Friday, January 29, 2010

"Lady of Light and Shadows," by C. L. Wilson

Spoiler warning: This post contains pretty explicit spoilers, both for the last book and for this one. You have been warned.

The Chick: Ellysetta Baristani. Formerly just a woodcarver's daughter, she's now the truemate of the King of the Fey and the bearer of strange magic powers - which mainly consist of making everyone within a hundred-foot radius insatiably horny.
The Rub: The mysterious Shadow Man now knows who and where she is, leaving her unable to hide from him - and the truth of her birth.
Dream Casting: First it was Kirsten Dunst, but I changed it this time around to Felicia Day.

The Dude:
Rain Tairen Soul. While what the Fey King really wants to do is pleasure his truemate senseless, he also has to convince the Council of Celieria to vote against a law that will allow the evil Elden mages access to their country.
The Rub: Ellie's nice, but damn, what a huge political liability she is!
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:

Ellie: Crap! I magically turned a classy dinner party into a seven-hour orgy!

Some Nobles: We didn't mind!

Other Nobles: We totally mind!

Rain: Let's just do nice, happy things like flying around in transparent robes and having spirit sex! Let the secondary characters worry about the repercussions, shall we? I can show you wooooooorld....

Lauriana, Ellie's Mum: My daughter is going down the path of evil heresy! I must arrange for unsavoury priests to stick her full of poison needles! I'm just a good mother that way!

Rain: Shining, shimmering, splendid....

Annoura, Queen of Celieria: People aren't looking at me! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! Gaaaar, this is all the Baristani girl's fault!

Rain: Tell me, Princess, since when did you last let your heart decide?

Angsty Fey Warrior: I found my truemate, but she's already married! FML!

Captive Fey Lovers: Woe is us! We have been tortured for a thousand years and there is no end to our torment! Except when we're allowed to have sex, that is! FML!

Selianne: My children are being held captive and I have to betray my friend to save them! FML!

Ellie: A whole new woooooooooooooooorld.....

Elden Mages: STOP! EVIL TIME! Dooo do do do - can't touch this!

Lauriana: Remember me as a competent parent....*dies*

Selianne: *fried*

Elden Mages: We're winning!

Ellie: THE HELL YOU ARE. *Magic Explosion*

The Fey: OMG we won!

Rain: OMG, Ellie's totally hotter now!

Ellie: I totally am! So worth it. Let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 SoulMate Romance

1 Evil Whore Villainess

4 Sad Parents

2 Counts of Spirit Sex

1 Count of Real Sex

1 Seven-Hour Sexfest

1 Magical Makeover

The Word:
As some of my readers know, I wasn't a fan of the first book in C.L. Wilson's Tairen Soul series, Lord of the Fading Lands. I felt that while the fantasy was good, the romance was dreck - the hero was an oversensitive despot who plugged his fingers in his ears and drummed his heels against the floor whenever he didn't get his way, and the heroine was a drippy Mary Sue who despite an utter absence of spine or gumption is somehow necessary to the survival of the world.

I was rather surprised to discover that I enjoyed Lady of Light and Shadows a bit more than its predecessor - but maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the fantasy and the drama become more complex, and the romance doesn't backpedal. Okay, so it doesn't really move all that much forward either but at least it doesn't get worse. Which still makes Lady of Light and Shadows a below-average romance, but it raises its worth as a fantasy novel.

The novel picks up right after the last one left off, roughly a week after Ellysetta Baristani, a plain peasant girl, managed to call Rain, the shapeshifting King of the Fey, out of the sky. In the last book, they discovered they were truemates, which meant Ellie became the de facto Queen of the Fey. Of course, the nobles in the human kingdom of Celieria were less than pleased to defer to a peasant girl, particularly Queen Annoura. Apparently mistaking herself for a character from a teen soap on the CW, Annoura tricked Ellie into getting drunk at a dinner party, hoping the girl would embarrass herself in front of the nobles and prove once and for all that Annoura was the most popular girl in high school rightful Queen of Celieria.

Heavily under the influence of booze and a coffee-like aphrodisiac, Ellie ended up accidentally casting a spell that made everyone in the room absolutely ravenous for sex - for seven hours. Rain (having promised Ellie's father to leave her virginity intact until after they married) fled to give himself the wank-off of a lifetime, leaving Ellie vulnerable to a psychic attack from an evil mage, in which the Shadow Man, the mysterious personage who hunted Ellie in her dreams since she was a small child, finally discovered her identity.

