Monday, December 1, 2008

The Queen's Bastard (book) by C. E. Murphy

Belinda Primrose has lived her entire life with secrets - she is the illegitimate child of Queen Lorraine and Robert Drake, the queen's secret spymaster, she has magical abilities, and she is the queen's secret assassin and sometimes spy. Belinda usually pretends to be lowborn women in order to go where she needs to be, but this time she must pretend to be minor nobility and infiltrate the courts of Echon. While there, she must befriend heir to that country's throne, Javier, and discover anything she can about possible plots against Queen Lorraine.

Belinda has always been aided by her ability to use what she calls the stillness, a secret ability that allows her to distance herself from any emotions that might hurt her. This ability helps her perfect her personae, but she eventually learns how to use her ability to make herself unnoticeable, invisible. She discovers that Javier has abilities similar to her own. He calls the two of them witchbreed. Thinking her to be an ally, he makes her his lover and trains her in the use of her power. Although she gradually comes to love him (if it's possible to attribute such an emotion to her), she never admits to him her real identity, and she never tells him the full extent of her abilities, that she can make herself unnoticed and read other people's thoughts and emotions. In the end, Belinda must decide whether she will act according to her duty or according to her heart.

On the cover of this book, underneath the author's name, are the words "author of Urban Shaman." While this is certainly true, it's also misleading. These words are an encouragement to those who have read Urban Shaman to read this book, but those, like myself, who read Urban Shaman and enjoyed it may be disappointed. While the information on the back of the book makes it clear that certain aspects of this book are very different from Urban Shaman (that book was contemporary fantasy, while this book is fantasy featuring political intrigue, with an alternate history twist), it's not just in those aspects that this book differs from Urban Shaman. If it weren't for the author's name on the cover, I would not have guessed that this book was written by C. E. Murphy, because her writing style is so vastly different from what I had come to expect.

My summary may make this book sound softer and more emotional than it actually is. Although by the end of the book Belinda claims to have fallen in love with Javier, I'm not sure she's actually capable of feeling that emotion. From the time she was a baby, Belinda has been a tool for her mother and father's use. This, combined with the less than savory side effects of her magic usage, lead to Belinda having what I consider to be a very twisted personality. It's possible for Belinda's personae to be be nice people - I think that if Belinda could've allowed Beatrice, the minor noble she pretended to be, to take her over, I could have actually believed she had really fallen in love with Javier. However, Belinda herself is a very ruthless and sometimes sadistic woman.

I'll say flat out that I usually prefer it when the main characters of the books I read are at least somewhat likable. Unless the premise and plot of a book really grabs me, I have problems getting through books that are lacking in likable characters. This was my problem with The Queen's Bastard - hardly any of the characters were likable and the intrigue was almost too confusing to interest me.

When I first began the book, I expected that Belinda would gradually learn more about her magical abilities and use those abilities to break free of her parents - the information on the back of the book and Belinda's occasional attacks of conscience led me to believe this. This belief allowed me to keep an open mind about Belinda's activities. Then, about half way through the book, Belinda rapes the maid she keeps as part of her Beatrice persona and encourages a man who loves her (Marius, a friend of Javier) to rape her, too - whether he does or not depends upon your definition of rape, but I consider what he did to her to be rape. After this is all over, Belinda has a mild attack of conscience that I think Murphy might've thought would raise her up in readers' eyes again. As for myself, the fact that Belinda washed her poor maid and then figured out how to wipe the memories of the rapes from her mind did not make me forgive her for what she had done. As if things weren't already bad enough, Belinda later sees her maid as little more than a plaything - since she can erase her maid's memories, she doesn't see the harm in offering the young woman to Marius again (she doesn't get a chance to, but she does consider the idea).

Although I didn't dislike Javier nearly as much as I disliked Belinda, he was also not a very likable character. When he first appears in the story, he seems like an intelligent, arrogant, and crafty man. As the story progressed, I was forced to revise my assessment of him - he's arrogant, but he's actually more naive and easily manipulated than he is intelligent and crafty. Belinda wraps him around her finger so easily it's pathetic. While he notices that his childhood friend Eliza loves him, he doesn't have enough empathy to recognize how his actions (taking Belinda as a lover and eventually proposing to her) can hurt her - actually, in general, he seems to have absolutely no talent for reading and dealing with people, at least when it suits Murphy's plot. His magic allows him to influence other people's behavior, so maybe he's lost the knack of dealing with people without it. According to Murphy (through Belinda), Javier tries not to use his magic on his friends, although it seems that he does use it involuntarily sometimes, and also when it's really convenient for him.

