The Shadow Queen
Roc (368 pp, $7.99, March 2010 mmp (originally March 2009))
Reviewed by Thomas M. MacKay
Anne Bishop burst onto the fantasy scene in 2001, releasing 12 fantasy novels in the last 8 years. An accomplished epic story teller, her work features magic in strange and edgy forms, where power, sexuality and love become hauntingly bound with darker impulses. The critically acclaimed Black Jewels trilogy introduced a world of a power-stratified society where those with the most power seem to be the least stable, living on the knife-edge of control and constantly at risk of being overtaken by storms of rage and desire – and other more sanguinary passions.
The Shadow Queen marks the seventh novel in this series, and explores the issues faced by one of the lesser lands attempting to recover after the war of power and dominion between the Blood was conclusively ended by the magic of the Witch of Ebon, Askavi.
Theran Grayhaven is the last of his line, a Blood family that had ruled the land of Dena Nehele for generations until it was taken over by the corrupt Blood when Theran was just a small child. Raised in a rebel mountain camp, Theran only knows war, and finds himself at a loss when peace suddenly arrives. His war-torn country is on the edge of collapse, its people in chaos, the magic-less landen still chafing at the rule of the powerful Blood, and few of the Blood remaining in Dena Nehele to aid in the rebuilding. Theran knows he needs a Queen of the Blood, someone who follows the old ways, who believes in the responsibility of stewardship. He needs a Queen with the strength to deal with the struggle of rebuilding, the grace to evoke loyalty in a conflicted people, and the power to claim authority over the Blood. He only knows one place to ask for help in finding such a Queen, at the Keep at Black Mountain, where the most powerful and unpredictable Blood hold court.
Theran’s war-camp upbringing works against him. He is uneducated in the social conventions that keep the Blood from killing one another, and unsophisticated in his understanding of his own land’s needs. Theran makes a great many mistakes before he begins to learn, not least of which is that he does not know how to value the Queen who agrees to take on the challenge of Dena Nehele. Cassidy is a Queen rejected by her first court, not beautiful, not powerful, interested in growing things and the landen. Theran’s crushing disappointment blinds him to the fact that Cassidy may be exactly what his land needs. But Cassidy has a core of iron she has never really had a chance to test, and if she can’t convince Theran, she’ll go around him and work with the people of Dena Nehele directly. One by one she wins over her subjects, until at the last even Theran can see that Cassidy is exactly the right Queen for Dena Nehele.
Bitter and broken and somehow still going on, waiting for a slow and painful healing. This seems to be the theme of The Shadow Queen, echoed both in the greater landscape of Dena Nehele and in the individual characters dealing with a variety of hurts, with the hurts to the mind and soul being the greatest and most painful. Bishop has a talent for skillful character portrayals – perhaps too much so in this case. I found the evocation of Theran’s callow and small-minded nature to be so effective that I struggled to identify with him. Of Cassidy and Theran’s individual and often conflicting struggles, I found Theran’s to be the more intriguing and compelling of the two; yet I disliked the character enough that when his epiphany occurred in the last few pages I felt little satisfaction. For me, it was too much time in the mind of a character who ultimately was marginalized and dismissed by nearly every other character in the book – even those that were fond of him. At the beginning of the book, I waited to see Theran to grow into the hero, but he just wasn’t capable. At the end, I too wanted to dismiss him, and felt somewhat cheated at having spent as much time reading about him as I had.
The Shadow Queen is well written, with an interesting perspective on the stories of those who are neither superheroes nor supervillains, but somewhere in between. But a fair amount of time is spent on developing a character that is ultimately not particularly likable or respectable, and some readers may find this off-putting. Fans of the Black Jewels series will probably enjoy the book despite Theran, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the series. Start with the trilogy that begins it: Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, and Queen of the Darkness. By the time you get to The Shadow Queen, you’ll be well and truly hooked.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #14