[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.