My last encounter with Anne Bishop’s BLACK JEWELS SERIES did not go well. Okay, that might be a bit of an understatement. But I suppose even my inner fangirl is a bit hard-pressed to let go sometimes, so I decided to give the series one last try.The setup is somewhat different for The Shadow Queen. After suffering centuries of abuse and degradation under corrupt Queens, the territory of Dena Nehele is left without a Queen at all. Theran Greyhaven — the last remaining heir of Jared and Lia from The Invisible Ring — is determined to change that, but doesn’t quite know how. He calls in a favor from a powerful man who once knew his ancestors (sorry, fans, no points for guessing this one, it’s obvious) and manages to bring a Queen to his territory — but Cassidy, plain-faced, Rose Jeweled, cast-off Queen of a court in Kaeleer is not what he was hoping for. But Cassidy is determined to try, especially when she meets Gray, a man broken by the abuse he suffered at the hands of the old Queens. Yet with a court that barely trusts her and with Theran cutting her off at every pass, how can she hope to succeed?If reading all that left you scratching your head and staring blankly at the screen then you’re probably not familiar with the series; in that case, this review can’t help you. Otherwise, feel free to proceed.So the question is, did Anne Bishop bring the series back up to scratch with The Shadow Queen? Sadly, not quite, but it is far and away better than Tangled Webs and certainly a step in the right direction. For one thing, though the plot still isn’t quite as complex as the original trilogy, it’s strong and solid, and interesting enough for the reader to care about.Cassidy is a fairly major change from Anne Bishop’s previous BLACK JEWELS characters. She actually is plain and she doesn’t have Super Duper Empress Mary Sue powers, either. This means she has a lot of her own internal strength. Sometimes she acts in ways that seem a bit melodramatic to me, but in the long run I find her eminently likeable. On the other hand, Theran Grayhaven is an ass, and remains so for most of the book. He does begin to develop as a character really late on, and part of me totally hopes some fierce little hearth Witch will appear in the next book to walk all over him until he pulls his head out of his ass. Please?I’m not sure how I feel about the relationship between Cassidy and Gray. Aside from the fact that I am getting too old for the OMG! Love at First Sight thing, there’s also the little matter that Gray is a full-grown man with the mind of a 15-year-old boy. He’s not apparently walking the Twisted Kingdom (and this is the part where the few non-series-readers still left threw up their hands and stopped trying to decode this review) so I just don’t know what to make of the situation. Bishop does handle it with far more class than some authors might, keeping sex and most sexual references out of the picture. And even Cassidy approaches with some hesitation and misgivings, so at least we, the readers, don’t have to worry about walking the Squicky Kingdom.On the other hand, the old gang of characters is back and (with the notable yet unsurprising exception of Lucivar) rather on the annoying side. The constant relationship drama between Jaenelle and Daemon is the worst of it. After two years together, Daemon only just now encounters the post-traumatic stress left behind by his years as a pleasure slave — only just now. So things go kind of kablooey, but not really, and then the reader ends up wading through conversation after conversation where first Saetan, then Jaenelle, then Lucivar explains to Daemon about his kinky side and how it’s okay. Aside from the fact that he’s really not that kinky, the whole thing grates. Even women don’t talk to each other in this overwrought, flowery emotion-filled manner, but we get bucketloads of it in The Shadow Queen. From the men. It’s not interesting and it’s certainly not attractive; it’s annoying. Add that to the fact that eighty percent of the scenes involving Daemon and Jaenelle dissolve into them having sex like bunnies, and it’s just kind of ridiculous.And I think that’s mainly what detracted so much from my reading experience. I find myself a little wearied by some of the familiar attitudes and behaviors. The possessiveness, for one. Okay, it isn’t freaky, sparkly stalkeriffic vampire over-the-top, but it’s still a bit much. And I don’t just mean between the men and women. The way these characters want to kill someone for breathing funny in the direction of a loved one is getting old. And the way the Blood believe they’re justified in brutally murdering someone who, while not exactly a good person, has never actually murdered or physically harmed someone, grates. I don’t know, maybe I’m outgrowing all this. (Except for Lucivar. I will never outgrow Lucivar. Can you believe I had to wait almost half the book before he showed up and started being, as usual, completely awesome?)Still, with the old gang returns a lot of the character dynamic that has made the BLACK JEWELS books so hard to let go of. Bishop has a real knack for making her characters feel real and feel remarkably human for people who definitely are not. The Shadow Queen is infused with much of the old humor and charm as well. Looking back on it, that’s one of the major factors that was missing from Tangled Webs. Nobody but nobody was actually likeable in that book. Thankfully, they are in this one.The Shadow Queen is a huge improvement, but neither the fans nor Bishop herself are out of the woods yet. And for some, this simply won’t be enough improvement. Read it, certainly, but if you’ve been disappointed before, then rein in your expectations. For now, I’m keeping the BLACK JEWELS SERIES strictly on my guilty pleasure list.