Pros: Fantastic world-building; emotional roller-coaster
Cons: Some slow-on-the-uptake folks
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Invisible Ring is technically book four in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series. However, where books one through three were one continuous story, this book is set earlier and has its own story going on. Jared is a Warlord who wears the red jewels–but he’s been bound as a pleasure slave. He’s sold to a mysterious woman known as the Gray Lady. According to rumor, slaves bought by the Gray Lady are never seen again, so he fully expects that he might die. After all, Queens like Dorothea will torture and kill a man on a whim; he has no reason to believe the Gray Lady is any different.
As the Gray Lady takes her latest set of slaves home, more and more details seem… wrong. Instead of the Ring of Obedience, she has leashed her slaves with the Invisible Ring. It seems to allow the slaves more leeway, and she doesn’t use its power to harm them the way she could with the Ring of Obedience. She also allows the slaves more comfort than they’re used to–for example, giving them turns at riding the horses or even sitting in the wagon rather than forcing the men, women and children to walk all day. Gradually Jared realizes that she seems to care for the slaves that she has bought, which makes no sense at all.
Jared finds himself becoming protective of his new Lady, as do some of the other slaves. Jared is the highest-ranked Warlord present so he ends up in charge. Soon he realizes that the Lady is in danger, and that they’re being chased by Dorothea’s lackeys. Somehow, he has to protect his wagon-train full of men, women, and children from the fate that seems to await them.
“Even in the most rotted Territories, there are still overlooked places where the Blood remember what it means to be Blood, what it means to honor the Darkness. Where males remember what it means to serve and witches remember that the bargain isn’t one-sided.”
Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books operate on several levels in ways that would count as negatives were I reading almost any other author’s work. Her characters are stubborn, high-strung, searingly emotional, and highly dangerous. Many of her characters have been treated horribly (some of the material is very dark) and are damaged in various ways. Blooded women and men (those capable of using the Craft) tend to be fiercely independent and stubborn, and relationships between the genders can become quite explosive. In Bishop’s hands, however, this is what sets her world apart and makes it so absorbing. There are reasons why her characters are high-strung. (In most urban fantasy books we’d say that both the women and the men tend to have ‘alpha’ personalities.) What makes it so beautiful, though, is the fact that Bishop has worked out a fascinating, richly detailed, complex social system designed to funnel the characters’ high emotions and put restrictions on them to keep them safe. Many of the plots in her books result from cases where that social system has broken down. In The Invisible Ring, much of the conflict between the leads is due to uncertainties that have arisen in that system. I also love the fact that both genders include extremely strong characters. While Blooded men and women occupy very specific social roles, those roles are designed to allow both genders to retain their strength. Each is meant to serve the other on different levels.
The ultimate bad guy, the Queen Dorothea, is pure evil. In almost any other book I’d call this cartoonish. However, the larger-than-life personalities in this world make Dorothea believable in her role. We also get to see how her messed-up version of the social structure can turn everyday people into monsters, which is one of the more fascinating (and repellent) threads in the book.
My only real difficulty was the fact that Jared should have picked up on certain plot details earlier. I need to draw a line here, however. There were several ways in which I thought the characters were missing the obvious, but later found out that what I thought was obvious wasn’t. So if you’re reading this volume and start getting annoyed that one or another plot thread seems too obvious, I’d invite you to give it some time. Bishop is good at red herrings. The only thing I truly ended up being annoyed at was Jared’s inability to understand the Invisible Ring, and even that thread gained more dimension later on in the book.
For the most part the characters from the Black Jewels Trilogy aren’t present, although fans will recognize both Dorothea and Daemon Sadi. While I thought the trilogy was better than The Invisible Ring, this book still swept me up in events and made it very hard for me to stop to do anything else!
I’m too swept up in the series as a whole to be able to say whether this book could stand on its own. I think it would certainly help to have read the trilogy first, but I hadn’t read it in several years and still had little trouble following along.