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Anne Bishop

GUEST REVIEW:  Written in Red by Anne Bishop

GUEST REVIEW: Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Dear Ms. Bishop,

This is my first time reading one of yours. The first book in the rather prolific Black Jewels series has resided on my shelf for a few years now, but for whatever reason I just haven’t found my way to picking it up, likely due to a nagging suspicion that that particular dark fantasy might, in fact, be a bit too dark for me. But then this year I began hearing murmurings of a new urban fantasy series, and the possibilities started to take shape in my mind. These murmurings ran along the lines of complicated social order, shapeshifters, exceedingly gradual relationship development, vampires, detailed world building, etc. Before long, Written in Red was giving me that vibe, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy and settled in to see for myself.

Written in Red Anne BishopMeg Corbyn needs somewhere to hide. After fleeing the only home she’s ever known, she finds herself answering a want ad for a human liaison within the notorious Lakeside Courtyard. A collection of businesses run by the Others, Lakeside is headed up by one Simon Wolfgard. Together with the heads of the various shifter and vampire factions, Simon has little use for humans except as prey. But the courtyard requires a go-between, someone who will sort through the mail and day-to-day communications between the Others and their uneasy human counterparts. And so Meg is given the job, despite Simon’s misgivings, including her nonexistent past and indeterminate scent. Profoundly grateful, Meg sets out to learn how to live a life and do her job so well no one will ever think to ask her why she showed up desperate and alone on their doorstep in the first place. But the Others are far too canny for that, and when local human law enforcement begins sniffing around the courtyard, Simon knows it’s something to do with their recently acquired human. But by this time, the wild and wary inhabitants of the compound have grown surprisingly protective of Meg. Even the vampires have allowed her onto their grounds. And so Simon finds himself racing to discover her secret before it sets off the kind of conflict between the Others and the humans from which they may never recover.

There is something absolutely compulsive about this novel. It’s not fast-paced. It’s not action-packed (although there are a couple of rather spectacularly explosive scenes near the end). It has quite a large cast of characters. And it rather annoyingly switches scenes just when you want more from the people you’re with. But. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but there. With timid Meg and prickly Simon and the cringeworthy, blood-soaked nightmares that haunt her and threaten his people. I’ll be honest. I have a fairly weak stomach when it comes to cutting in general, and so the revelation of Meg’s role as a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, tested my bounds to a certain degree as she was raised, in a sense, to cut or be cut and receive valuable prophecies on the ensuing wave of mixed pain and euphoria. It never gets too grisly, and the Others’ protective instincts help to keep Meg fairly intact, but I remain uneasy as to what lies in store for her on that front as questions of both destiny and consent will play what I can only assume will be a fairly significant role.

What I fell in love with was those quiet, day-to-day interactions between Simon and his host of furry, fanged followers and the solitary human girl in their midst. The Other hierarchy is fascinating and rich. And it is very much other. These shifters and vamps are not interested in making friends and playing nice. They are so completely not interested in that. And so Simon’s frustrating reaction to Meg throws everything off kilter, as his instincts insist she’s not prey, while everything about her screams weakness and fair game. I can see how Meg could easily read too passive for some readers. But I found her both sympathetic and compelling. The very fact that she escapes from somewhere no one escapes from and manages to secure a job and the trappings of a new life for herself solidified my place at her side. I only grew to love her more as she is somewhat reluctantly roped into helping the Wolfgard’s adorable young nephew Sam deal with past trauma and find a balance between his wolf and human selves.

Meg’s gradually developing thing with Simon is so very gradual, and it got under my skin in a real way. She grew to assert her independence as he learned to respect her freedom. They continue to frustrate the hell out of each other throughout the book. And I loved it all. I didn’t even miss the lack of heated romance (though the signs are so all there and I am looking forward to developments in that arena most eagerly). Here is a fairly representative encounter between Meg and Simon early on:

The office’s back door wasn’t locked, so he slipped inside, removed his boots, and padded across the back room in his socks. He could hear low music even through the closed door that connected to the sorting room. As he entered the room, he saw Meg take a CD out of the player and say, “I don’t like that music.”

“Then why listen to it?” he asked.

She whirled around, wobbling to keep her balance. She put the CD back in its case and made a notation on a notebook sitting next to the player before answering him. “I’m listening to a variety of music to discover what I like.”

Why don’t you know what you like?

“Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Wolfgard? Today’s mailbag hasn’t arrived yet, but there are a few pieces of old mail. I put them in HGR’s spot.” She indicated the cubbyholes in the sorting room’s back wall. “Also, I’m still not clear if the ponies deliver mail to the Market Square businesses or if someone from the businesses is supposed to stop in for that mail.”

Right now he didn’t care about the mail or packages or any other damn monkey thing. He took the poster out of his pocket, opened it, and set it on the table. “No more lies,” he said, his voice a growl of restrained menace. “What happens next will depend on whether you answer two questions honestly.”

She stared at the poster. Her face paled. She swayed, and he told himself to let the bitch fall if she fainted.

“He found me,” she whispered. “I wondered after the other night, but I thought . . . hoped . . .” She swallowed, then looked at him. “What do you want to know?”

The bleakness in her eyes made him just as angry as her lies.

“What was your name, and what did you steal?”

The slow but steady incline in this complicated story worked for me. In fact, the whole thing reads quite a bit like a police procedural/urban fantasy mash-up, as the focus revolves between Others, humans, villains, and Meg. Or “The Meg,” as many of the shifters so charmingly refer to her. Yes, I could have done without one ridiculously overdone wannabe villain. And, yes, the pacing does plod from time to time as threads are flung far and wide in not-always discernible directions. But the incredibly subtle development of the key relationships, combined with a truly fresh take on supernatural politics, set Written in Red apart from the pack. I can’t wait to return. B+

 

Cheers,

Angie

 

BIO

Angie is a bookish sort with a soft spot for urban fantasy, YA, historicals, and mysteries. Ever since she read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and made the acquaintance of one Nat Eaton, stories with no romantic subplot need not apply. Her favorite authors include Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Sharon Shinn, Mary Stewart, Megan Whelan Turner, Kristin Cashore, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, and Ellen Emerson White. You can find Angie at her blog www.angie-ville.com or on Twitter @angiebookgirl.

 

 

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REVIEW: Twilight’s Dawn by Anne Bishop

REVIEW: Twilight’s Dawn by Anne Bishop

Breaking from our usual procedure at Dear Author, this is an early review. Twilight’s Dawn doesn’t come out until next March but Jane and I believe that readers should be forewarned. The first half of the review is spoiler-free. The second half, however, is not. I’ve clearly marked where that section begins so readers can skip the spoilers if they so wish, but this is one of those cases where you don’t want to skip the spoilers. Trust us.

Dear Ms. Bishop,

I’m a long-time fan of your Black Jewels books. The series has occupied a place on my comfort reading shelf ever since I devoured Daughter of the Blood over a decade ago. The series has had its ups and downs since then, but I have a soft spot for them despite their flaws. Alas, all things must come to an end and unless I’m mistaken, this collection of four novellas is our farewell to the Black Jewels world. And what a farewell it is. As for whether that last sentence is a compliment, I’ll leave that up to the readers to decide.

anne bishop twilight's dawn“Winsol Gifts” takes place after Tangled Webs, in which Surreal escaped a haunted house with the help of Lucivar. I wish I could find something meaningful to say about this novella, but I can’t. It’s 75 pages of domestic antics as the characters we’ve come to know and love speed towards the Black Jewels’ version of Christmas.

There’s nothing especially new or original here. It features the character dynamics and interactions Black Jewels readers know well: Lucivar and Daemon being confused by their women and the things they do, Saetan laughing at his sons, and Daemonar destroying everything in his path.

It’s familiar and comforting, and I can see why people would like this sort of story. But speaking for myself, this isn’t why I read books. If I wanted to see my favorite characters in domestic scenarios, I would read fanfiction. In fact, I have read fanfiction of this sort. That said, “Winsol Gifts” sets the stage for the three novellas to follow and echoes the larger theme of the Black Jewels books: the ties that bind families, both blood and chosen, together. D

“Shades of Honor” immediately follows “Winsol Gifts” and covers both Surreal’s emotional healing from the events of Tangled Webs and Lucivar dealing with his second-in-command, Falonar, who’s grown dissatisfied with the Eyriens’ lot in Kaeleer. Readers may also remember that Falonar is Surreal’s former lover (as shown in the original Black Jewels trilogy) and that in the Lady Cassidy books (The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady), we learned that something unfortunate happened to him. “Shades of Honor” details the events leading up to that fate.