This book opens as the effects of the Ultimate Bender are wearing off. Rain returns to find Ellie's personal bodyguards groggy, hungover, and severely chafed in very intimate areas. Ellie is shaken but fine, but she's unintentionally thrown a monkeywrench into Rain's political plans. The kingdom of Celieria is debating whether or not to open its borders to the Eld, a northern nation. Rain and the Fey know that the people of Eld are ruled by evil mages and want to keep the borders closed. However, the Mage Wars ended centuries ago and human memories are short.

Many nobles think that Celieria, as a strong and independent nation, shouldn't have to take orders from the Fey anymore. Others feel outright threatened by the Fey and think an alliance with the Eld will keep them in their place. In the last book, Rain tried (very clumsily) to convince the nobles that Eld is All That Is Evil and Wrong Forever and Ever and the Fey are all just misunderstood teddy bears whose entire purpose in life is to distribute free medicine and hugs - unless, of course, you defy them in which case they will SQUASH YOU LIKE A WORM.

Ahem. But I digress - Rain's political manoeuvrings go awry after Ellie casts her Magical Viagra Spell. Turning a bunch of sophisticated, arrogant aristocrats into crazed nymphomaniacs is a bit hard to explain away without a considerable amount of diplomatic skill. While some nobles are willing to laugh it off (and avoid sitting down on any hard or rough surfaces for the next couple of days), others are just as quick to label the whole Lovefest another example of the mischief Fey can wreak on human free will. While the King himself is loyal to the Fey, he's outnumbered by the Anti-Fey (including his wife, Annoura) and doesn't want to veto them unless he absolutely has to.

Meanwhile, Elden spies for the High Mage start planting seeds of hatred and distrust against the Fey all over the kingdom - and now that they know who Ellie is, they start moving against the ones she loves, including enslaving her friend Selianne and exacerbating Ellie's mother's fears about magic.

The first couple chapters of this book were just as difficult to read as the last novel, since it was basically more of the same: Ellie repeats ad nauseum how she's just a simple woodcarver's daughter and is ugly and useless and a blight on everyone's lives - this doesn't annoy me because it's inaccurate or exaggerated. This annoys me because it's redundant - the author has already spent a novel showing us what a passive Mary Sue deadweight Ellie is. And Rain, once again, tries to convince the Celierian nobles of the Eld evil but is baffled by their strange, foreign concepts like "evidence," "proof," and "baseless conjecture." I actually think most of the nobles' concerns are pretty reasonable, but of course Rain is 1000 years old and magical, which means he's always right and silly mortal humans are always wrong.

However, as the novel progresses, Rain and Ellie actually do us a favour by retreating from the storyline to do silly, gratuitous but infrequent fluff scenes. Rain and Ellie fly around the city and give each other presents and have magical hymen-proof sex and basically take a vacay from the plot, leaving most of the narrative up to the more interesting secondary characters like Gaelen - a dahl'reisen (or Super-Emo Fey) whose inner despair and taste for Simple Plan songs got him banished from Fey society, and Lauriana - Ellie's conservative, religious and bigoted mother who worries about the state of Ellie's immortal soul in the company of godless, magic-practicing Fey.

From this angle, the book's not half bad - there's some real drama, and even the really, really, ridiculously stupid bullshit some of these characters pull has some motivation. Some plot points genuinely surprised (like Ellie's true parents - they're not who you think!), and the author builds on our knowledge of the Fey and Eld, helping us learn more about them without giving us a huge infodump. Ellie even develops a glimmer of a spine, even as it comes at the cost of a cringe-inducing magic scene that suddenly reveals she's been beautiful and perfect all this time, it was just hidden under a spell.

However, C.L. Wilson's style of writing remains irritatingly twee (the elf language is described at one point as the "sound of a waterfall in a sun-dabbled forest" - what, exactly, is the sound of sun dappling?) and Ellie and Rain's romance develops in a slow, inconsistent and contrived way. Yes, despite being psychically bonded, showered with presents, and told repeatedly that she is the light of his heart and the saviour of his soul, Ellie still doesn't believe Rain loves her UNTIL THE VERY END, a perfect example of my most hated cliche, Those Three Little Words.

