Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shalador's Lady by Anne Bishop

Cassidy is a Witch-Queen with a Rose Jewel who has come to the Land of Dena Nehele to rule it. Back before Jaenelle Angelline came to rule, the Blood Witches of Dena Nehele were tainted, and were destroyed when Jaenelle used her power as Witch to cleanse the lands and Blood. After the ruling Witches were destroyed, the Landen, or non-blood, rose in rebellion, killing off many of the remaining Warlords. Those who were left retreated to the Tamanara Mountains.

The people known as the Shalador suffered the most under the Rule of those of Tainted Blood. They were denied their stories, their traditions, and their music. Rebellion was brutally put down, and the Shaladors were forced back from their ancestral lands to three protected reserves, where they were allowed to live, but still not allowed to have their stories, music or traditions. Desperate for a Queen to rule them, the people sought a Queen who was kind and gentle, but able to defend them.

They got Cassidy, a Queen whose court had abandoned her for another, which broke her confidence in herself. However, seeing their need, she agreed to serve under contract as their Queen for a year, provided they could find twelve Warlords to serve as her court. These were found, and Cassidy struggled against the problem of a court and people who didn't believe in her. Or rather, one person who didn't believe in her- Theran, the same man who asked her to come rule Dena Nehele in the first place.

Even though Cassidy found the hidden treasure of Lia, the last good Queen of Dena Nehele, Theran still believes that she is too plain, too common and simply doesn't have enough power to rule Dena Nehele in the way it should be ruled. And part of that is simply sour grapes- he isn't personally drawn to Cassidy, and his cousin, Gray, who was tortured in the war to the point of emotional and physical scars, has fallen in love with Cassidy and looks more to her than Theran. And among the other Warlords and Warlord Princes of the Court, he isn't The Leader, just a Leader, and that strains his pride.

But when Cassidy gets a visit from the Witch Queen Kermilla, who is young and beautiful and bears the slightly more powerful jewels known as SummerSky, Theran feels that he has finally found a Queen who is right for Dena Nehele. She has everything he wants in a Queen. But Cassidy dislikes Kermilla, who is the woman her own court threw her over for. She tells Kermilla to get out of her territory- that she isn't wanted here. But Theran, who finds Kermilla crying after her rejection, invites Kermilla to stay in his home, which is also the court of Cassidy. Since it's his home, Theran can do as he wants, but Cassidy can't stand to be around Kermilla and avoids her whenever possible.

Theran adds to the problem when he tells Cassidy to stop acting like a schoolgirl and sulking in her room, which makes her want to leave. Ranon, one of her Warlord Princes, and a Shalador, finds her packing to go, because she thinks that what happened in her former Court will happen all over again- that the men in her court, like Theran, will choose Kermilla over her, preferring Kermilla because she is young and beautiful and able to use her beauty as a weapon. The fact that Cassidy's former escort, Jhorma, with her is an even greater blow, since he was Cassidy's lover and deserted her for Kermilla. Cassidy is in fear that Gray, the man whom she loves, will choose Kermilla and since her heart is given to him, it will finally destroy her.

Ranon persuades her to instead go to see his grandfather, Yairen, who owns a boardinghouse, and who housed her when she first came to Dena Nehele, Once there, Yairen persuades her to stay and move the court to the boardinghouse. After all, the court is where the Queen is. Then, Ranon goes back to let the rest of the court, and the Queen's first circle, know where she is... all except for Theran. Some of them are angry, thinking that Cassidy doesn't trust them, but Gray knows that Saetan SaDiablo told him that Cassidy was shaped by her past as much as Gray was, and he forgives her for leaving. The rest of the Queen's first circle, save Theran, leave Greyhaven manor for the Shalador reservation, and Cassidy's new Court. Kermilla can stay with Theran, but she is not welcome in Cassidy's territory of Dena Nehele. Since Theran holds Greyhaven and its town as his own lands, she can only stay on his estate and in the town.

