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Book Review: The Queen’s Bargain by Anne Bishop

Title: The Queen’s Bargain

Author: Anne Bishop

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: March 10, 2020

Genres: Fantasy

Shelves: Female-led, Female-authored

Like all of the Black Jewels novels and stories, The Queen’s Bargain is a complex, complicated weave of themes and genres, appearing to be one thing before revealing another before becoming something else entirely. So much of it is light reading, romantic and amusing, and yet there is so much darkness and pain, you’re on an emotional roller-coaster where the hills get higher and the tunnels darker as the story goes on.

What Anne Bishop has so carefully woven together here is a story of relationships, healing, and power. It all begins with Jillian (foster daughter of Lucivar and Marian Yaslana), Lord Dillon (a young Opal training to be an escort), and Lady Blyte (aristo daughter of a Warlord and a witch). In case you forgot that this is, in so many ways, a female-led world, we watch as that bitchy little aristo takes advantage of the young Lord, leads him along, and then not only destroys him, but uses her circle of mean girls to ensure his reputation is ruined wherever he goes. By the time he meets up with Jillian, he has turned the tables, becoming predator instead of prey . . . but he has targeted entirely the wrong woman to ruin, and the wrong family to extort.

The story continues with Marian Yaslana, wife and consort of Prince Lucivar, who is suffering from post-pregancy complications that leave her mysteriously weaker by the day. Theirs is a story of true love and affection, setting the example for what a relationship could (and should) be. While there is a healing aspect to Lord Dillon’s tale as well, Marian is the first character in need of something more than ordinary healing – for her, the outcome is increasingly becoming life-or-death.

Where the story is at its deepest and darkest is with the relationship between Daemon Sadi and Surreal SaDiablo, whose marriage of convenience has become one of love, but which – following a night of play with Daemon as the Sadist – is quickly turning into one of fear and loathing. This time it is Daemon Sadi who is in need of healing, although they both refuse to see that, and their reluctance to admit to the problem, to discuss the distance growing between them, is what escalates a simple biological urge into a sanity-breaking catastrophe that could mean life-and-death for the entire realm.

Of course, this being the Black Jewels saga, nothing is ever quite so simple. Relationships overlap, often driven by lust or physical need, but just as often carried along by deep emotional bonds. Daemon and Lucivar are bonded as much by blood, their shared history, and the power of their jewels, connected in a way that allows them to not only support one another, but protect the women they love. Even deeper than that is everyone’s relationship to Jaenelle Angelline, the dead Queen, known as Witch, whose power (and legacy) continues to resonate through all their lives. It is she who has planted the seeds for healing with Marian, and she who may be the only one who can heal Daemon with The Queen’s Bargain.

The first half of the book is all relationships, which is entirely fine because Bishop writes such great characters, and falling back into the complex hierarchies of the world is as exciting as comforting. It is frustrating at times, especially with Daemon and Surreal (she felt a little ‘off’ here), but it is also amusing and heartfelt. It is when Daemon’s suffering reaches its peak that the roller-coaster of the story finds its darkest tunnel and its highest hill, but what I appreciated most about that is the way Daemon never stops protecting those he loves, even if that deepens his own pain, and even if that means unleashing both heat and rage on the world around him, arousing some and terrifying others.

For a long while I wondered how and why Lord Dillon’s story fit into everything, feeling like a tacked-on subplot for so much of the story, but it turns out to be the catalyst for so much we don’t see coming. The Queen’s Bargain gets significant in the closing chapters, with massive social and political shifts that will surely resonate through whatever stories are to follow. Bringing together all those themes of relationships, healing, and power, Bishop empowers the healing of one relationship to begin a wider, deeper healing for both the world and her characters. I cannot remember the last time I was so invested in a story, so intimately troubled for the characters, or so triumphant about the resolution.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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