To my surprise, this novella ended up being my favorite of the entire collection. It featured the intensity and drama I loved about the original trilogy. It also focused mostly on Surreal and Lucivar, which is always a plus in my book. One of my biggest disappointments with Tangled Webs was that Surreal lacked the bite I’d come to expect from my favorite courtesan-assassin, and I think we see her regain a bit of that edge here. I also enjoyed the closer look at Eyrien society and what it means for a race of warriors to live in a place of peace.

Like “Winsol Gifts,” “Shades of Honor” sets the stage for the two novellas to follow, especially with regards to Daemon and Surreal. B

Fast forward ten years, and we come to “Family.” The story opens with Lady Sylvia, the Dhemlan queen and Saetan’s former lover, taking her two sons for a visit at another Blood family’s estate. We soon discover that not all is right at the estate, a serial killer with a penchant for young boys is on the loose, and things take a rapid turn for the worse.

The first chapters of this novella are misleading. Maybe “Shades of Honor” set me up for false expectations but based on the novella’s opening, I thought we’d be getting a more mystery/thriller-based storyline. Serial killers, missing children, hostages, ransoms… The premise and what happens in those first pages certainly lent support to that assumption, as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, that tension peters out quickly and the drama is resolved easily, leaving the final chapters to reprise more of what we saw in “Winsol Gifts.” It was a little disappointing to see the tone shift but I think some readers might be interested in the resolution to the Saetan and Sylvia issue. C-

The interesting thing about Twilight’s Dawn is that the novellas all build upon one another, leading from one to the next. We did see a similar effect in Dreams Made Flesh, the previous Black Jewels novella collection, but I don’t recall the thematic arcs and foreshadowing being as strong there. I mention this because the first three novellas in Twilight’s Dawn serve as the foundation for the final one, “The High Lord’s Daughter.”

Before I continue with the review, I must give a very strong SPOILER WARNING. I cannot talk about this novella without spoilers, and they are going to be detailed spoilers, and I am not going to hide them behind a spoiler cut because I think these are spoilers that Black Jewels readers should know before going into this collection. Why? Because I think these spoilers are potentially series-destroying, in the sense of being able to destroy a fan’s love for a series. If readers absolutely do not want to be spoiled, then stop reading now. But don’t say I didn’t give advanced warning. I think what I am about to say will be of great interest to the readership of Dear Author, which in the end is a romance blog. I consider myself a fantasy reader first and foremost and even I am aghast at what happens in “The High Lord’s Daughter.”

We have always known that the great romance between Daemon and Jaenelle would not last forever. Like his father, Daemon comes from one of the long-lived races. His lifetime will span millennia. For all that Jaenelle is Witch, dreams made flesh, she does not come from the long-lived races. By comparison, her life is short and fleeting. We have always known this in the back of our minds.

But I never expected the Black Jewels books to go there. I never expected it to happen on-page. And to be honest, given the Mary Sue-nature of Jaenelle’s character, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her become something akin to a god, complete with extended lifespan. That doesn’t happen here. Jaenelle grows old. She grows old with Daemon, and fans may be pleased(?) to know they kept sexing it up well into her 80s, but you can’t fight the onslaught of time. She dies.

Yes. She dies. And that’s not all.

Now how does Surreal play into all this? After all, she’s enjoyed more page time in these novellas and there’s been heavy foreshadowing about things to come. There’s a reason why I kept bringing her up and it’s not just because she’s my favorite character. When I reviewed Tangled Webs, I wondered why Surreal couldn’t seem able to find her true love, her grand romance. Why, as with Falonar, they always tended to fail. “The High Lord’s Daughter” finally answers that question.

At some point after “Family,” Surreal became Daemon’s second-in-command. She’s also taken on the unofficial role of scaring off women who’ve come to harass Daemon, especially in Jaenelle’s later years because what could Daemon — still in the prime of his life — possibly want with an old woman like that. And so, as should be no surprise to anyone who’s read a Harlequin Presents, Surreal is also in love with her boss, Daemon.

Surreal being in love with Daemon is actually not a surprise. Like I said, when that was explicitly stated in the text, so many pieces fell into place. We already had a hint of this in the very first Black Jewels book, when we first meet Surreal and learn about the awkward state of her relationship with Daemon. Readers may recall that she’d wanted to know what it’d be like to sleep with him (as the Sadist) and of course, he obliged in all his cold rage. (This was pre-Jaenelle.) Time, and Jaenelle’s presence, healed that rift but it’s something that’s always lurked in the background.