Theran is angered by what Cassidy's done, and he warns the other men that Kermilla will not look kindly on what they have done when she becomes Queen at the end of Cassidy's year's contract, but the rest of the court detests Kermilla, seeing her for what she really is: A spoiled bitch who doesn't care about anything but herself and having fun. In fact, her realm is already having money difficulties because of her overspending. She visited Cassidy to demand the money she had gotten from the Queen's tithe- her own has been spent on clothing and jewels, and she needs the money to tithe to the Queen that rules over the Province. But Cassidy doesn't have any money to give her- it was spent for the good of her realm, as it should be.

Meanwhile, in the Reservation, Cassidy is still working for the betterment of Dena Nehele as a whole. She brings back her Warlord's families to live with them- not for the purposes of intimidation or to punish them if she doesn't like what the Warlords are doing, but to allow each man to be with his family. Meanwhile, Gray is taking instruction from Saetan SaDiablo in how to be a Warlord, and later, how to be a escort- for he wants to be Cassidy's lover, and Theran isn't fulfilling his duties- he's with Kermilla, trying to drum up support for her Queen's court.

Her court gets angry with her when she gives blood gift to the land and nearly kills herself pushing power into the land to make it more fertile. Apparently, none of the "Grey Ladies" cared to do this for Dena Nehele, and none of the remaining Queens know how. Cassidy summons them to teach them how, and some of them go to Greyhaven, where Kermilla must be convinced into doing so by Theran. This takes the burden off of Cassidy, but Gray is furious with her- she gave so much power that she nearly broke her Rose Jewel, which would leave her with only her birthright jewel of Tiger-Eye and nearly cripple her power.

But as Cassidy recovers from the mistake that nearly killed her, Gray holds onto his resentment, until Saetan SaDiablo gives him a way to deal with it, and eventually forgive her when he realizes that she was only trying to help in the best way she knew how. More aid comes from the Scelties, a group of Kin who are not only Blood, but animals, dogs. Cassidy has long had Vae, a Sceltie Bitch-Queen, among her group, but she asks her Queen for Twelve Sceltie Warlords to come to Cassidy's court, and Cassidy, who has long been a friend to the Scelties, is granted them, including a Warlord Prince Sceltie who is as Powerful as Ranon. The use of the Animal Kin Blood becomes quickly apparent when it is realized they can sniff out a Warlord who is using a sight-shield, because of their greater keen senses.

Back in Greyhaven, Theran has been dealing with the problems that Kermilla is causing him. For one thing, she spends entirely too much money- money that he is beholden for. Second, she wants fun, and will take it, no matter what harm it causes to others. She meets two Warlords who hurt a Landen girl so badly that she was blinded, but plays up to them because of their irreverent attitudes, which she finds "fun". When she goes shopping to the Landen village, she takes them with her, even though she knows they were banished from there by Cassidy's court for what they had done. She maintains that her greater jewels than Cassidy's make her orders overrule "Freckledy", but her support make the two even more determined to get revenge on the Landen girl who got them in trouble, as they see it.

They attempt to attack the girl and her family, but they vanish, and their fingers, a sign that justice has been done, are delivered to Theran, who is livid over what she did. Still, he assumes that it was a mere mistake, easily explained by her youth. But he's the only one who thinks she is that good. None of the other Warlords seem to think she has what it takes to become Queen of Dena Nehele. And in truth, Kermilla is her own worst enemy- her friend, a Sapphire-jeweled Queen, calls Cassidy "Freckledy" in front of other Warlord Princes, but Kermilla's not calling her to silence immediately tells them everything they want to know about her.

Even Theran realizes that she can cross the line, when she demands that the men who killed the two Warlords who were executed for attacking the Landen girl be punished, he wonders that she can be so thick. He sends the girl home, but she is shortly thereafter killed for stealing from a shop- the same thing that Kermilla has been getting away with in Greyhaven, and is shocked again that Theran considers it only appropriate for her crimes- plus the girl's insolence towards a Warlord Prince. And when Kermilla sends one of her retainers to steal a Sceltie so that she can gain people's respect, the man injures the Kindred and is executed by the other Scelties, and the men from Cassidy's court send him back to Theran and Kermilla. Theran finally loses his temper at her, but is mollified by her distress when the Scelties and two of their kin come to teach Kermilla a lesson.