I could go on about the silly writing and the protagonists, but while I was discussing this book with my Twitter friends, I realized something else that had really bugged me about this book: the portrayal of the female characters. Now, the fantasy genre is no stranger to the Bland Female Love interest, particularly the princess who must be rescued from the correct castle, as well as the Beyond Evil Villainess, who wears evil stilettos and carries a whip. In a romance, however, female characters tend to be better developed. Looking back on Lady of Light and Shadows, when I thought about the characters who did the stupidest things and had the flimsiest motivation and were the most annoying - they were all women. Let's meet the Top Three Stupids:

1. Queen Annoura. She's petty, vain, selfish, and completely loses her shit at the smallest provocation - namely, Ellie. Her enmity has nothing to with political or moral reasons and everything to do with the fact that Ellysetta's presence at court has sucked all the attention away from herself. A flamboyantly superficial attention whore who runs with an entourage of Dazzles (gorgeous men and women), she rages and wails that her husband the King would give matters of international diplomacy more consideration than her fucking pride. This, of course, leaves her completely open to the manipulations of Kolis (an Eld spy).

Meanwhile, of course, her husband is perfectly wise and reasonable and doesn't see seven hours of nonstop orgasms as anything to complain about.

2. Lauriana. Ellie's mother has never had a high opinion of magic, and raised her daughter to believe it's evil and wrong. She also thinks the Fey are godless heathens. Even when a priest in her church tells her the Fey are God's creatures too and there's nothing wrong with using the gifts God gave you, she sniffs and says, "I'm from the north, you don't know our ways." Yes, of course, the north, where everyone is good and pious and - oh, did I mention? If any babies, toddlers or children develop signs of having magic, they abandon them in the woods to starve, including Lauriana's two year old sister. Yes, yes, the Fey with their healing spells and innovations are all that is evil, but Lauriana and her righteous baby-killing folk are Good People.

She can't stand to see her perfect baby girl using magic, and is very easily manipulated into believing the only way she can help her daughter is to submit her to an exorcism where men in long robes tie her down, torture her with spiked manacles and fill her full of needles. Celieria's Mother of the Year, everybody. Her blinding stupidity and bigotry also leave her open to manipulations by Eld spies.

And, once again, her husband is totally cool with his daughter marrying a Fey prince and is completely rational and tolerant of other people's beliefs.

3. Jiarine. One of Annoura's ladies-in-waiting and a servant of the Elden spy. She has a relatively small role, but represents a huge burn on my ass as she's one of the most heinous examples of the Evil Whore character I'm come across - i.e., the female character whose obvious evilness is obviously demonstrated by the fact that she likes sex, lots of sex, and with an unorthodox number of partners. Every other woman in the book is strictly monogamous, and when Jiarine is confronted by Kolis the spy with the number of men she shagged during the sex spell, Kolis makes some sort of laughing comment about how she's the perfect evil minion since her appetites were nearly as voracious as his are.

Because as well all know, having a higher-than-average sex drive practically guarantees evil, especially in a woman, doesn't it?

I wouldn't have minded these three morons so much if there had been other women in the book who were well-developed. Um, but what women? We have:
  • Ellie (dishrag)
  • Selianne, Ellie's friend (helpless victim)
  • Marissya, the healer (she heals, uh, and that's it)
  • Elfeya, captured Fey (another helpless victim)
Two books in, and we have one borderline-strong female character (Ellie - and she's still a long way from having a full spine), and the rest are either non-characters or shrieking, irrational shrews who are easily manipulated by men, thanks to their own moral failings.

I'm sorry, but I gave C.L. Wilson two shots. The fantasy is interesting and well developed, but the romance is still nothing to write home about and the female characters are cartoons.


  1. Considering how disappointed I came to be in the first 100 pages of the most recent book, you make some very good points. I loved the first three books in the series, but that was when I really believed it would move and grow into something more. I don't think the forth did, certainly not well enough to make me go beyond pg. 100 anyway.

    2 books is plenty of shots.

  2. Estelle2:38 AM

    It's the first time I come across a review of this series that doesn't praise it to the skies and I'm a bit relieved because I was starting to feel a bit lonely!

    About this:

    . "Yes, despite being psychically bonded, showered with presents, and told repeatedly that she is the light of his heart and the saviour of his soul, Ellie still doesn't believe Rain loves her UNTIL THE VERY END, a perfect example of my most hated cliche, Those Three Little Words."

    To be fair to Ellie, Rain has been widely known to have scorched the entire world when his beloved Sariel died. With a guy that much in love with another woman and who clung to her memories for centuries afterwards (there are even songs and poems about their romance that everyone knows by heart), I wouldn't be inclined to believe he fell in love again in a mere few weeks.

    And that's actually the main reason I don't like this series as a romance. It totally fails for me. And the rest wasn't interesting enough for me to engage me.

    I slogged through book 4 (I skipped book 3) and nothing has really changed.