Review: Written in Red (The Others #1)

[self harm tw]

Sometimes I feel like I have this weird love affair with authors where the first time I read their books, it’s fresh and exciting, like a new relationship, but as they keep writing and sometimes branch out into other genres, it seems like that initial high was gone. There’s the sense of “it’s not like x series” or worse, it’s just a rehashing of your favourite series only the characters have different names.

This is how I ultimately feel about Written in Red by Anne Bishop.

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, someone who can see the future when their skin is cut. Meg’s Controller keeps her and girls like her isolated from the rest of the world and sells their prophecies to those willing to pay for them. She manages to escape, however, and find refuge with the Others–powerful beings who rule the world and see humans as prey–by taking a job as their human liaison, a position which puts her in frequent contact with Simon Wolfgard, the man (er. wolf) in charge of making sure life in the Courtyard runs smoothly, but when Simon discovers that Meg is wanted by the government, it’s up to him to decide whether a human who doesn’t smell like prey is worth a conflict between humans and the Others.

I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy where humans have an uneasy alliance with otherworldly entities if they’re not outright oppressing or being discriminatory against said entities, but rarely have I encountered a book where the Other rules over humanity. In Written in Red, this is not only the case, but humans also live on the Others’ sufferance. Humans survive because the Others find us amusing or useful, and they would think nothing of destroying entire cities if humans made too much of a fuss. This is one of the things that I think Bishop excels at, portraying characters who are wholly Other and yet somehow still making you care about them.

I also liked Meg in that like Bishop’s other heroines, she’s naive but doesn’t feel more like an object than an actual person (Jaenelle) or so hopelessly naive it’s annoying (Lynnea). She’s scared and doesn’t know how the coffee maker works and knows full well that she could die in the Courtyard, and yet she learns, she becomes braver, and she’s determined to avert the events she sees in her prophecies.

Unfortunately, where I feel the book falters is it’s reliance on the same tropes that Bishop’s been using since the Black Jewels Trilogy, let’s check off some boxes, shall we?

  • A central power imbalance between magical/supernatural folk and ordinary people? Check.
  • A naive heroine who escapes from an abusive situation? Check.
  • An alpha male love interest who is one of the magical people? Check.
  • The heroine gradually “taming” and turning the love interest from grade A asshole to flummoxed muffin? Check.
  • An antagonistic character who is just Too Dumb to Live? Check.
  • Blue and Orange Morality or at least a moral code that seems alien to you and I? Check.
  • A heroine who encounters and befriends isolated groups in a way that has never been done before? Check.

Now there is nothing wrong with a formulaic story or relying on certain tropes, but to me Written in Red just feels like the Black Jewels Trilogy with an urban fantasy gloss, a much less interesting world, and a focus on the minute details of sorting the mail and making deliveries. In the Black Jewels Trilogy, the more mundane aspects of the story worked as a breather to relax the reader after a tense scene, Written in Red didn’t have the kinds of dark moments that you needed a break from like in the BJT although I must say that I found she did a much better job portraying regular people this time around than, say, the landens in Tangled Webs.

Another thing I found particularly jarring was that not only is the world of Written in Red Earth in all but name, there’s a conspicuous lack of indigenous peoples (the book states that when humans sailed across the ocean, they found werewolves and vampires but no other humans) and the only person of colour I recall with any detail is Monty, a cop who plays a significant role in the story (and is also a point of view character).

As if the cliched nature of the book wasn’t bad enough, Meg’s powers are activated by cutting and throughout the book she has to struggle with the urge to cut (which is accompanied by a euphoric high if the prophecy is spoken) and expose herself as a cassandra sangue. This is probably not the book for you if you have issues with self harm. It’s also implied (though not stated) that the cassandra sangue in captivity are/were raped. Some might also be disturbed by the fact that the Others not only see humans as prey, but are happy to demonstrate that fact in detail.

