Written in Red, by Anne Bishop: Discussion

Urban fantasy often doesn’t work for me, but so many readers of differing tastes praised Anne Bishop’s Others series that I decided to give it a try. Because I’m late to the party, I’m going to use this post mainly to highlight a few things I’d really like to discuss with other people who have read it. If you haven’t, this is still pretty much spoiler-free.

What I like best about super-hero movies is always the origin story part: I love watching characters acquire/discover and learn to understand and live with their powers. Once the big CGI action/fight scenes get going, I zone out. So I loved that Written in Red unfolds slowly, with lots of quiet world-, character- and relationship-building before we get to the big climactic action scene–which is not too gory, a problem I often have with UF. What really sold me on trying this book was a Twitter conversation in which someone commented that “Meg spends lots of the book sorting the mail, but it’s still interesting!” (I worked in my college mailroom one summer). The mixture of the mundane and the Other kept me engaged.

I particularly liked the fact that Meg is not kick-ass but is strong in her own way. She’s been enslaved and exploited for her prophetic powers, and now she has to learn how to use them for her own purposes, and decide who she wants to be when she can control her own life. At the end of this book, she still has a long way to go, but she’s on her way.

For proper reviews, check out Angie’s at Dear Author and Tori’s at Smexybooks (which links to more). Those are positive. I’m going to talk more about Karen L Kross’ negative review at Tor.com below, because although I really enjoyed Written in Red, I noticed the things she discusses and they bothered me too.

So if you want to talk about some of that, or other things, please read on!

Meg and Gender

I really liked a lot about Meg’s character. I liked the way her outsider status in the Courtyard allowed her to see things differently–to find a creative way to help Sam, for instance. I like that her strength is more mental/emotional than physical, and that she can be strong even though she’s still fragile in many ways. I love this line from the end of the book:

She would always be short, but she wasn’t helpless and she wasn’t small. Not anymore.

At the same time, she’s kind of a Mary Sue, isn’t she? I guess not quite everyone loves her, but even when she gets mad it’s cutely wolfish and shows she belongs with the Others. I wanted her to be more humanly flawed, and I hope that comes as part of her development over the series.

Like Kross (linked above), I was disturbed by the way that blood prophecy echoes self-cutting. I think maybe Bishop intended to explore this (it’s potentially addictive and dangerous, for instance) but it did not feel fully explored, and the sexualization of the cutting is icky. Again–as Meg learns more about who and what she is on her own terms, this could get better and richer. Or not.

I also really disliked the way the cassandra sangue are described as “innocent”:

“They have adult bodies, but they retain the sweetness of a child’s heart,” Erebus said.

First, this is a bullshit stereotype of children, who can be very cruel. Second, Meg’s innocence/ignorance shows in her interactions with others and made sense to me in the context of her life so far, but why does it need to be a permanent state? And the thing that makes her so lovable/appealing to other (and Other) characters? Particularly contrasted with the stereotypical villainous female exploiting her sexuality, Asia, just ugh. This seems very stale to me.

There are other female characters in the book, luckily (I really enjoyed Tess). But why is the only female Wolf we hear about the Disney-ish dead mother, Daphne? Particularly since a romance between Simon and Meg seems to be in the works. I would so much rather that Meg just became one of the family, honestly. Having Simon and Meg be the kinds of characters they are makes sense in the context of the story, yes, but why this story again, where the female character is physically weaker, the human (even though with some special powers), the innocent/ignorant/sweet outsider to the world, and the male is the dominant alpha Wolf, the insider? Why this pairing over and over? Paging Little Red Riding Hood (which the novel’s cover evokes). Actually, I see reasons for continuing to explore this innocent girl + wolf story–Little Red is a warning and a policing of women’s behavior in a world where men are typically more powerful and dangerous, for instance, and that’s still true today. My problem is that authors so seldom seem to imagine different gendered configurations in werewolf tales.

