Anne Bishop, Sebastian (ROC, 2006)

"Long ago, in a time that has faded from memory, a mother's tears forged the bridge that, ever after, connected the power of the living, ever-changing world to the human heart." That is the statement, ascribed to myth, with which Anne Bishop begins Sebastian. The world was once whole, until a great war between the Guides of Light on the one hand and the Eater of the World on the other. As a desperate measure, the forces of Light walled the Eater into its own Landscape and shattered the world, which became Ephemera, before they, too, were lost. Now the Landscapers maintain the parts of Ephemera, Light and Dark, and the Bridges connect them.

Sebastian is an incubus, the bastard son of a succubus and a wizard, in itself a forbidden thing. He spends his time in the Den of Iniquity, a nighttime Landscape created by his cousin Glorianna Belladonna, the strongest Landscaper known, where incubi and succubi and demons play and prey on the visitors from other places who come looking for a good time. There he meets Lynnea, a young woman nearly destroyed by the strangers who raised her, and there he becomes aware of something wrong -- a strange eruption from another Landscape that leaves a taint. The Eater is loose.

I've been enthusiastic about other of Bishop's books, namely those set in the universe of The Black Jewels, but I confess to severe reservations about Sebastian. Bishop has created an intriguing universe, peopled it with appealing characters, and managed to take longer to tell the story than I would have imagined possible.

Bishop is an excellent wordsmith -- she can pull together an absorbing and seamless narrative with apparently no effort, which is one of the things that makes Sebastian readable. And, while the universe-building, as might be expected, is adventurous and intriguing, and the characters are appealing, one eventually finds oneself squirming in one's chair. Call it pacing, and admit that it's somewhat subjective, but I am still left with a long middle section that didn't seem to go anywhere.

It's exacerbated by the fact that Bishop has A Theme. I know this because it's stated baldly at least once a chapter, or at least it seems like it: "Follow where your heart leads and you will end up where you belong." Yes. Well. It's the sort of thing that can be obvious and banal, or subtle and filled with emotional truth. Bishop seems to have opted for obvious and banal, which is really a shame because Sebastian, Lynnea, Twister, Glorianna, and the other characters are all engaging (except that the villains are Bishop's stock overwritten bad guys) and you really want to participate in this with them, and being told point-blank what the story is about takes away most of the fun.

For those who treasured the sensuality of The Black Jewels, there is one other thing that is lacking, and its lack is puzzling: in a novel with a hero who is an incubus, whose life is devoted to delivering intense pleasure, whose milieu is more or less completely oriented toward that end, and who shows signs of immense power, Sebastian isn't sexy. The deep eroticism that infused The Black Jewels at least in part because the characters are dangerous, edgy people, isn't there. The fundamental sensory quality of Bishop's writing in the earlier story doesn't make it into this one. Perhaps it's just that the idea has taken over, but the novel edges toward blandness because of it.

And yet . . . there are sections that give that gut-fluttering feeling that marks real involvement, mostly toward the end, and almost too late. It was almost enough to save the book for me, and maybe the next volume in the series will be better -- tighter, sexier, less blatant. I hope so, because now that the story has finally started, and because there is so much potential in this universe, I really want to see how it goes from here.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Anne Bishop's Web site is here.