Dena Nehele is a land decimated by its past. Once it was ruled by corrupt Queens who were wiped out when the land was cleansed of tainted Blood. Now, only one hundred Warlord Princes stand… without a leader and without hope. Theran Grayhaven is the last of his line, desperate to find the key that reveals a treasure great enough to restore Dena Nehele. But first he needs to find a Queen who remembers the Blood’s code of honor and lives by the Old Ways. The woman chosen to rule Dena Nehele, Lady Cassidy, is not beautiful and believes she is not strong. But she may be the only one able to convince bitter men to serve once again.
Anne Bishop remains one of my favorite fantasy authors of all time. Her worlds are usually female-focused with matriarchal societies and pretty powerful female characters. There is also rape and murder, though none of it is graphic. With Bishop, you can expect growling men who speak too softly when angry and women who wear pants to the horror of others. This is the seventh in the Black Jewels world, and I love these later novels because we meet new people while still getting to see and interact with Daemon, Saetan, Lucivar, and Jaenelle. And this one has them all in all their glory with intertwined stories between Queens and Warlord Princes. First of all, let me say that Theran is a dick of the highest order. Like Falonar in the original trilogy almost. He treats Cassidy, his Queen, like complete crap, like she’s beneath him or not worth his time. He treats Cassidy the way males treat women in Terreille, the way they were taught by Dorothea SaDiablo. This book introduces the first time we’ve heard of Jaenelle’s magic storm causing serious problems and hurting more people. It sounded like the perfect solution, but it set another chain of events in motion, one that almost erased Dena Nehele from Terreille altogether.
At first, I was really pissed that Bishop was going to go with the whole total-asshole-degrades-heroine-constantly-but-eventually-sees-her-worth-and-falls-in-love trope, which is horrible and makes me rage like a bear, but I should have trusted her. Theran has a cousin named Gray, who was tortured by one of Dorothea’s puppet Queens thirteen years ago. He’s mentally scarred, not quite in the Twisted Kingdom but not quite out of it either, like Daemon in Heir to the Shadows. He doesn’t care what Cassidy looks like. And that brings me to something I love about Bishop’s books: you don’t have to be pretty to be a heroine, and you don’t have to be ugly to be evil. Cassidy is not conventionally attractive, as Theron points out ad nauseum, but neither is Jaenelle. They are both Witches, but Jaenelle is more powerful. Dorothea was beautiful but thoroughly evil. The women never fall into the “pretty but don’t know it” trope, because that shit doesn’t need to exist in this universe. So it doesn’t.
At nearly three-quarters through the novel, Theron has not changed. He’s been threatened by the Master of the Guard and even the High Lord himself, but he’s still a prejudiced douche. As Gray and Cassidy begin falling in love, Theron feels threatened and starts thinking Cassidy is manipulating Gray. And, I’ll be honest, I was slightly annoyed by the Gray/Cassidy romance. Gray is broken. He flips out for very little reason, he screams and gets violent about Cassidy but doesn’t know the courtship rules, and at one point, he grabs her face and starts screaming. If I were Saetan, I’d smack his fool face. Actually, I wouldn’t, because his mind is broken, which kind of grosses me out. He acts like a boy. He acts “alarmed” when cutting Cassidy’s hair is brought up. NOT YOUR DECISION, GRAY. He doesn’t understand makeup or illusion spells, and I think he’s seriously dangerous as an undeveloped Warlord Prince. He freaks me out.
Something I realized while reading this novel is that this is paranormal romance. Before I always just assumed it was fantasy, and when I started reading these at age fifteen, I had no clue this was a romance series. It is, and it has some of the same annoying “possessive male” tropes that the Psy-Changeling novels have, but I find I can overlook them out of nostalgia. I may have even given it more stars than it deserves out of nostalgia. So, basically, if you’re a fan of the Black Jewels, I think you’ll like this one, but newer readers might roll their eyes. I mean, they made me roll my eyes, but I love these characters and have for over a decade so you’ll have to cut me some slack!