The black jewels

Daughter of the blood / Anne Bishop

Daughter of the blood is the first book in the Black jewels series.

I don’t know where to start with this book. It’s tough to pick a point to get a handle on other than the reviewer who described it as “sensual” should feel terrible about using that word to describe this book’s world of nightmarish predatory sexuality.

Plot summary is below the cut this time. Content warning for a world of nightmarish predatory sexuality including extreme abuse.

Things also got a little more political than they normally do but part of that is as a live “human” I find the real-world parallels are important.

Plot summary

Witch has been reborn as the child Jaenelle. Largely defenseless until she grows old enough to control her powers, three men independently decide to devote themselves to her protection: Saetan SaDiabloe, lord of Hell, Daemon Sadi, impotent pleasure slave and illegitimate son of Saetan, and Lucivar Yaslana, Daemon’s brother and fellow slave.

So  how is it?

This book made me cry more than once. It’s a really harsh read as the world portrayed is absolutely horrifying. I thought it was cute that the “good guys” are named Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar, but when those are some of the most moral characters in the book and one of them has a tendency to murder women in horrific ways. The other two aren’t much better.

Does that sound like a fun read?

Actually it’s definitely compelling. After 150 pages I was considering giving it up, but stuck with it only to almost quit at the 80% mark. I did finish it eventually but it was a near thing. Bishop does a good job of portraying horrifying events without resorting to purple prose. Except… in a perhaps unintentionally funny moment, one of the characters says something along the lines of “it’s called a penis, I have little use for euphemisms” as this is a book where every other reference to genitalia is a euphemism of some kind.

I have been back and forth several times about whether or not I’m going to continue the series.

At this point I’m thinking no. Even though some of the things that happened in this volume are unlikely to be repeated in the next one I don’t think I want to subject myself to more of this.

Because this is a world where a hereditary aristocracy spends its time alternating between public castrations, sexual abuse, and flat out murder. It’s a world where aristocrats rape children so that the upset child can be diagnosed with “hysteria” and sent to a “mental institution” that is really a brothel catering to pedophiles.

So if this is a book you want to read then you should probably be aware of that. I wasn’t and it wasn’t a fun surprise.

I have two thoughts on the way this played out. (Why is it pay->paid but not play->plaid?)

  1. What’s really sad is that, slightly different gender politics aside, these are things that have happened in the real world.
  2. This is not transgressive fiction that is using the horrific to be outrageous. This isn’t black humor. There are almost-cathartic moments of retributive violence but that’s as close as anything gets to being redemptive.

Expanding on no. 1 above,  there’s a longstanding historical tradition (at least in the West) of using accusations of mental illness to conceal and discredit victims of child abuse, to keep women subservient, to silence dissenting opinions. There’s also a long tradition of viewing the mentally ill as easy targets for abuse and sexual exploitation. Consider the Magdalene laundries.

The history of mental healthcare in the West is horrifying, and continues to be so. In the 1970s, aversion therapy and electroshock treatments were being used at BYU to attempt to “cure” homosexuality. Practitioners of so-called “Biblical counseling” continue to advocate abuse. Conversion therapy is just one part of a hideous movement that includes organizations like NARTH, the American College of Pediatricians, No Greater Joy, and Focus on the Family. While deinstitutionalization has done a lot to improve the treatment of people with mental illness, places like Winterbourne View continue to operate on a model that legitimizes the torture of people with disabilities.

So it’s harder for me to ignore the atrocities here because of how real they are. It’s certainly difficult to be entertained by them. Sexuality in Daughter of the blood is, with one exception, presented as a tool of domination and terror. There’s also the return of the wonderful “adult male character is sexually attracted to prepubescent female character but decides to wait until they are older before acting on it” trope that shows up weirdly often in sf.  It’s worth noting that that is actually one of the least icky things in this book.

There’s a strong message here, and some incisive commentary on the way adults crush children’s imaginations with hardly a thought, but the whole is so ugly that you’d have to have a strong stomach or be completely desensitized in order to make it through. The content isn’t generally glorified or romanticized but it’s harder to imagine how this could be any darker. At least characters in Game of Thrones get to die.

For the most part, when adults are involved, the gender of the abuser and the abused are switched from their more common representation. Thinking extratextually about it I’d wonder if this was intentional as an attempt to get male readers to confront the way huge swathes of fantasy fiction portray their female characters. It could say that the “slavegirl” fantasies of abuse and control that show up everywhere from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to Star Wars are less exciting when you get to be the victim. This is presented mostly separately from the horrific child abuse but in combination with everyone else you get a world that seems to consist entirely of rapists. There’s a larger point here that should be fairly self-evident but at this point I don’t have the stomache to pursue it further.

Recommendation

I don’t recommend this book and don’t recommend recommending it. It’s too much and the risk factor is too high. The only time I can imagine suggesting it to a patron is one who asked for “a super dark fantasy where everyone is either getting raped or raping others and a huge percentage of the characters are obsessed with sexually abusing and torturing young children”.

I’d suggest it for Puppies as a way of subtly saying “This is what the worlds you want look like to people outside positions of extreme privilege” but I have a feeling the point would be lost and reading this would only serve to reinforce latent  misogyny. The Puppies as a whole have demonstrated that they have a special talent for missing the point. I also have qualms reconciling my professional ethics with recommending books to people with the specific intent of trying to change their minds about things.

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