In Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, witches are powerful. Their male counterparts with magic serve them. Tropes about power and gender are turned on their heads throughout. Characters with names we know from religious stories — like Satan, Lucifer, and Daemon — are kind and just. The series also has an unusual way of dealing with trauma, using the horrific acts of the past as powerful motivators for good works in the future.
The young Jaenelle Angeliene’s family thinks she’s “crazy,” talking about an imaginary world of winged people, unicorns, and dragons. As it turns out, she’s correct, and the people who live “normal” lives are the villains. Lucivar (different spelling, but the same sort of character description with golden eyes and wings) is tortured, yet becomes a powerful leader, kind and willing to defend and love his family. Daemon, a man who has been sexually abused for centuries, uses his past to help the woman he loves through her own trauma. Bishop takes characters who would normally be pushed to the side in a fantasy novel because of their pasts and doesn’t use trauma as a revenge motivator. She deals beautifully with survivors, no matter what their pasts have done to them. The witch Tersa is the most powerful example of those with past traumas and mental illness being treated with respect and love.
Tersa is a trauma survivor, like many of the other characters in the book, but she’s dealt with it in different ways. Her mind has gone into what the book calls the Twisted Kingdom, a place where she sees beyond what normal people can see. She might forget to brush her hair or eat, but she walks in a place of wisdom, can see the future, and has more power than almost anyone else.
Instead of pushing her to the side, as we often see even with wise women in books like this, her family cares for her. She’s not alone in the woods, trotted out when advice or visions are needed. She’s visited by her sons, her dear friends, and her adopted family all the time. She’s part of every celebration. She’s even given guardianship of a young boy who adores her. He’s given instruction not to “smudge the truth” about homework with her because she’s not like everyone else, but the characters in Bishop’s books know that her wisdom and observations are beneficial for a young boy, because they’re different than those of “normal” people, and that he can learn from them in a different way.
Tersa is a powerful witch in a way that very few others are. She’s got the ability to rip the bones out of someone who is trying to harm her adult son and her young charge. “It’s just like de-boning a chicken,” she says. She can see the coming of a woman who will change all their fates. Early on in her life, she is kind to another young boy whose mother doesn’t like him, giving him a look at kindness is a brutal world.
Rarely do we see those with mental illness being treated not only as a treasured family member but as a woman who changes the courses of lives for the better because of her unusual way of seeing things. She knows she’s not like everyone else. She tells her son, “I don’t know how to be your mother.” Instead of a response like, “Oh, it’s okay, I love you anyway,” he hugs her and says, “So just be Tersa. That has always been enough.”
Trauma survivors often feel guilt over what has happened to them, and how it’s changed them. It’s so beautiful to see characters like Tersa valued for what they’ve become and what they’ve gone through. It’s refreshing to see them treated like anyone else and loved for who they are and the wisdom their perspective can give.
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