I never know quite what to say about this. I think Bishop told well the story she set out to tell, created characters that make sense for the story she’s telling. Is it her fault that the story is one I’m tired of reading? No, but. . . .

The Others

This bothered me the most. You’re going to make your shifter and Elemental characters “indigene“? There’s some noble savaging going on here. And yet a lot of the time they seem like whitebread humans. (The supposed other-ness of the Others did not really hold up for me). As Kross says:

There was the potential for something interesting in the idea of a native population that refused to be conquered and colonized by incoming Europeans, instead finding a way to live alongside them, but that possibility is ignored. Instead, the terra indigene still—after what can only imagine is centuries of cohabitation—seem to resist learning much about any more human society than they have to (they are not even sure how to medically attend to a human), and are also literally a bestial Other. Actual Native Americans as we know them have no place in the structure of this world. . . . It’s worth noting that the book is part of a series of “novels of the Others,” not “novels of the Terra Indigene.” Bishop appears to have left this angle entirely unconsidered.

It isn’t quite that simple: there are apparently terra indigene in Bishop’s equivalent of Europe, too, so it isn’t just a parable about colonialism. And I appreciated that Bishop doesn’t go all in appropriating Native American cultures for her fantasy world; Jester the coyote shifter and Henry the carver/Grizzly shifter/spirit bear/Courtyard’s spirit guide are there, yes, but these elements are pretty lightly touched. (Actually, does that make it better? I don’t know). But it really bothered me that she uses the term “indigene” for characters who are both more powerful than humans and aligned with nature/animals.

So. I was engrossed by the story and loved the slow development. I see all of Kross’ criticism, but I thought Meg, Simon and other characters were well-drawn enough not to be just familiar types (though they did fit familiar categories). I’ve already requested the second book from my library. But when I stopped being engrossed, some elements of this book really, really bugged me. In part because they felt lazy–this world could have been more original and thoughtful than it was.

 

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14 Responses to Written in Red, by Anne Bishop: Discussion

  1. Erin Satie says:

    I’m really glad you wrote this post because I’ve been lazy about doing one of my own.

    All the negatives you pointed out bothered me too. I read the first two books in a compulsive binge & when I finished I couldn’t figure out why certain aspects of the story that would normally make me DNF with a vengeance (in particular Meg’s permanent childlike goodness) didn’t…well, it bothered me, it just didn’t stop me from enjoying the books.

    As for the idea of the Others living apart from humanity–I have to say, this is one of the things that I enjoyed MOST about the series. Maybe my favorite thing. So I’ll try to explain why I’m so enthusiastic.

    I think the idea behind the worldbuilding is that human beings are a pest. A blight upon the earth, causing more harm than good. Not some humans, not a faction or a class, but all humans. Across the board, we’re a sucky sucky species.

    I basically agree with this, so I was thrilled by the thought of a bunch of Others who see humanity clearly, set clear boundaries on human industry, and then enforce those rules. For me, that was the MOST exciting thing. What if we couldn’t get away with being so wasteful and short-sighted? What if we couldn’t manipulate or legislate our way around the laws set down to make the earth more habitable over the long term?

    There are a handful of dystopians out that theorize about the consequences of environmental disaster. To me, this was the opposite. A fantasy about a world where the environment is saved from harm. But how? To me, the only plausible answer is the one that Anne Bishop came up with: we couldn’t do it on our own, we’d have to be forced into it. And we’d hate it, passionately.

    The Others disinterest in humanity didn’t strike me as a flaw. It struck me as a logical response to their 100% accurate understanding of what people are like. Physically weak, but strong in guile. Who wouldn’t want to keep their distance?

    And when it comes to the idea of medical care–why would they understand it? I have a bird and there are very few vets in the country that can treat birds. There aren’t enough birds in enough households to make it worth their while.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I should have snipped that quotation from Kross differently or commented on it more clearly.

