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Bewildering Stories

Anne Bishop, The Invisible Ring

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Anne Bishop
Publisher: Penguin, 2000
Paperback: $7.50 U.S.
Length: 398 pages
ISBN: 0-451-45802-8
One of the first science-fiction books I ever read was Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s classic Sime-Gen novel, The House of Zeor. It was issued in a cheap paperback edition which had enough editorial errors for even my teenybopper self to notice, and as far as I know, it’s never won any awards. Most probably don’t remember it now.

But there’s a reason why Lichtenberg’s stories of those tentacle-festooned characters have become cult classics for some people. I think it’s because the Sime-Gen stories read like the author wrote them in an obsessive-compulsive fit. Her characters suffer from a complex biological compulsion that makes drug addiction or vampirism sound sweet. Their physiology and its psychological ramifications are depicted with neurotic thoroughness. You can tell the author could have written her own medical treatise on their condition and well might have, as background material.

You might deduce from this little story that when a writer has a really complex, really different system to present to the reader, whether it’s biological, ethical, technological or socio-political, it pays to approach the writing with that obsessive-compulsive conviction. Because if you, the creator, don’t invest in your imaginary world with utter intensity, why should your reader?

Thus I give Anne Bishop’s story, The Invisible Ring, mixed marks. She gets points for hinting at a complex socio-political system of power and caste. She gets demerits for not being obsessive enough in the details. She gets points for the powerful start of the story, which then flops into turgid romance cliché and then tries, with only limited success, to get back on its knees again at the end. Obsession, Anne. That’s your key word. Try for it.

The story starts out with promise. Jared is a powerful but enslaved Warlord (one of the aforementioned castes) who’s been used and degraded until he’s driven to murder. Having killed his former Queen and her Warlord Prince, he’s no longer choice meat at the market. He’s facing the salt mines in spite of his pretty face and buff bod, and as the story opens, he’s seriously considering going out in a blaze of destructive glory as an alternative.

But his manacled self finds an unexpected buyer. It’s a mysterious Queen, one who wears the powerful Gray Jewel. There are rumors about her, one being that her slaves never seem to show up again. The man who killed another Queen is soon faced with the choice of deserting or saving his new lady at the extreme risk of his own life. But there’s something, indeed, very mysterious about this seemingly disguised Queen, who looks old, but doesn’t feel old, not to Jared.

Unfortunately the power of the characters Jared and his Gray Queen is diluted in the middle part of the book with what I can only describe as execrable lover-to-lover baby talk. The powerful Queen we met at the start of the story gets menstrual cramps and gets pissy (as the author describes it) and throws boots in a petty PMS fit. She loses her dignity and authority as Queen and turns into a babe. The coy exchanges where Jared cajoles his Lady Grumpy to get her nightgown on and worries about back-rubs emasculate the intriguingly volcanic and defiant Warlord we met at the start of the story. We descend into romance clichés, right down to the inevitable sex scene embellished with nouveau paranormal flourishes, and we just can’t seem to climb out of the rose-petal pit again.

There are hints here and there of what might have been. There’s a fascinating character called the Sadist I wish we’d seen more of (though alarmingly, he, too, is longing desperately for the Perfect Woman who will one day suddenly appear on his lovelorn horizon. While he waits through the centuries he exercises his talents on various substitutes, honoring his love-to-be with his noble flaccidity — he refuses to Get It Up for anyone but Her. Um, what if she turns out to have squint eyes? Or thin hair?). There are intriguing hints about Warlord Princes and their knife-edge nature. The caste-Jewel system is interesting, if underdeveloped (that lack of obsession in the details again).

I’d be willing to read other stories in the Black Jewels series in the hope that the author can pull off what she almost-but-didn’t-quite in this one. I would hope she manages to transcend the romance stereotypes next time, and that she does a better job with her villain (who is just so, so nakedly bad in this one that she isn’t interesting: Dorothea, the All-Bad Witch, is your standard unredeemed sadist/tyrant. Who still thinks this makes an effective — or interesting — ruler?).

The Invisible Ring is a decent enough paranormal romance. I was just hoping for a little more, given that I suspect the author could pull it off. Lay off the wince-inducing man-woman byplay a bit, Ms. Bishop, burnish the details of your imaginary world, and remember that key word obsession!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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