When baby!Sia was eight years old, she stumbled across a beautiful book. It had a dragon on the cover, and it was three books in one, and the description sounded like a promise.
It was years and years before baby!Sia got her hands on a copy. But it lived up to the promise it made all those years before, and this series has been a huge and important part of my life ever since.
So it goes without saying that I was beyond excited when, after a ten-year break, Bishop returned to the world of the Jewels with The Queen’s Bargain – and this year, she presents us with the gift that is The Queen’s Weapons.
That said, neither Queen’s Weapons nor even Queen’s Bargain are a good place for those new to the series to start. So I’m going to write this review for those who are already familiar with the series. That means there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review! You have been warned.
The ‘main’ story of the series wrapped up with Twilight’s Dawn, with as picture-perfect a happy ending as Bishop could write from the corner she’d backed herself into – inevitably, if your romance is between someone from a species that lives 3000 years, and someone else whose race only lives for maybe 100 (like us humans) – well, that’s going to end in heartbreak for one part of your couple and your readers, eventually. Despite that, Bishop did the best she could to make the closing of the series not completely tragic, and it did manage to end on a hopeful, if slightly odd, note.
In writing Queen’s Bargain and Queen’s Weapons, it feels very much like Bishop came back to the Black Jewels world to close the book on it properly.
And I have to say, I think she’s done it. I have no idea if she intends to write any more Black Jewels books, but as a reader, I don’t need any more. This is the ending we didn’t quite get with Twilight’s Dawn; not the forced cliche of a white-picket-fence happy ending, but a happy ending that actually fits the strange, unconventional, wonderful family of characters we’ve known and loved for so long. This is the perfect place to stop. This is every question answered, every loose thread tied up, every Jewel set and left in its proper, perfect place.
A standing ovation for Ms Bishop, please!
Now, let me do my best to describe the actual book to you without spoilers!
:edit: It’s been pointed out to me that actually, this review does contain some spoilers for The Queen’s Weapons. I tried to make them as vague as possible, but they are there, so please read at your own discretion!
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Queen's Weapons (The Black Jewels #11) by Anne Bishop
Representation: Sapphic PoV characters, F/F
on 9th March 2021
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Enter the dark and sensual realms of the Black Jewels, a world where power always has a price, in this sweeping story in the New York Times bestselling fantasy saga.
They are Warlord Princes, men born to serve and protect. They are the Queen's Weapons, men born to destroy the Queen's enemies--no matter what face that enemy wears.
Daemonar Yaslana knows how to be bossy yet supportive--traits he shares with his father, the Demon Prince, and his uncle, the High Lord of Hell. Within his generation of the family, he assumes the role of protector, supporting his sister Titian’s artistic efforts and curbing his cousin Jaenelle Saetien’s more adventurous ideas. But when a young Eyrien Queen, someone Titian thought was a friend, inflicts an emotional wound, Daemonar's counterattack brings him under the tutelage of Witch, the Queen whose continued existence is known only to a select few.
As Daemonar is confronted by troubling changes within and around the family, he sees warnings that a taint in the Blood might be reappearing. Daemonar, along with his father and uncle, must uncover the source of a familiar evil--and Daemon Sadi, the High Lord of Hell, may be forced into making a terrible choice.
As the first book in the series, Daughter of the Blood, begins with a prologue from Tersa – the only point in any book in the series where Bishop uses first-person instead of third- – it is achingly poignant and appropriate that this, which is most likely the last Black Jewels book, starts with a prologue about Tersa as well. Both Daughter of the Blood and Queen’s Weapons begin with Tersa seeing Witch, but now we’ve come full circle from where we began, now, in Weapons, Witch is there to answer.
There’s just something…so beautiful, about that. The contrast between Tersa being the one to foretell Witch’s coming, thousands of years ago – and now, where Tersa speaks to Witch directly, witch to Witch, as maybe no one else can.
And that’s just the prologue.
I have so many thoughts about this book – thoughts that are difficult to write about without giving away too much of the story. But ultimately, this really is a book about coming full circle from where the Black Jewels series began. We started with Dorothea and Hekatah, and saw them brought down – and now the story cycles ’round again to find another twisted witch, rising but still hidden, spreading an old, familiar poison.
