"Night is not something to endure until dawn. It is an element, like wind or fire. Darkness is its own kingdom; it moves to its own laws, and many living things dwell in it." -- Patricia A. McKillip, from Harpist in the Wind.
It may seem odd to begin a review of a trilogy by Anne Bishop with a quote from Patricia McKillip, but the idea expressed is fundamental to The Black Jewels. Besides, the hardest part of a review is the beginning, especially when one is faced with a story that is rich, complex, flawed, and brilliant. That's where I find myself with this story. It's one of those works in which the plot details are not really all that important, the associations are many and diverse, the writing seductive, and the characters even more so.
The people of the Black Jewels consist of the landen, who are normal creatures without powers, and the Blood, those who have psychic and/or "magical" powers and who wear the Jewels. The status and the power of the Jewels is a function of their color, which ranges from white to black, the darker Jewels being more powerful. The Blood may advance up to three ranks in power when they make the Offering to the Darkness. Jaenelle Angelline, the heroine of this story, wears the Black Jewels as her birthright. Blood society is further complicated by birthright ranks -- Queen, a witch who rules the Blood; Black Widow, a healer of the mind and a Seer; Priestess; and Healer, and for males, Warlord Prince, the most dangerous and powerful of males; Prince, a Jeweled male equal in status to a Priestess or Healer; and Warlord. Blood society is matriarchal: Queens rule, males support and defend them. There are also the living, the dead, and the undead, who may be either Guardians, such as Saetan Daemon SaDiablo, the High Lord of Hell, or the demon-dead, those whose power is too strong to allow them to go immediately into the Darkness and who simply continue their lives as they choose.
The best description I can think of for the Blood is wolves. Wolves are social predators and have only one serious competitor in that role: human beings. The most cursory research will show that their societies are strongly hierarchical and that the pack is a working unit dependent on the leadership of the alpha pair. Wolves are deadly, playful, sometimes temperous, high-strung and sensitive to those signals that human beings, with their overlays of culture, often miss or ignore. They also, to anthropomorphize a bit, have their own sense of honor, which is touchy, and justice, which can be bloody and final. That, really, is the most apt parallel to the Blood.
In its barest form, The Black Jewels is "about" Jaenelle, a precocious and somewhat strange child who is Witch, the Queen long dreamed of, "dreams made flesh." Because of her power, she represents a threat to certain interests, specifically those of Dorothea SaDiablo, who for all practical purposes rules the realm of Tereille, and Hekatah, the self-proclaimed "High Priestess of Hell." Jaenelle's defenders are no less powerful: Saetan Daemon SaDiablo, the High Lord of Hell and ruler in his own right of the Territory of Dhemlan in both Tereille, the Realm of Light, and Khaeleer, the Shadow Realm; and his sons Lucivar Yaslana, the winged half-Eyrien warrior, and Daemon Sadi, beautiful and cold, both Warlord Princes. Daughter of the Blood covers the period of Jaenelle's childhood, her first meetings with Saetan, Lucivar, and Daemon, her surreptitious explorations of the realms, and her difficult and destructive family life, and culminates in her brutal rape and near death. Heir to the Shadows tells about her recovery, her growth into maturity under Saetan's guidance, and introduces Jaenelle's friends, both human and not (and including the powerful witches, princes, and warlord princes who will make up her court), and the politics of Blood society. It also portrays Daemon's descent into madness due to the machinations of Dorothea and Hekatah, Lucivar's journey into acceptance of his birth and heritage, and Jaenelle's eventual acquiescence in her role as Witch and the formation of her court. Queen of the Darkness presents the last stage in the conflict with Dorothea and Hekatah and culminates in a final solution to the problem that is bittersweet, at best. It is nothing so simple as merely doing away with the "bad guys," but must take into account the taint that they have introduced to the world. This is strongly analogous to the resolution of The Lord of the Rings: Sauron is gone, but the evil he embodies lives on in petty forms. Jaenelle's solution is more sweeping, the sacrifices involved are greater, and one feels them much more.
One very important part of the story, and one that I think is handled very well, is Bishop's treatment of physical and sexual abuse of children. Although Daughter of the Blood was not as repellent in this regard as I had expected, it is not comfortable reading. Where Bishop saves the story from self-indulgent polemic is in not preaching about it. She merely portrays the abuse and its effects, not only on Jaenelle, who loses her memories of the period for a time, but on Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar, as well as the rest of Jaenelle's new family and her friends. It becomes a metaphor for evil, one that I've seen in a number of works of fantasy, which can be summarized very simply as the selfish and irresponsible use of power over others. An ongoing thread throughout the story is that the Blood are the stewards of the Realms, the caretakers of the land and its non-Blood inhabitants. Dorothea, Hekatah and their allies have lost sight of the responsibilities that go with their power and seek only self-aggrandizement.
