Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Shadow Queen (book) by Anne Bishop

Do you look at this cover art and think, "Wow, she's big-boned, freckly, and not very pretty"? Yeah, neither do I. Well, at least it's eye-catching.

Synopsis:

Two years after Jaenelle loosed her power upon the world of the Blood and wiped out everyone who had been tainted by Dorothea, Dena Nehele is nearly in ruins. The landens hadn't wasted any time attacking the weakened Blood, and it was only at great cost that the Blood in Dena Nehele managed to beat them back. Most darker Jeweled Blood are dead, and there is no one left who could make a suitable Queen. Prince Theran Grayhaven, a descendant (grandson, I think) of Jared (read The Invisible Ring), knows his people have one chance - he must convince Daemon Sadi, one of the most dangerous Blood males alive, to help him find a Queen for Dena Nehele in Kaeleer.

Cassidy, the Queen Daemon and Jaenelle find for Dena Nehele, is not what Theran was looking for. She isn't pretty, she only wears a Rose Jewel, and she seems like bottom-of-the-barrel pickings (her previous court walked out on her - because she wasn't pretty enough and because being part of her court wouldn't lead to bigger and better things). Although Theran doesn't adjust well to Cassidy, those around him do. Eventually. After they're hit over the head by a few details, like the fact that Cassidy is on a first name basis with Jaenelle, who is Witch, and the fact that Cassidy received her "court polish" from none other than Saetan himself. Also, Lia, the former Queen of Dena Nehele, seems to posthumously accept Cassidy. And Theran's cousin, Gray, warms to her almost immediately and soon falls in love with her, even though he had previously been terrified of all Queens after having been tortured by Dorothea's Queens.

Although Theran never quite gets along with Cassidy, she does end up finding her place in Dena Nehele with her new court and with Gray, who by the end of the book is still in the process of transitioning into something more like the man he might have been had he not been tortured.

While all of that is going on, Daemon is falling apart. A witch named Vulchera tries to play a game with him, taking one of his shirts and wearing it, with the intention of sending it back to his household for Jaenelle to see (or maybe she did send it - I wasn't quite clear on that). The idea was that the shirt could be used as blackmail against Daemon. Vulchera had already played this game with quite a few men - all of them were married, and some of them slept with her, which made it easy for her to get one of their shirts, but she found ways to use the same trick even if they didn't sleep with her.

Even on a good day, Daemon isn't a man to mess with. Lately, however, he's been on edge, so badly on edge that he even frightened Jaenelle and thought he might hurt her without realizing it. In the end, though, it's not Daemon who kills Vulchera, it's Saetan. Saetan enters the Twisted Kingdom and kills her, a sort of transferred vengeance, because her actions sometimes had results similar to what Dorothea did to him. In one case, the wife of one of the men Vulchera blackmailed denied him paternity and, because of a carefully timed push on Vulchera's part, the man killed everyone around him, including his wife and beloved child. Saetan can't help but think of Dorothea, and how she denied him paternity at Daemon's Birthright Ceremony, and the thought of what he could have done to Daemon is almost enough to break him. Daemon and Lucivar manage to set things right without bloodshed, though, and all is well.

Commentary:

I read a comment about this book on another blog, something about the Daemon/Jaenelle/Saetan/Lucivar cameos being a bit much. At first, I couldn't see what the problem was. Yes, the back-and-forth thing as characters from Bishop's original Blood trilogy kept checking on Cassidy looked like it might get annoying after a while, but I figured that would let up eventually. Plus, part of me kind of liked it - I do still like most of the characters from the original trilogy, and it was nice to see what they were up to.

Then those characters tried to take over the book. I'm not really sure when it started - maybe when Daemon started having his Vulchera problems, or maybe it didn't really start until Saetan began his multi-stage torture/killing of Vulchera. Anyway, for a little while, I forgot that the book was actually supposed to be about Cassidy and Dena Nehele. The whole thing with Saetan got resolved, and suddenly I remembered that that wasn't really the climax. Or it wasn't supposed to be.

Had Daemon and Saetan's issues not taken up so many pages, there might have been more room for Cassidy and Dena Nehele. Maybe Bishop didn't feel like there was enough story there to fill a whole book, and that's why she allowed her characters from the trilogy to run amok, but I think there was a lot more she could have done with Cassidy's story. For one thing, she could've had Theran get his head out of his butt faster and spent more time showing Cassidy getting others to trust her and believe that she could be a good Queen for Dena Nehele. She could have spent more time showing Cassidy bridging the bloody gap between Dena Nehele's Blood and landen - I'm sorry, but after all the bloodshed the two groups went through only two years prior, one incident in which Cassidy protects a landen girl and justly punishes the Blood males who hurt her isn't enough. Mending the rift should take more work than that - why not show some of that? Why not show Cassidy interacting more with her court and others in the area? She seemed to spend all of her time with Theran, Shira, or Gray.

The cheesy bit (sidestory?) involving the "treasure hunt" at Grayhaven, in which Cassidy keeps finding all the pieces and can't let anyone else know, was just...not worthy of a novel. A short story maybe, but only if there was nothing better to write about. I know, I know, it was supposed to show how Cassidy was being accepted as the Queen of Dena Nehele by a great former Queen's magic, which, I guess, overrides any objections anyone else (like Theran) might have. Whatever. Wasn't there a better way to do that? Something less clunky?

