GUEST REVIEW: Written in Red by Anne Bishop
Dear Ms. Bishop,
This is my first time reading one of yours. The first book in the rather prolific Black Jewels series has resided on my shelf for a few years now, but for whatever reason I just haven’t found my way to picking it up, likely due to a nagging suspicion that that particular dark fantasy might, in fact, be a bit too dark for me. But then this year I began hearing murmurings of a new urban fantasy series, and the possibilities started to take shape in my mind. These murmurings ran along the lines of complicated social order, shapeshifters, exceedingly gradual relationship development, vampires, detailed world building, etc. Before long, Written in Red was giving me that vibe, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy and settled in to see for myself.
Meg Corbyn needs somewhere to hide. After fleeing the only home she’s ever known, she finds herself answering a want ad for a human liaison within the notorious Lakeside Courtyard. A collection of businesses run by the Others, Lakeside is headed up by one Simon Wolfgard. Together with the heads of the various shifter and vampire factions, Simon has little use for humans except as prey. But the courtyard requires a go-between, someone who will sort through the mail and day-to-day communications between the Others and their uneasy human counterparts. And so Meg is given the job, despite Simon’s misgivings, including her nonexistent past and indeterminate scent. Profoundly grateful, Meg sets out to learn how to live a life and do her job so well no one will ever think to ask her why she showed up desperate and alone on their doorstep in the first place. But the Others are far too canny for that, and when local human law enforcement begins sniffing around the courtyard, Simon knows it’s something to do with their recently acquired human. But by this time, the wild and wary inhabitants of the compound have grown surprisingly protective of Meg. Even the vampires have allowed her onto their grounds. And so Simon finds himself racing to discover her secret before it sets off the kind of conflict between the Others and the humans from which they may never recover.
There is something absolutely compulsive about this novel. It’s not fast-paced. It’s not action-packed (although there are a couple of rather spectacularly explosive scenes near the end). It has quite a large cast of characters. And it rather annoyingly switches scenes just when you want more from the people you’re with. But. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but there. With timid Meg and prickly Simon and the cringeworthy, blood-soaked nightmares that haunt her and threaten his people. I’ll be honest. I have a fairly weak stomach when it comes to cutting in general, and so the revelation of Meg’s role as a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, tested my bounds to a certain degree as she was raised, in a sense, to cut or be cut and receive valuable prophecies on the ensuing wave of mixed pain and euphoria. It never gets too grisly, and the Others’ protective instincts help to keep Meg fairly intact, but I remain uneasy as to what lies in store for her on that front as questions of both destiny and consent will play what I can only assume will be a fairly significant role.
What I fell in love with was those quiet, day-to-day interactions between Simon and his host of furry, fanged followers and the solitary human girl in their midst. The Other hierarchy is fascinating and rich. And it is very much other. These shifters and vamps are not interested in making friends and playing nice. They are so completely not interested in that. And so Simon’s frustrating reaction to Meg throws everything off kilter, as his instincts insist she’s not prey, while everything about her screams weakness and fair game. I can see how Meg could easily read too passive for some readers. But I found her both sympathetic and compelling. The very fact that she escapes from somewhere no one escapes from and manages to secure a job and the trappings of a new life for herself solidified my place at her side. I only grew to love her more as she is somewhat reluctantly roped into helping the Wolfgard’s adorable young nephew Sam deal with past trauma and find a balance between his wolf and human selves.
Meg’s gradually developing thing with Simon is so very gradual, and it got under my skin in a real way. She grew to assert her independence as he learned to respect her freedom. They continue to frustrate the hell out of each other throughout the book. And I loved it all. I didn’t even miss the lack of heated romance (though the signs are so all there and I am looking forward to developments in that arena most eagerly). Here is a fairly representative encounter between Meg and Simon early on:
The office’s back door wasn’t locked, so he slipped inside, removed his boots, and padded across the back room in his socks. He could hear low music even through the closed door that connected to the sorting room. As he entered the room, he saw Meg take a CD out of the player and say, “I don’t like that music.”
“Then why listen to it?” he asked.
She whirled around, wobbling to keep her balance. She put the CD back in its case and made a notation on a notebook sitting next to the player before answering him. “I’m listening to a variety of music to discover what I like.”
Why don’t you know what you like?
“Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Wolfgard? Today’s mailbag hasn’t arrived yet, but there are a few pieces of old mail. I put them in HGR’s spot.” She indicated the cubbyholes in the sorting room’s back wall. “Also, I’m still not clear if the ponies deliver mail to the Market Square businesses or if someone from the businesses is supposed to stop in for that mail.”
Right now he didn’t care about the mail or packages or any other damn monkey thing. He took the poster out of his pocket, opened it, and set it on the table. “No more lies,” he said, his voice a growl of restrained menace. “What happens next will depend on whether you answer two questions honestly.”
She stared at the poster. Her face paled. She swayed, and he told himself to let the bitch fall if she fainted.
“He found me,” she whispered. “I wondered after the other night, but I thought . . . hoped . . .” She swallowed, then looked at him. “What do you want to know?”
The bleakness in her eyes made him just as angry as her lies.
“What was your name, and what did you steal?”
The slow but steady incline in this complicated story worked for me. In fact, the whole thing reads quite a bit like a police procedural/urban fantasy mash-up, as the focus revolves between Others, humans, villains, and Meg. Or “The Meg,” as many of the shifters so charmingly refer to her. Yes, I could have done without one ridiculously overdone wannabe villain. And, yes, the pacing does plod from time to time as threads are flung far and wide in not-always discernible directions. But the incredibly subtle development of the key relationships, combined with a truly fresh take on supernatural politics, set Written in Red apart from the pack. I can’t wait to return. B+