      This is an interesting reading, and like you, I like the idea that the Others are presented as truly other. (I agree with you about their not wanting to learn more about the humans or be in closer touch with them. Humans are mostly prey, not pets, to them–at least at the start of the book–so why would they care about how to treat them?) I think my problem with this issue is that we largely see them through Meg’s point of view, and thus within the Courtyard and ALSO through the eyes of someone with little direct knowledge of human society, and in many ways that lessened their otherness. The girls get together and watch a chick flick and Meg doesn’t get it any better than they do. Tess is something so scary even terra indigene have forgotten the name for her, but she’s also the supportive coffee-shop-running gal pal and doesn’t have a whole lot of trouble (in my reading) controlling her Other side. We don’t see the Others outside of the Courtyard, where they live more like humans. What is their world really like? And because of Meg’s background, we get only brief references to things like the rationing and the water tax, so those really interesting things you develop felt sketchy and largely un-noticed to me. There was the threat of deprivation, a few scary stories, but not a sense of what it was like day to day to live within limits.

      This is partly a Book One issue (I hope we get to see more of these things as the series progresses). And it’s also an issue of fantasy conventions: we are often introduced to another world from an outsider perspective–e.g. Harry Potter–and learn along with them, especially when it’s a “hidden world within the regular one” kind of story like this. But even the series title, as Kross points out, keeps this from a human POV. It’s the human label for them. Yes, we do get scenes from POV’s other than Meg’s, but hers dominates. I think the world has radical possibilities that were limited by conventional story-telling choices. But without those choices, it would have been a very different, more challenging kind of book, in a different subgenre even, I think. And I might not have liked it as much. So I’m uncomfortable with my own response (as Brie says below), my comfort with this world, as much as anything else.

      • Erin Satie says:

        Yes to all of this. Especially the last paragraph.

        I know that part of the reason why I enjoyed the two Bishops so much is that I’d been reading a few books that were on the more intellectual/challenging side, and I wanted something EXACTLY like what it turned out to be–book-crack that would let my brain rest, but without boring me.

        I do think the second book expands the world in a satisfying way.

  2. I don’t have time to leave a lengthy comment, but I have mixed feelings about the novel, mostly because I liked it so much, but it’s so problematic that I feel uncomfortable and guilty not just for liking it, but for being so engrossed that I didn’t notice the issues until I was done.

    I read it months ago, but if I remember correctly, there are no Native Americans in the book, right? There are only Others. That is erasure and cultural and historical appropriation, even if the cultural elements were lightly used. I don’t know, Liz, I feel like this type of issues outweigh everything good about the book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes. There do not seem to have been humans in Thaisia (i.e. North America). And yes, it feels like erasure. I feel like I should have been MORE troubled. But so much of this book was so much fun! Ack!

      • merriank says:

        I had the same concerns and can add that Patricia Wrede’s YA series does the same thing in her Frontier Magic trilogy. The western states of America are filled with magic and so there are no native people.

  3. Sunita says:

    Great post, Liz. This is not a book I’m ever going to read, unless I decide I need it to understand something about the genre, but I appreciate the discussion and the links. Ever since I reviewed Line and Orbit, I’ve been thinking about why we keep seeing these noble-native characters in books by writers who don’t seem to mean to reproduce that archetype/stereotype. I think it’s in part because they DO like what these characters represent, in terms of greater connection to the land and (supposedly) less slash-and-burn conquest (this of course is the stereotype, not necessarily the reality). They identify with the positive mythos and are frequently rejecting the arguments of the group they belong to.

    But it’s still a stereotype and the characters still tend to reflect the unbalanced outsider view, rather than being conceptualized as rounded, fully formed beings on their own terms.

    An aside, just because I’m still bitter about it: RT, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen Anne Bishop for its career achievement award in SFF (not SFR but regular SFF). She beat out, among other people, the late Iain M. Banks.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Part of my problem was that most of what made Bishop’s Other characters feel rounded out was stuff that made them feel just . . . human. So then they seemed to me even more built on the indigenous *humans* they erase.