Overall, if this is your first book by this author, I’d absolutely recommend the Black Jewels Trilogy over this (with the caveat that rape and pedophilia very much occur within the confines of its pages) but unless you’re looking for the same old tropes in a more modern setting, I’d skip this one. As someone who has at least attempted to read books in every series the author has written, it’s not the stellar urban fantasy the blurbs are making it out to be.

What’s Going On?

I thought I’d just post a general update because I haven’t done something that isn’t a review in some time.

Here are some things that have been going on:

  • I finally convinced the government that I have a disability, so I’ll be getting some money in each month that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Most of it will be going to my dad as rent, but it’s money we didn’t have before and that is good.
  • I have a backlog of reviews to get to so expect to see multiple reviews a day
  • I am also working on what I hope will be a series of erotic fantastical mystery stories. I was originally going to just post them on tumblr but I haven’t posted any writing here in a long time, so I think it’s time to fix that

Review: Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence #2)

I’ll be honest, I don’t read a lot of books by male authors who aren’t Jim C. Hines or Terry Pratchett except on occasion. It’s not that i have anything against dudes, I’m just so sick and tired of fantasy fiction written by dudebros where every female character is either barely there or sexualized as all hell or both–not that authors of all genders are immune to this–and I just don’t have the patience for more Jim Butchers or Kevin Hearnes and the like.

That said, Max Gladstone now has a spot as one of my favourite writers.

Two Serpents Rise is the sequel to Three Parts Dead, but while it takes place in the same universe, it doesn’t share anything else in common with the previous book. Our protagonist is Caleb Altemoc, gambler and professional risk manager for Red King Consolidated, the Concern that basically keeps the desert city of Dresediel Lex running, but shadow demons infesting the city’s water supply is the least of Caleb’s worries as he is quickly drawn into a high stakes game involving ancient gods, cliff running, and complicated legal contracts.

I’m in a weird position when it comes to talking about the characters because this is one book where i didn’t particularly like the main character. Next to someone like Tara from the last book, Caleb comes across as kind of….average….even the cover art gives that impression (although I don’t know why there’s a white boy on the cover since my impression based on his father’s skin colour is that he’s either black or brown like the majority of characters in Dresediel Lex) and he spends much of the book acting like a lovesick puppy. Fortunately, the book has some great secondary characters like Teo, one of Caleb’s friends who happens to be a lesbian, his father, Temoc, last priest of the old gods and wanted terrorist, Mal, a mysterious cliff runner Caleb is trying to protect from the authorities (and the reason he acts like a lovesick puppy) and the King in Red, the imposing figure who keeps the city running after killing most of its gods. Caleb might be the POV character, but I found that the characters around him really stole the show. Even characters who only show up in a couple scenes (like Four, a Warden, or Sam, Teo’s girlfriend) manage to leave an impression.  In comparison to the first book, I found the second book had less of that “what the hell is going on?” sort of feeling, but you still might find yourself a little lost at times., and although you might see the twist coming, it’s the sort of twist where the reader screams at the characters to stop but can only watch as the narrative unfolds, so even though I saw it coming, I can’t say I was disappointed by it.

In terms of representation the dominant Quechal population in Dresediel Lex seem to be brown, although I was under the impression that Caleb’s father was black. In terms of queer representation, there’s Teo, Sam and the Red King himself, and although the main cast doesn’t really bat an eye, Teo still encounters homophobia and sexism and the Red King confronts religiously-motivated homophobia at the macro level in his back story.

In terms of triggery content there’s an instance of self-harm and as a polytheist I was a little disturbed by some of the scenes involving the old deities (when the narrative says that the Craftspeople killed them, they mean that literally) but that’s just my personal squick. The book also has a fantastical slur (“altar maid”) which is used against queer women, but no real world slurs. Some might also be disturbed by the scene discussing Sam’s art (involving snakes eating each other).