Seriously, once Bishop got past the bit where she set up the basics of Cassidy's part of the book ("Queen who's been emotionally wounded by a court who rejected her for not being pretty, going off to be Queen of a place where, for the most part, she's not wanted because she's not pretty"), it's like the book became two blended short stories - Daemon and Saetan's "two men who still bear the scars of their pasts" story, and Cassidy's "treasure hunt, and do I really belong here?" story. If Bishop wanted to write a couple short stories (or novellas), she should have just written another anthology. I would have preferred that, because at least then it would have been clear what I was getting into. Instead, I expected a book starring new characters, with cameo appearances from old characters. That's sort of what I got, but that's not the spirit of what I got.

I have to say, I'm not a huge fan of "the dark side of the men" stories, so I wasn't as happy about most of the Daemon/Saetan stuff as I could have been. I skipped the Zuulaman story in the anthology Bishop did (Dreams Made Flesh), because I don't like reading about Saetan having crazy person meltdowns. I wasn't entirely happy with Daemon having crazy person meltdowns directed at Jaenelle - I mean, I always thought that Jaenelle would be the one person Daemon would never go all scary with.

Aside from all of that, I think one thing that got to me with this book was that none of it really felt new. Maybe it was all the cameos and references to, well, everything Bishop had ever set in the world of the Blood. Seriously, I think she referenced nearly every book and short story in one way or another - even if I didn't prefer the original trilogy to this book, I still wouldn't recommend this book to a newbie to the series, because of all the references. I do think, though, that, even without all the references and cameos, it still would've felt a bit too familiar. Saetan had his breakdown story already - Zuulaman. Daemon spent, what, a whole book broken? Also, he had a short story where people spread rumors that he was cheating on Jaenelle, kind of like what Vulchera was planning. So, other than Daemon almost/sort of hurting Jaenelle (and I'm not entirely sure that hasn't happened before), nothing new.

It seems like every single one of Bishops good Queens isn't pretty, although Cassidy may be the first one to be stuck on that. Gray's man-boy nature (mentally a boy, with flashes of being mentally the 27-year old man he really is) is also, I think, new for one of Bishop's romantic heroes, although his damaged nature certainly isn't new. Even so, Cassidy's part of the book is still fresher than the parts of Daemon, Saetan, Jaenelle, and Lucivar - it's too bad Bishop couldn't think of anything better than a treasure hunt and allowed cameos to eat valuable story space. I should note, however, that, after I finished the book, the parts I went back and reread were all parts with Cassidy and Gray. Especially Gray - I enjoyed reading about him as he learned about Protocol and fell in love with Cassidy.

Overall, though, not Bishop's best effort. I loved the bits with Cassidy and Gray, and the bits where Cassidy tried to become the Queen of a place that couldn't seem to accept her, but I hated the treasure hunt and I hated the dark, show-stealing sidestory involving Saetan, Daemon, and Vulchera. I know there's at least one Blood book after this, and I plan on reading it, but I hope that Bishop gets her act together and writes a book, and not a few blended novellas. Or, hey, I'll take the novellas if they're actually called that. Just be honest about what I'm going to be reading, and I'll be happy.

I'm going to assume that anyone who reads this book and likes it even a little has read at least some of the previous books in the series - I'm not even going to bother to list any of Bishop's books as read-alikes. Of course, that means my list is really short. I had problems coming up with good things to include. On the plus side, at least everything I've listed is something I would consider to be a strong read-alike/watch-alike. On the minus side, neither of these suggestions have much in the way of romance - Chalice, only a little, and The Twelve Kingdoms, nothing at all, unless you count the occasional blush over Keiki or the possibility of friendship with Rakushun blossoming into love.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Chalice (book) by Robin McKinley - Mirasol, a beekeeper, finds herself way, way out of her depth when she is declared to be the new Chalice. The health of a land is determined by its Master, and a Chalice is supposed to keep the Master in line and make sure everything is stable and in balance. Unfortunately, unlike most Chalices, Mirasol has had no apprenticeship and therefore doesn't know how to do her job. In addition, her Circle obviously doesn't want her, and the new Master is barely human. Those who, like me, enjoyed the bits of The Shadow Queen that were about Cassidy may want to try this book - just be warned that, although there is a smidgen of romance, romance is not a big part of the book.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a series of books written by Fuyumi Ono, which I highly recommend reading in order, just because the world it's all set in is so complex that it's really just best not to create an additional breeding ground for confusion. I think the anime covers the events of the first three books. The series as a whole is centered upon the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, each kingdom of which is governed by a ruler whose very existence determines the health and prosperity of his or her kingdom. Each ruler is chosen and guided by a kirin. One particular ruler who comes up a lot in the show and the series of books is Yoko, a seemingly ordinary Japanese high school girl who was taken from the world she knew by a strange man named Keiki and plopped in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Eventually, Yoko learns that she's the new ruler of Kei and must figure out how to stabilize a place she knows little about, whose people, fearing that she's just like the previous ruler, don't trust her. Again, if you liked Cassidy, you may like this, but don't expect romance just because Keiki is pretty.

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