      RT may change its name, and I know it reviews things other than romance, but most of those things are books romance-readers would enjoy (I mean, most of their general fiction reviews seem to trend women’s/historical fiction). Which is OK, but I understand your bitterness. I have never read Bishop before, I just know a lot of romance readers are bitter about the ending of the Black Jewels books but loved them up to then.

  4. Allison says:

    Interesting review. I both loved the story, and felt distanced by certain details (like Liz I was squeamish about the cutting, but having read a lot of other bks by the author, I remember that she tends to ‘fetishize’ certain ‘icky’ things).

    I was really interested in the Others. I liked their indifference to humans. It made them more scary, and fierce. Frankly, I was more interested in the Others than the humans.

    I have been reading UF (Diana Tregard anyone?) for years, but find myself reading less because what is coming out often seems tired and derivative to me. I think the freshness of the characters and story have let me brush off some of the glaring flaws (I agree w/Liz on Asia). And yet…

    I still really like it. When I reread it recently, prior to the release of bk 2, I was still swept away to the Courtyard. It must be a testament to Bishop that she made me like naif-like Meg.

    I am very interested to see where this story is going.

    • Erin Satie says:

      Erasing Native Americans from the mix creates a snowball effect. Whatever Bishop intended, she deserves the suspicion & the criticism.

      I do, however, love this fantasy where the Others get to own all the land. I find it SO satisfying. And the logic of it holds to me–why do the Others own the land? Because they held onto it by force.

      How do the others KEEP hold of the land? How do they maintain the balance of power while humans have the internet and guns, & most Others have no interest in technology? The second book answers that question, partly by contrasting North America (where Others carefully controlled human expansion) & Europe (where humans were allowed to settle & spread unchecked).

      I don’t see them as particularly noble or particularly savage. Just not a pest.

  5. merriank says:

    “I think the world has radical possibilities that were limited by conventional story-telling choice” I really agree with this thought of yours Liz. For example, it is a failure to call the Others the Others cos no one calls themselves that – it is a label imposed from outside. I was fascinated by what it means to be meat to know that about yourself in relation to the world.

    I read the two Others books just after finishing Katherine Addison’s ‘The Goblin Emperor’ which also has as a lead, a naive young outsider abused by supposed carers, suddenly thrust into the heart of power and with enemies wanting to control or kill him; the Emperor is of course male. Loved the book but then had to think about why I was calling Meg ‘Mary Sue’ all over twitter when I hadn’t had quite that reaction to Maia.

    I think it is because I could say very clearly that Maia was a lovely exploration of soft power, of relationships and connection mattering and all of that worked because most everybody loved him and being a bloke doesn’t carry the same weight of powerlessness as being a woman even when Addison clearly aligns Maia with the powerless status of women in the book’s Elvish and Goblin cultures and Maia draws that link himself ‘we were not worth educating either’.

    I think Meg got the Mary Sue tag in my head because she is a girl and my internalised misogyny was showing and also because she is alone of all her sex/Cassandra de Sangue – no one else is like her (I really would like to see more of Jean in following books). I think TSTL hovers as a potential over any female character who is not explicitly kick ass alpha in the approved UF/PNR way which leads me to think about needing to see a heroine act competently. I realised that I thought it was interesting to see Meg make choices and act with half information – her visions never give linear choices and that this seems very real and even new for a romance genre heroine. It contrasts with the common and valorised kick ass heroine who bulls her way through things and acts before she thinks and is never labeled Mary Sue. Meg never acted without thinking and she always had choices to make which matters to me.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      I haven’t read Written in Red but what kept me from seeing Maia in The Goblin Emperor as a Marty Stu was how harsh he was on himself. He carried the same anger, impatience and even on rare occasion, cruelty, that others around him exhibited, but he directed it inwardly instead of outward.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    I read the kindle sample of Written in Red a long time ago, during my reading slump last year, and while the story was gripping (at a time when most books I picked up weren’t), I was uncomfortable with the Others premise. I thought it was at best insensitive, and then I came across Kross’s post. Between those two things I decided not to purchase.

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