied to earthy natures, and less logic than pheromones (though not addressed in those terms), so it can lead them astray in loyalty or provoke them to serious violence.
The novel also contains tender and humorous moments that kept it from slipping into horror, but at the same time, they did not diminish the serious events. My biggest quibble is with how Kermilla could have been trained in Cassie’s first court and learned nothing of the balance, but it’s not a real quibble. I understand all too well how that can happened based on my experiences with humans, but wish I couldn’t. The girl is broken at the core.
It’s the cultures and world building that really won me over, or rather not just the cultures but the intersections between them. In this story, Shalador’s Lady is a lowborn queen (a designation of power rather than hereditary leadership) brought into a very traditional land to redeem them from the damage of twisted queens (power-mad and unaware of the nurturing aspects a balanced queen would have). Cassie is so different from those twisted queens that not all accept her in such an important role, looking for the trappings and failing to recognize her true connection with the land and its people. It’s a lovely bit of cultural expectation on top of pheromones that rings true even when, to the objective eye, Cassie’s value, and the lack in her opponent queen, is obvious. Cassie, though, is no more objective than any of them, seeing the same weaknesses in herself that undermine the loyalty of those around her, and not seeing her strengths because of her concerns with loyalty based on her troubled past.
Add to this issue the court being composed of those who have been denied their true place and lived in refugee camps in the mountains as they alternately hid and attacked the twisted queens. No one is quite sure how things are supposed to be run, but they all have firm ideas about it, and not just those in this land either. The influence of those who command all queens and their courts is felt, though often enough as requested advice or assistance rather than imposed from outside.
I also appreciated the non-human magic users both for being true to their natures as dogs and cats rather than humans cloaked in fur and for how the humans didn’t always see the meaning behind the jeweled collars they wore, dismissing them as limited because of their fur. They are full characters with important roles, but the dogs also offer many of the humorous moments where dog nature and human nature clash.
Bishop even brings in economics, crops, and the consequences of overtaxing, all blended into the story to show how things can go well or wrong depending on who is placed in charge. I love complex societies with rich histories. Shalador’s Lady has several, and many divisions between them based on history and prejudice so they feel real. I didn’t find any of it artificial or too carefully constructed. These were not characters who marched to the author’s drum but rather ones who lived in and around a solid framework but were able to make decisions, good or bad, that were well grounded in the world. The characters had room to succeed or fail, and to learn and grow, while the story arose from the world and stayed true to it.
As you might have guessed, I enjoyed this book immensely, and plan to seek out others in the series as well.