Well, enough about the characters. As far as the intrigue goes, I didn't really get interested until at least two thirds through the book - I spent most of the book a little confused, trying to remember who all the characters were and whose side(s) they were on. There are three queens, so there's basically three sides, with spies, assassins, other members of royalty, and secrets in the mix. The book begins before either Javier or Belinda's births - readers are forced to figure out why Sandalia and Lanyarch are important before anything has even been explained, and it's not until much, much later that readers find out why anything that happens in those first few pages is even worth knowing, since Murphy skips from Sandalia to Lorraine. Most of the book is from Belinda's perspective, but some scenes are told from other characters' perspectives, like Sandalia, Javier, or Ana di Meo (she's an important character who isn't obviously important, because she's forgotten during most of the book). The changes in perspective can sometimes initially add to the confusion.

Overall, I disliked this book and barely managed to get through it. Had Belinda not raped her maid and had her raped again by someone else, I probably would've judged this book as "ok." Murphy did a nice job of setting up a believable world of danger and political intrigue, but it's not a very pleasant world and neither are the people that populate it. The similarities of this world with Elizabethan Europe mean that this book could be called an alternate history, and it may appeal to alternate history lovers. Also, Belinda's abilities, especially her ability to use the stillness to make herself unnoticed, are very interesting and may appeal to those who'd like something involving unusual magical abilities. However, any people this book might be recommended to would have to be willing to deal with the general ruthlessness of the characters and unpleasantness of the sex scenes (in addition to the rape, Belinda has sex with many other characters for a variety of reasons - usually, she has sex with someone as part of her persona or in order to get information or gain control over someone).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Poison Study (book) by Maria V. Snyder - Yelena is given a choice - she can either continue to live in her dank prison cell until the day she is put to death, or she can become the food taster for the Commander, ruler of Ixia. Although it's quite possible she'll end up dying a painful death anyway, Yelena chooses to live a bit longer and become a food taster. As she begins and passes her intense training under the watchful eye of Valek, the Commander's head of security, Yelena is also drawn into castle politics. Those who'd like another story with an edge of magic, political intrigue, and a female main character who can't safely trust anyone might like this book.
  • Assassin's Apprentice (book) by Robin Hobb - Fitz is a bastard, sired by Prince Chivalry and born to a peasant woman. At the age of six, Fitz is put in the care of the prince's man, Burrich, but his existence is not a comfortable one. Fitz has inherited the "Skill," an ability that allows him, among other things, to meld his thoughts with those of nonhuman creatures - unfortunately for Fitz, it's not an ability that's looked upon kindly, and he must keep what he can do hidden. When Fitz comes to the attention of King Shrewd, he becomes the Royal Assassin's apprentice and is trained to carry out the king's devious plans. Those who'd like another story with a bit of magic and lots of political intrigue, in which a child is molded into a skilled assassin, might like this book and series.
  • Kiss of Shadows (book) by Laurell K. Hamilton - This is the first book in Hamilton's Meredith Gentry series, set in an alternate world that is much like ours, except that faeries have made their existence known and have come to America after they were ousted from Europe. For years, Meredith has hidden her identity as a faerie princess of the Unseelie Court from everyone, convinced that her aunt, the queen, would kill her if she found her. Meredith is part sidhe, part brownie, and part human (and maybe part other things I can't think of right now), and the only magic she's ever really been good at is personal glamour - she'd never stand a chance against her aunt's assassins. While in hiding, Meredith works for the Grey Detective Agency, which specializes in supernatural cases. The agency gets involved in a case where someone is using magic to seduce women with fey blood and drain their power. Meredith's cover gets blown, and suddenly she's got more to deal with than she can really handle. Those who'd like another story with political intrigue, magic, and characters who aren't afraid to use sex as a tool might like this book and series. A warning: the sex scenes are longer and more plentiful than Murphy's.
  • Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (anime TV series) - In this alternate history (?), the Empire of Britannia has invaded Japan. Japan is now referred to as Area 11, and its people are 11's. Lelouch appears to be an ordinary, if extremely intelligent, high school student, but in reality he's hiding many secrets. One of those secrets is the power of Geass, which was given to him by a mysterious young girl who was some sort of military secret. Geass allows Lelouch to make anyone obey his orders, and he uses it great deal as he begins living a double life as Zero, the masked leader of a rebellion to combat Britannia's tyranny. Those who'd like another story with political intrigue and an apparently ruthless and arrogant main character who must live a double life might like this anime series.

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