Overall, I loved Two Serpents Rise and actually found it to be superior to the first book in almost every way apart from the main character (Caleb is nice but kind of dull). If you were a fan of the first book, absolutely pick this one up. If you’re new to the series, this book is set in an entirely different location than the first book, but you might still want to pick up Three Parts Dead just to bring yourself up to snuff. I have some more reviews to get to but I’m really looking forward to Full Fathom Five.

Review: Drakenfeld

My search for a good mystery apparently continues and this is one book I’ve had my eye on for some time. The back cover text seemed to promise a locked room mystery wrapped up in a fantasy setting (complete with blurb comparing it to Game of Thrones, although I don’t put much stock in blurbs now).

I really need to stop being seduced by the back cover text.

Lucan Drakenfeld is an Officer of the Sun Chamber, a powerful organization dedicated to maintaining and enforcing the laws which govern the Vispasian Royal Union. Following his father’s death, he is recalled to the city of Tryum to make arrangements for his funeral. However, when the king’s sister is found brutally murdered in a locked temple, he quickly finds himself questioning shady senators and dodging assassins in his quest to find the killer, but, unbeknownst to him, his search for the truth could jeopardize the stability of the already fragile union between the nations.

First, something good: it was nice to see a main character with a disability (Drakenfeld has seizures, though the cause is uncertain) and Leana, Drakenfeld’s black bodyguard/assistant/confidante/resident badass looks good on paper. It’s nice to see a dude/lady pair where the lady is the muscle and the dude doesn’t get in on the action for the most part.

Unfortunately, while the characters look good on paper, the actual execution is lackluster. The writing is threadbare, and Drakenfeld has this very annoying habit of stating the obvious. For instance, stating that a senator has a low opinion of women when said senator just finished expressing his dislike for female senators in addition to saying a woman deserved to die because of her “immoral” lifestyle.This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to fiction in general. At times, the descriptive parts are just plain awkward, like when Drakenfeld describes a stripper dancer as “moving her arms through the air as if she was swimming deep underwater” which is probably the most unsexy sexy dance I’ve ever read about. The dialogue is pretty ridiculous in general, or at least in need of a good editor. And although I said that Leana’s character sounds good on paper, her background is still incredibly white saviour-y and gross. Another thing that bothered me about the characters was the way the author seems to play up the Roman-ness of the setting only to have his main character be a thoroughly modern man. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having modern characters in a setting that uses say, Medieval technology (I do it all the time) but that doesn’t mean you should go around claiming that your work is historical fiction (not that this book actually goes that far). I can’t help but feel as if Lucan is out of place in his own world, not really out of place in the sense that he is different from other people, but out of place as in “belongs in another story entirely”.

The actual mystery is kind of eh, probably because I had a good idea who the perp was about halfway through the book. No doubt due in no small part to Drakenfeld repeating the same few facts about the case at least twice every chapter. The actual mystery itself is a classic locked room mystery, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but like most things about this book, the execution leaves something to be desired, and despite this being in the fantasy section, there’s nothing really that fantastical about it. It’s closet to Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword mannerpunk fantasy than a magic and wizards sort of deal. In fact Lucan even dismisses the rumors that the murder is the work of ghosts because, again, there is a Rational Explanation for Everything. There is one kind of supernatural element that shows up out of nowhere and doesn’t really do anything to advance the plot, but for the most part there’s no actual magic in sight. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I love The Privilege of the Sword, but it strikes me as a wasted opportunity.

In terms of representation, as mentioned Lucan has seizures, and references to his skin colour describe it as “brown”, Leana is black. Queer representation amounts to a character in the first chapter remarking about how he wants to pick up “studs” at a brothel, the victim apparently sleeping with other women, a possible relationship between the king and a male actor, and Lucan constantly being asked if he prefers men when he states that he has no interest in being with women (he is straight he is just not interested) so….not great.

The long and short of it is that this book, like so many other books, has some great ideas but just shit execution all around. Please don’t be seduced by the back cover text, it tells a way more exciting story than the actual book.