This series is interesting. Firstly, I would say, do not read these books if you are prudish. Even a little. Or if you are squeamish.
If you do not fall into any of those categories, and you like a complex story with interesting characters and a unique fantasy world, then you’ll probably enjoy this. Greatly.
Firstly, the general premise. Bishop’s human population is divided roughly into two parts: those who have magic, and those who do not. Those who have magic are generally higher-status, and are further divided by power-level. Females, on average, are more powerful than males.
Reducing the story to its bare bones, you have the Evil Queen who has spent several hundred years consolidating her evil power (one race of humans is extremely long-lived); then you have the heroes (who, being male, are in a position of subordination); and you finally have the Saviour, the prophesied Witch who will be born with almost unlimited power and will (hopefully) save everyone from the Evil Queen. OK, so that’s the bare bones, and it doesn’t look very different from any other kind of traditional fantasy. But what’s interesting is what Bishop does with this.
Bishop’s society is matriarchal, but she’s actually put some though into how a magic-oriented, female-led society might be like. It also has a significant BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) element. If this offends you, don’t read the books.
This book is very relationship-oriented; it’s not about big battles and the movement of armies; it’s about the actions and interactions of individual people, and how they change outcomes. It’s also about power corrupting, and what the result of that might be, if allowed to proceed unchecked.
Bishop doesn’t pull any punches, and she hasn’t fallen into the trap of making her female characters all nice, or, if not nice, then misled. Remember the mean girls at school? The girls who took cruelty to whole new levels without ever laying a finger on their victims? Now, imagine those girls with carte blanche to do what they liked, physically and mentally, to anyone else? Bishop graphically illustrates what anyone who’s been bullied by girls knows: women are just plain nastier than men.
She also illustrates what happens to the vulnerable in society when those in authority choose to look the other way rather than confront the wrongdoing they know is going on – so if you don’t want to read about child abuse, don’t read these books. If you don’t want to read about parents ignoring the fact that a member of the family is abusing their children, because that’s easy, way easier than having to deal with something so unpleasant (of course, that couldn’t happen in the real world, at all, could it? Yeah, right) then don’t read these books.
Bishop manages to portray a society gone horribly wrong in a way that is very plausible; after centuries of top-down corruption, this is what you get. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Nazi Germany – individuals who, in a different society, would probably be upright, honest and caring are twisted and corrupted until they participate in acts that are wrong by any standards of morality. Good books, eh?
But one of the things I like the best is Bishop’s BDSM angle. She never refers to it as that, but if you know anyone who’s into the Dominance/submission (D/s) lifestyle, you’ll recognise it instantly. Bishop has described it accurately in two forms: the healthy, and the dysfunctional.
Now, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and I don’t intend to; the excerpts and reviews I’ve read have convinced me that not only would it bore me rigid but it’s written by someone whose research was done by reading Mills and Boon romances and The Story of O. That is, her understanding of BDSM is pretty limited and stereotypical.
The typical image of a D/s relationship is a bullying dominant who runs the relationship and gives the orders, and a weak, rather pathetic submissive who does what s/he is told and acts as a sort of physical and emotional punchbag for the dominant – and, worse, gets off on being treated so badly. Or, alternatively, the dominant is as I’ve just said, and the submission is just too weak and confused, or too beaten down, or too powerless, to get out of such an unhealthy relationship.
Now, those are not D/s relationships. Those are abusive relationships. There are plenty of them in the Black Jewels books. (At the start, it’s kind of fantasy-dystopia – or had you figured that out?)
A healthy D/s relationship is consensual and respectful on both sides. The dominant generally takes the lead, but there’s very much an element of the old military advice: “Never give an order you know will not be obeyed.” Or, alternatively, don’t order your sub to do something you don’t already know that he is willing to do. Both sides of the partnership – and it is a partnership, and a partnership of equals, at that (no matter how much the participants pretend it isn’t) – gain from the relationship. It’s not about one side getting all the rewards at the expense of the other. And Anne Bishop clearly understands this. She has thought about, or researched, the ways in which such a dynamic works, and how the submissive half of the relationship makes his or her wishes known, and even forces the dominant to change their mind, or behaviour, without once stepping out of the submissive position.
It’s a complicated dynamic, and Bishop captures it perfectly.
Of course, the story starts with trouble and strife; otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good story. But that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom and angst and horror. There are some brilliantly funny scenes, and these serve to lift the books out of the potentially wrist-slittingly depressing and into the realms of being a great read that you don’t want to put down. You get to know the characters, and you cheer the good guys on and you desperately want the Witch Queen and her minions to get what they so richly deserve.
So if you want to read fantasy that’s a bit out of the ordinary, and you’ve got the ability to cope with the sometimes pretty edgy stuff Bishop throws around with gay abandon (that’s, ‘light-hearted’, not ‘homosexual’, by the way… although the latter isn’t totally absent), then read the books. They are some of the most original fantasy I’ve ever read.