In choosing this particular plotline – in choosing to tell this story specifically – Bishop also manages to justify some aspects of her worldbuilding that always struck me as…not the best. The ridiculously long lives of her long-lived races are finally justified, as we see how important it is that there are those still living who have seen this kind of evil before – who are watchful for it. History repeats itself all too easily when you live maybe 100 years; it only takes a century or two for old travesties to be forgotten, or softened, or even idealised. And that’s where the long-lived races of the Blood step in, if they’re taking their responsibilities seriously, because it takes more than a few centuries for them to forget. So in this way, we see how the two kinds of peoples – long-lived and short- – balance each other; innovation and change comes faster from people who don’t live as long, while the long memories of those who live millennia keep the horrors of history from repeating themselves.
As a long-time fan, and someone who’s spent many hours analysing and debating the tiniest details of these books, I also feel like the things which affect or come out of the characters’ personal lives all reach a pretty logical conclusion. Probably the most important plotline of Queen’s Bargain was the breakdown of Daemon and Surreal’s marriage, which: yeah, saw that coming, honestly. I was never comfortable with the two of them being paired together; it felt so forced and out of character for them both. In Queen’s Weapons, their relationship changes into something far healthier, and which feels much more natural for them both. Equally, a major aspect of Queen’s Weapons is Jaenelle Saetian, Daemon and Surreal’s daughter, and the ways in which she moves from bratty child to genuinely toxic adolescent. At first I took this to just be the direction Bishop chose to take the story – but sitting down and thinking about it, it feels like a foregone conclusion to me that Daemon and Surreal wouldn’t be the best parents. What does either one of them know about children? And after the nightmares the two of them lived through, it’s extremely believable to me that they might go too far in the opposite direction and leave Jaenelle Saetian too sheltered to appreciate what she has. It’s not that they’re bad parents as such, so much as, in trying to give their daughter the perfect childhood – in protecting her from the truth of their own pasts – they accidentally give her a blind-spot when it comes to awful people.
And a pretty huge sense of entitlement.
I do struggle with this a bit, because it is hard to accept that an adolescence that lasts centuries is enough to justify bratty attitudes. It’s emphasised again and again that the long-lived races have short bursts of development and then long plateaus where they don’t grow physically or emotionally…but does that mean any kind of critique bounces off someone within one of those plateaus? Is Jaenelle Saetian biologically incapable of internalising the criticisms of her behaviour – critiques that have been coming for centuries – because she’s in one of those plateaus? Is personal growth impossible during the developmental plateaus? If that’s the case, surely the method of raising children would be drastically different than anything we human readers would recognise?
And I mean, change is clearly not impossible, because Jaenelle Saetian does change – it’s just that she changes for the worst. So…I have a bit of trouble with this.
I think it’s just one of those things you have to accept in a story, and move on. Especially when it would have been so easy, and so expected, to idealise Daemon and Surreal’s daughter – to have made her perfect – there is something to be said about Bishop choosing to go the other way with the character. It’s disappointing in the sense that I want all the characters to be happy forever, but it’s also more realistic.
Another thing that really has to be discussed is Bishop’s choice to put a F/F relationship front and center. I’m not going to talk about which characters turn out to be queer; you’ll have to wait and read the book yourself for that. But one of the things that has made me most unhappy about the Black Jewels series as a queer reader – besides the very, very rigid gender binary – is the fact that, until now, every openly queer character has ended up physically disabled. Have been, in fact, the only characters to come out of the various series of events with life-changing physical damage. (If they weren’t the only ones, it wouldn’t be an issue – bad things happen in wars, people get hurt, etc. But when it only happens to your queer characters? Hmm.) I doubt that Bishop is or was deliberately queerphobic, but it’s hard not to read about Karla (canonically not attracted to men, confirmed asexual by Bishop in a Q&A on Facebook) and Rainier (gay) and see unconscious, internalised queerphobia. It’s a variety of the Bury Your Gays trope, for sure.
And I think that either Bishop realised that, or someone told her and she listened, because…she finally gives us openly, on-page queer characters who are not only happily in love, but make it through the final pages (physically) undamaged. I really wish the not-physical damage could have been aimed at another character, but at least it’s made clear that the character in question is going to be okay. And it’s just as clear that the characters we love and care about? Don’t give a damn whether someone is queer or not. (Which could be heavily inferred from Karla and Rainier, but Karla made a ‘normal’-looking family unit with her Master of the Guard and we never saw Rainier with a partner, so no one ever had to ‘confront’ the reality of their queerness. Hypothetically, Surreal could have been okay with knowing Rainier was gay, but still found herself weirded out if he dated another man, for example. But Bishop makes it very clear that no, Lucivar and Daemon and everyone else have no problem with queerness in any form.)
