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. . . .
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.