Last winter, while it was cold and gloomy outside, I was happily browsing a local Borders (sadly, now defunct) in search of the next book to read. Here again, I found a featured section of the shelves that prominently displayed Anne Bishop‘s books. Even though I had never heard her name before, one of her books had a medal printed on its cover (Crawford Award, anyone?), and all the others said something about National Bestselling Author, so there were several elements of “social proof” indicating this might be a good author to investigate.
Even the Booklist one-liner designed to pique a reader’s interest … tweaked mine: “Erotic, fervently romantic, superbly entertaining, Sebastian satisfies.”
For all that build-up, though, it took me quite a few chapters to settle into the pace of this story. The premise really grabbed me:
Long ago, Ephemera was split into a dizzying number of magical lands connected only by bridges that may take you where you truly belong, rather than where you intended to go. In one such land, where night reigns and demons dwell, the half-incubus Sebastian revels in dark delights. But in dreams she calls to him: a woman who wants only to be safe and loved–a woman he hungers for while knowing he may destroy her. But an even more devastating destiny awaits him, for an ancient evil is stirring–and Sebastian’s realm may be the first to fall.
I’m not even really sure why this book didn’t grab me and hold onto me the way they normally do. The opening scene introduces us to an incubus demon who’s bored with sex:
A sudden yearning for something washed through him, making his heart ache, filling him with a need and a longing so powerful it staggered him. He braced his hands on the counter and waited for the feeling to pass. It always did.
Bishop has set out to build a world where you expect darkness and depravity–and you get ennui. It’s a contradiction that underlines the fundamental conflict of the title character, a being whose so-called humanity has, at least in theory, been overridden by his demonic self. I suspect that back and forth see-saw adds to the reader’s inner tension, too, making her question each element of the tale–maybe more than it need be.
Tolerating that long, slow build-up, though, the reader is more than rewarded with the pay-off: A story with a deeply insightful view of the human psyche and the strange extremes, justifications, and abilities to shape reality that each individual possesses. The concept that a world is sentient enough to push people to the places that most align with their current Innermost Selves, and what it takes to truly wrench yourself away from a dark path, and what it takes to encompass the entire range of emotion and not be driven mad by its wild vicissitudes was profoundly moving for me.
So while I wasn’t really sure I liked this even halfway through the story, and I certainly wouldn’t have used the kinds of words to describe it that I quoted at the beginning of this review (though, from the end-view perspective, they could even be correct), there was significant philosophical meat to the book–enough that I still ponder it periodically half a year after having finished it. Though, admittedly, not quite enough to entice me to whatever depths the follow-on, Belladonna, has in store for its readers. I still seek to “travel lightly”, as the landscapers admonish each other with each departure, and this is a heavy book to digest.
Nonetheless, for those interested in a philosophical perspective on the range of gray available within the human psyche, this is a unique world, worthy of exploration.