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.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Written in Red (The Others #1)

  1. I’m not really an Anne Bishop fan, more a Black Jewels fan (I couldn’t get into the other stuff), but I decided to give this one a go, and I quite enjoyed it, though I agree mostly with your assessment. I intrepreted two things a wee bit differently though–

    The first:
    “The heroine gradually “taming” “and turning the love interest from grade A asshole to flummoxed muffin? Check.”
    Okay, I admit, I disagree with this one a little… 1) Daemon wasn’t always an asshole, and when he was an asshole it was directly a response to his treatment. He was more than kind and protective at the earliest part of his life, and still (to some people, till they screwed him) for the rest of his life until he met Janelle (and afterwards)…the main difference between BeforeJanelle and AfterJanelle isn’t Daemon changing, but the people he was surrounded by changing. And, well…Daemon is the sort of guy that will be an enemy to be a friend. 2) I don’t really think Simon changed enough to call him asshole to flummoxed muffin (though I love the phrase!)–I don’t really think he was that much an asshole, prejudiced? sure…but the seeds of his transformation were there already, he was progressive, thoughtful, and about as open-minded as possible (all things considered). 3) It has been my experience that asshole to flummoxed muffin (I really do love it!) is trope because its true (or at least can be true) (in which case, is it really trope?). My husband looks like the quintessential redneck conservative stereotype (and he used to be one, minus the redneck part), but he’s (10 years later) a bigger feminist than I am (having had a wife in the military with him, and now having a daughter to worry about), a huge environmentalist, a supporter of gay marriage, and even supports reasonable gun control. I’m not saying that redneck conservatives are assholes (I’ve met a few that were flummoxed muffins), I’m just offering a personal illustration that new experiences change our perspectives–when you truly value someone, you try to see things through their eyes, which can be eye opening…

    The second:
    Regarding the lack of indigenous peoples…Maybe my mental descriptions didn’t pay enough attention to the author’s written description (I’m notoriously bad at doing this), but I always thought of the Terra Indigene *as* the indigenous peoples. There’s a lot of criticism from Native writers about white authors and cultural appropriation–I’m not sure she could have outright mentioned indigenous people without the raising the cultural appropriation. As it was, I read a few other reviews that thought she was “noble savaging” the Terra Indigene, and yet others where she was trying to “white bread” them…I can see it either way (or both ways, and neither), but mostly it was interesting to see those two phrases used as verbs!

    Not trying to nitpick, just offering another thought! Great review!

    1. What I meant was in the general sense of a guy who is large and in charge, and then all of a sudden the heroine comes along and this guy finds himself in the middle of a pile of puppies and at some point the reader wonders “Wait what the hell why is he acting like this?” to be fair this is a VERY common romance trope and as I said, there’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself. I was just a little annoyed by how she has like three series under her belt by now and she’s still doing the same thing.

      The problem with the terra indigene and indigenous peoples (as I see it) was that if that was the case, Bishop didn’t give the reader any cultural markers or other clues to that effect, and the thing is without cultural markers, most people assume that characters are white. It wouldn’t have been hard for her to say that Henry or Jester had brown skin and dark hair, even when she describes Vlad as having skin that’s “more olive than tan” like I have olive skin, and I’m white. She had every opportunity to state it outright but all I found was just vague (except where Monty is concerned).

      I don’t think anyone would have criticized her for including indigenous peoples, especially since minorities are very often erased in urban fantasy as a whole unless they need an exotic “monster of the week”. Including people from other cultures doesn’t necessarily equal appropriating them, it’s all in how they are portrayed. There are a ton of books that, say, treat the oppression of supernatural entities like the oppression of POC or LGBT people but don’t actually include those people–that’s gross–but including difference is very much a good thing, and something I would have commented on if it had been made explicit in the text.

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