Before she died, Jaenelle made Daemon promise that he’d mourn for only a year and then would go on living again (including finding love again). He does obey this final command from his Queen but only to a certain extent. He never lets another woman into his heart. Surreal is willing to go along with this, and they probably would have continued on doing so but then Saetan dies. And after his father’s death, Daemon assumes the mantle of the High Lord of Hell. And in their shared grief, Daemon and Surreal have a one night stand. After which Surreal becomes pregnant.

Yes, that is correct. The “daughter” in the title does not refer to a daughter of Daemon and Jaenelle. They never had any children. The “daughter” refers to the child of Daemon and Surreal. And I think it was at this point that my already-taxed suspension of disbelief snapped and catapulted straight into WTF-land. I say this well-aware of the fact that I probably left many readers behind on the page where Jaenelle died.

This is a very tricky narrative. I actually like the idea of this narrative. It’s a storyline I would like to read elsewhere: two people have known each other forever but one married someone else, and then when that someone else dies, they find love again with the person they’ve known forever. Unfortunately, the characters involved are Daemon and Surreal and a part of me recoils at the thought, even though I like Surreal and the idea of Daemon and Surreal as a couple makes sense once you stop and think about it (and pretend Daemon and Jaenelle never happened).

However, the Black Jewels series is centered around Jaenelle. Jaenelle is dreams made flesh. She may never have had a narrative role in the novels but without her, there would never have been a story to drive these novels. Even when I thought the books should have moved on to other characters and stories, she was still there and ever-present in her influence (the Lady Cassidy books, for example). Because of everything we’ve seen before, I cannot imagine a Black Jewels story without Jaenelle and I don’t even like her.

And for Daemon to find love again with Surreal is upsetting in two ways. First, it bluntly reminds us that HEAs don’t last forever, even in fantasy worlds featuring near-immortals. If HEAs can’t happen there, then where can they happen? Secondly, Surreal still doesn’t really find her grand romance! She plays the role of the second wife who Daemon will never love as much as his first. And while I think the narrative was trying to show that Daemon’s two loves for Jaenelle and Surreal were different but equal, I was never 100% convinced. And I know part of that is because we saw Daemon’s love for Jaenelle shown over the course of several books and novellas while Daemon’s love for Surreal is depicted in a single 100-page novella through the lens of raising their daughter. That’s a tall order and it falls short here.

If “The High Lord’s Daughter” is meant to provide closure to the Black Jewels series, it does do that. I’m not talking about the general WTF reaction to the premise to the novella but in terms of the narrative itself. Daemon and Surreal’s daughter is also dreams made flesh but a different set of dreams than the ones that gave rise to Jaenelle Angelline. I suppose you could say it brings the series full circle. Some people don’t like that sort of thing but I’ve always been fond of that kind of indulgence, even if the execution ends up being twee here. Of course, this is the Black Jewels world we’re talking about so accusing something of being twee is silly. The main problem, however, is that this closure is overshadowed by the premise.

I’m very conflicted about “The High Lord’s Daughter.” It has many aspects I like, many ideas I normally love, and a core concept I would be all over if it’d been executed well. Weighing all those things against each other, I would probably have given this novella a C.

But the premise still leaves me speechless even now. I would not at all be surprised to see many Black Jewels fans swear off any and all future Anne Bishop books because of this novella, especially if they go into it unaware. (The cover copy does hint at what’s to come but I don’t think it encompasses the full WTF factor.) To be honest, there’s still a part of me that wonders if I had read bad fanfiction because Daemon and Surreal read like caricatures of themselves, even accounting for their ridiculously long lives and a love that developed over decades.

Because of this, my grade changes from a C to a Do Not Read At All. That’s not a proper grade but it’s the only way I know to express my feelings. I cannot send any reader, let alone a Black Jewels fan, towards this collection and especially the final novella without any warning. If a reader loved the Daemon and Jaenelle romance, never wanted to see it split apart on-page, never wanted to see Jaenelle die, never wanted to see Daemon find love again (and especially not after only twenty years instead of something properly over the top like five thousand), then I hope that reader does herself a favor and skips this book. Maybe they can pretend the original trilogy (and maybe The Invisible Ring) is the only thing that exists. I’m sure it will prevent heartache and book rage. Because I am still boggling. I suspect I will be boggling for a very long time.

My regards,
Jia

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