That’s a big deal. It is. Knowing that this world I’ve loved so much for so long has space in it for queer people? Getting a Black Jewels story where the narrative doesn’t punish someone for being gay? It is a big deal.
I had to put the book down and cry for a while. Happy tears! But still. It matters.
Family – its importance, it’s preciousness, all the various forms it can take – has always been a major theme of this series. And I have already seen, in a couple of other early reviews, critique about the way in which a particular family bond breaks in this book. I can only assume those reviewers came from wonderfully happy families; as for me, I’m grateful to Bishop for the case study in how family bonds can be shattered. It’s a relief to finally see someone say, when something is wrong, it is your responsibility to draw the line – even if there are people you love on the other side of it. I can’t be the only one to be sick and tired of seeing family relations idealised and gilded. Folx, sometimes they’re just not. We saw that books and books ago with Jaenelle’s blood-relatives, and as much as I love the SaDiablo family, I’m glad that they can still draw the line even when one of their own is on the other side. It was easy to hate Jaenelle’s relatives; naming them the enemy didn’t require a lot of soul-searching. Drawing the line against people you love, though? That’s harder. Sometimes it’s impossible.
But sometimes it’s necessary. And as someone who’s had to do that, as someone who loves plenty of other people who’ve had to do that… As painful as it is, I’m still happy to see it in one of my favourite series. I’m happy for the message that doing right is more important than who shares your blood – that it’s more important than love.
This isn’t the first time Bishop’s chosen to write that message – we saw it in Shalador’s Lady, in the decision Theran finally had to make about Kermilla: sometimes love and what’s right aren’t the same, aren’t in sync, and when that happens? You have to choose what’s right. Not love. And that’s not a message I can recall seeing in any other books, in any films or tv shows. More usually, love is what helps people to do the right thing; the ‘power of love’ is what gives them the strength to do what’s right but also hard. We’re very rarely shown instances where love and rightness are in conflict. And as I said, I can’t think of any other example where someone has to choose doing right over who they love; not in quite this way.
Painful as it is, I’m happy to see it. I want more people to think about it, and think hard. Because when push comes to shove, you do need to choose right over love.
…I didn’t mean for that to rhyme, but it’s not a bad little mantra, is it?
Perhaps just as important, even if it’s just as bittersweet, is the arc in Queen’s Weapons that explores the limits of familial love; the way in which parents are people too, who can be hurt like anyone else. I’m a very fierce proponent of parental responsibilities, but there’s a pretty significant difference between abandoning your child, and continuing to care and provide for them while no longer loving them the way you used to. Words wound, and hearts can break over familial love just as easily as they can be broken by romantic love – but I would argue that familial heartbreak is much harder to heal. It’s something I never see discussed, so again, I’m glad to see it showcased in this book, even if my heart broke for the characters involved.
All of this is wrapped up in a story that, typically of Bishop’s stories, hooks you in and keeps you. I didn’t put Queen’s Weapons down for two days, because Bishop’s signature addictive prose? Is here on full display. I’ve never been able to dissect and analyse her writing style, what it is about it that strikes just the right tone to completely hypnotise the reader – but she’s still got that X factor. There were moments that had me rolling around on the bed giggling, and others that made me tear up; scenes that gave me chills and lines that made me want to punch the air with triumph. One scene (and you’ll know it when you get to it) had me hugging my kitten very tightly indeed. Regardless, at no point could I tear my eyes away from the pages.
Not that I ever actually wanted to.
The Queen’s Weapons is not the book I expected it to be, but that’s because my expectations were set too low. Bishop surpasses herself in crafting, at last, the perfect happy ending: not some forced attempt at a white-picket-fence, but the strange, unconventional, heartwarming ending that fits these strange, unconventional, heartwarming characters. The Addams family wouldn’t know what to do with a white picket fence, and neither would the SaDiablos. They don’t need or want one, and Bishop doesn’t give it to them. This time, she gives them something perfect. Bittersweet, yes, but perfect.
This is not the book I expected. It’s definitely the one I didn’t know I wanted. But it is very much the book I, and these characters, needed.