One of the brilliant parts of this universe is the way Bishop has taken the Abrahamic world order as elaborated in several thousand years of myth and legend and turned it on its head. The Night is, indeed, a kingdom in The Black Jewels. Darkness is the Mother whom the Blood worship, the source of power and good; black Jewels are the strongest; and twilight is the mood. It's not that Bishop has turned those things that we normally think of as "bad" into "good," but that she creates a new baseline from which we must figure good and bad. It is the acceptance of Darkness as a power, an active force rather than a nullity. We can look at wolves as a metaphor from this standpoint as well. Their behavior is, in its own terms, value neutral: they are neither good nor bad, they just are, and any value judgments must take their necessities and their function as part of a whole into account. So too the Blood. This inversion of expectations brings a great deal of richness to the story, as we encounter references and associations with which everyone in the West is familiar, but given a new basis. Morality becomes a fundamental operating mechanism, nothing so trivial as empty rules based on received wisdom, but a guiding force that, while it may allow individuals to take actions that we consider reprehensible, also serves to maintain society as a healthy structure
The Kindred, the non-human Blood, play a key role in the story -- Jaenelle's earliest friend in Khaeleer is a unicorn, and it is a dog who is instrumental in saving what can be saved from the final solution. There is a strong and sometimes not-so-subtle indictment of human-centered thinking in these books. There are nonhuman Blood, and Jaenelle is "dreams made flesh." As Saetan notes to himself at one point, it would be foolish to think that all the dreamers were human. Bishop's treatment of the Kindred as beings who have an equal right to their lives and their lands, the matriarchal basis of Blood society, the importance of the land to the Queens, the role of the Blood as stewards of the Realms, moral choices as a requirement of daily life, and the implied acceptance of Night as a power equal to and a balance for Day, all strike me as reflections of contemporary Paganism, yet another strand in this complex weave.
In keeping with the role of Darkness, even though there are many scenes that take place in broad daylight (somewhat of a problem for the demon-dead), the ambience of the story is twilit. Khaeleer, where most of the action takes place, is the Shadow Realm, a place of magic and the unexpected. The Darkness is not only a cosmological construct, it permeates the story as a mood.
I have often thought that women who write fantasy bring an elemental force to their storytelling that is mostly absent in the work of men, a kind of writing that is more sensory and sensual, while men tend to be more idea-driven and in some ways more emotional. Bishop bears me out in this. There is a deep core of eroticism to this series, composed of equal parts of sex and danger -- not that there is explicit sex worth mentioning (which, I think, would only diminish the power), but sexuality and sensuality permeate these books even more than the Darkness does. Think again of wolves with their sensitivity to body language and attitude, their unmediated reactions and hair-trigger responses, and think about the danger implicit in people who have those reactions along with great power and who obey the law only because they choose to do so. The male characters (and, interestingly enough, they are never called "men" but always "males") are particularly sexy. Beautiful, strong, sensual, temperamental and subject to violent reactions barely held in check by their need to serve the Queens, they are archetypes of physicality. (And think, for a moment, of the image of a strong, aggressive, passionate man with wings, an intensely sexual image that offers both threat and comfort: Lucivar Yaslana.) I can't say whether Bishop has ever run across the Jungian idea of the erotic in its widest sense as a motivator and structuring device for human relationships, but she uses it very effectively here to describe the core of Blood society.
To offset what might seem to be a picture of overwhelming seriousness, I must point out that there is a great deal of humor in this story. It is situational, quiet, sometimes sardonic, sometimes helpless. Imagine, for example, being a parent faced with a house full of teenagers with formidable powers and all the energy and inquisitiveness of youth, particularly when one's overriding concern is to protect and teach them. It's no wonder Saetan often has headaches.
The series is not perfect. It occurs to me that two things to be very careful of in writing anything, and particularly fantasy, are evil and insanity. Regrettably, Bishop does not escape the tendency to portray her "bad guys" as glorying in their evil, which I maintain is something more suited to Saturday morning cartoon shows than to novels and ultimately makes them incomprehensible. Dorothea and Hekatah do, to my mind, veer over the border between believable people and cartoons, and it's not until well into Queen of the Darkness that I could believe them at all. This is one instance where I insist that seeing what they do is enough; for them to gloat over their badness seriously undercuts the effect.
Daemon Sadi spends most of Heir to the Shadows in the Twisted Kingdom, which is simply to say that he's insane. While I didn't quite believe the forces that pushed him over the brink, the treatment of his sojourn in the Twisted Kingdom is effective, if sometimes overwritten. It is only when Jaenelle finally begins to lead him back to sanity that his state becomes believable. Bishop also offers an alternative to the post-Freudian perception of insanity, going back to an earlier idea of the insane as having perceptions unclouded by rationality: seers and prophets. Such is the character of Tersa, Daemon's mother.
I have to regard The Black Jewels as something of a landmark. I don't think it will spawn a host of imitators -- how could it? It is so individual as to defy imitation. Aside from my reservations about the portrayal of villains and madness, it is a marvelously rich tale inhabited by fascinating people who, in spite of their differences, are more human than we have any right to expect. It's a story to savor, one that I've read often and will continue to do so, because it is one of those stories that embodies the joy of reading.
Bishop has written two more books in this universe, The Invisible Ring (2000) and Dreams Made Flesh (2005). Her Web site is at Anne Bishop. There is also a useful site that calls itself simply "Lady Angelline's (unofficial) site . . ." devoted to the places and characters of The Black Jewels.