Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy is a guilty, guilty pleasure. Everything that I should dislike about books can be found here. Perfectly perfect heroes (Who are terribly misunderstood and put down upon for no real reason other than everyone else is nasty), Bad guys who seriously do just get out of bed every morning with the sole intention of being evil and hurting the good guys, and a sadistic streak that can only make you question how scary the author is in real life.
And yet these are some of my favourite books of all time.
The books are set in a world that is divided into two groups: those who have the Blood (magic) and those who don’t. The Blood are the ruling society and thus they’re the only ones we care about (Normal people can… go farm or weave or… something). The Blood have a complex system of hierarchy and power which depends on first the colour of their Jewels (the conduit of their power) and second on the caste they’re born into.
So yes, no chance for advancement based on skill and no chance for demotion if you’re frankly terrible at the job you’ve been born to do. Sounds like a great, well balanced society, don’t it?
It’s also a matriarchal society. Women are the rightful rulers and men are their protectors. So people’s roles are completely defined by birth— the combination of their jewels, caste and gender all conspire to lock them into a certain role in life. Also, Women rock out in all of the top roles.
…I did say it was a guilty pleasure, didn’t I?
So anyway, this society has become corrupt. Dorothea, a women who’s part of the mid-level female cast and with mid-to-high-level powers) has risen to power by using fear and sexual exploitation. She’s made men and women afraid of each other so the women turn high-powered men into sex slaves (guilty pleasure, remember) and the men do their utmost to find and break all high powered women. This means that anyone more powerful than Dorothea gets taken out unless they display the correct amount of subservience. And so Dorothea rules supreme while seemingly coming up with new ways to be despicable every day.
In the midst of all this, Witch, a physical manifestation of all of the Blood’s dreams and hopes has come in the form of a little girl, Jaenelle. She must be protected by three men, all of whom are part of the highest caste and all of whom have incredibly strong magical powers.
Just from summarising this, I feel kind of bad for loving these books as much as I do. It’s hard to explain why these books are so great just by stating the premise of them. And, despite being ridiculous and full of clichés, the premise is part of what makes the books so good. Bishop doesn’t only create a premise that has the potential for abuse and horror, she runs with it full tilt and these books are a bizarre and dark take on sexuality, gender issues and fate which leads to them being mildly addictive (Just TRY to read these books without taking a jaunt down ‘what if’ lane)
The plot is only mediocre. It’s your basic good vs bad deal, with the good guys being incredibly powerful, cunning and wise and the bad guys, despite being able to single-handedly twist and pervert an entire society off-screen, come up with sometimes faintly comical plots to stop the good guys only to have their schemes thwarted within a chapter (or sometimes within a few pages) of their conception.
But what’s really incredible about Bishop’s books are her characters. The ridiculous premise doesn’t matter. The hilariously flimsy and yet incredibly dark plot is inconsequential. I love every single one of her characters so much that I will honestly go to my grave defending these books with my last breath.
Jaenelle, especially as she ages, becomes the girl you always wished was your best friend. She’s equal parts funny and terrifying, capable and yet sometimes so frustratingly bad at things you can’t help but laugh. He guardian, Saetan (run with it), is a hapless father-figure. When he needs to be he’s scary as all hell (oh pun) and other times he watches the ridiculous scrapes and antics Jaenelle gets up to and shakes his head before reaching for the nearest bottle because sometimes that really is the only option.
And then, of course, we come to the main buffet. Saetan’s sons Daemon and Lucivar (run with it, I said). There’s nothing I can say about these two characters that doesn’t end with me admitting that I’m in love with them. Daemon is crazy-scarred because of years of abuse at Dorothea’s hands and also has a violent and ruthless streak which constantly wars with his more humane side. Lucivar is also scarred by his time with Dorothea, is exceedingly arrogant and cocky and is constantly surprised (in an endearing way) whenever Jaenelle calls him out on it and overrules him. Both of them, despite their flaws, are noble and loyal and everything you could ever want a character to be. But because of their flaws they feel human.
And that, of course, is Bishop’s main strength. Her ability to make characters who, on the surface, are more fantastic and far removed from reality than you’d ever believe, somehow still feel real. I look at Saetan, Daemon, Lucivar (RUN WITH IT) and Jaenelle and see real people there. Who hasn’t been so exasperated by something that you’ve reached for a drink because at least that course of action makes sense? Mostly, who hasn’t dealt with family politics? Because, ultimately, this group is a family. They’ve all got their idiosyncrasies and their pasts and sometimes they really don’t like each other but they’ve got to work out how to live with each other. The fact that they’ve got to do this while saving a society that’s broken beyond all hope is just a bonus.
So, I guess what you can take away from this review is that characterisation is important. Your plot can be a little on the weak side, your premise can do with some working on, but as long as your characters feel real and identifiable you can (probably) get away with it.
HOWEVER, if you’re particularly good at characters this isn’t an excuse to slack off. There’s a reason I call The Black Jewels trilogy a guilty pleasure. I know I shouldn’t like it. Excelling at one thing while leaving the other elements in the pile of ‘meh, but I’m really good at THIS!’ leads to a story with glaring weaknesses for people like me to nitpick to our heart’s content. It leads to The Black Jewels not being the first story out of my mouth when someone asks me for recommendations. Because, ultimately, it comes with a giant asterisk.
The Black Jewels is one of my favourite series and I would definitely suggest that you give it a go. It’s dark fantasy at its most heartbreaking. If something terrible can happen, it will. It raises questions about gender politics and gender roles in an intelligent way and, despite having an incredibly sexual undertone, it never crosses the line between book with sexual themes and book about gratuitous sex and depravity. The characters are incredibly strong and, if nothing else, this is why you should read these books*
*Please see the beginning of this review that details the reasons why I have reservations about recommending these books and why I hope that you don’t judge me for loving these books as much as I do.
Next time I’ll be reviewing Maria V. Snyder’s Study trilogy. (I promise after this I’ll look at a book that isn’t fantasy…maybe)