He is still trying to make her Queen, and he has been telling people that when Cassidy's year term is up, Cassidy will be leaving and Kermilla will be Queen. When the rumors finally reach her, Cassidy is once again ready to flee, but words from Vae make her finally buck up. Will she abandon her people, as Kermilla has abandoned her own territories? Or will she finally grow some steel in her backbone and fight for what she believes in and the people she rules? Cassidy, buffered by the love of Gray, whom she has finally become lovers with, and who has finally healed and shed the last of his emotional scars, must do some growing and changing of her own to become the kind of Queen who has confidence in herself and her people.

The Land of Dena Nehele will fall, or so say the seers visions. But what will come out of that fall? A new nation, Shalador Nehele? Or only more war and heartache for its people? Can Kermilla, whose court has broken with the death of the Warlord she sent to steal the Sceltie, find her way back to triumph, or will she lose everything by virtue of her own malice and incompetence? Can Cassidy bring something greater out of the ashes of Dena Nehele, and will she finally have a court which supports her and which she can support? Is there any chance to heal Dena Nehele after so many years of war?

I loved this book. Some of it was a little painful to read- when Theran decided to support Kermilla simply because he was attracted to her- that was painful to read after all Cassidy had done for Dena Nehele, and to see how Kermilla and Theran treated her was difficult to read. However, it cemented Theran in my mind as an asshole. Yes, he truly believes that Kermilla is better suited to rule Dena Nehele simply because Kermilla was young and pretty and he had an attraction to her that he never had to Cassidy. That lowered my estimation of him, and it continued to lower throughout the book. He could have seen the signs were there when she almost consistently disappointed him when it came to drumming up support for her, but he continually excuses her because he is thinking with the wrong head, right up until almost the end of the book. He passes "Noble aims, bad judgement" right up to "Deliberately willful stupidity", and then travels beyond that.

The theme of the book seems to be growing up. Everybody in the book had some growing to do. The people of Shalador and Dena Nehele had to learn to trust Cassidy, that she wouldn't be like the "Grey Ladies" who had been purged from the land. Gray had to grow into his manhood, take charge of his own actions and grow so that he could be worthy of Cassidy. The Court also had to grow to trust her and to see that she would be a good Queen of Dena Nehele, and choose her. But with all the growing that the rest of the characters do, it seems that Cassidy is mostly done her growing. But no, she has to grow, too. She has to grow beyond the loss of confidence in herself to become the Queen that Dena Nehele needs, not just the one they have.

It was nice to see Cassidy move beyond her fears and lost confidence to decide to stand by the people who are counting on her instead of just ceding the fight to her rival. And even Theran is forced to grow, when he realizes that his judgement is wrong about Kermilla, and even though he loves her desperately, she is the kind of Queen that he once would have given his life to overthrow. The only person who doesn't really grow in this book is Kermilla. She ends it pretty much as she began it- spoiled rotten and thinking that she is somehow better because of her physical beauty- she's been dealt some harsh lessons along the way, but it doesn't seem to have changed her self-centered thinking or point of view- but at some point, she must change- or die. That's the fate meted out to her- but I'm not interested in seeing if she does- she left a bad taste in my mouth, and I simply didn't care what happened to her. I was more interested in reading about Cassie's happy ending with Gray, or Jared Beale, as he is more formerly known, the man she loves and is loved by.

I found this volume a strong finish to the tale of Cassidy, and even though there were more asides concerning the SaDiablo family and Jaenelle Angelline, I didn't mind them as much in this one, as they seemed better integrated into the story. But this book I would definitely recommend to others, especially if they could read this one and the former, Shadow Queen all at once. Though the result would be rather long, I really feel that the story has a lot to recommend it. Highly recommended.

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