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+
Great review. I’ve been off urban fantasy for a while now, but this sounds intriguing. The set-up sounds True-Bloodish but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I remember really linking the Black Jewels books when they came out. The world building and plotting were spectacular. My one pet peeve was the character development, which was a bit hit and miss. It sounds like this series has stronger character development. I’m putting it in my TBR list. Thanks.
Great review. I’ve heard a lot about this book (some of it mixed, frankly) and I’m really eager to try it. But I wish someone would explain why the kindle book is still $2.50 more than the MMP.
All the problems with this book were quite evident to me in reading it (slow pace, rapid scene switches, confusing amount of characters and super-bland heroine with little agency). And yet it still really worked for me. The world-building was engrossing, and despite the pace, there was a delicious tension that underscored every scene. This was my first time reading Anne Bishop, and overall I was impressed. I used to love UF, but lately I’ve been put off by the genre and have avoided starting any new series. This was one of the few exceptions last year.
I love urban fantasy books that tend to separate themselves from the rest of the bunch. I’ve heard this a breath of fresh air for urban fantasy readers. I’m looking forward to reading this one, so thanks for the awesome review. I’m actually one of the few who really did not like her Black Jewels series at all, but this looks like a book that I would enjoy.
I have put off getting this one because its a little pricey but I liked your review and it has been on so many best of 2013 lists.
Written in Red was one of my best reads of 2013. The world building is so engrossing and superb, on par with Meljean Brook. If price is an issue, check your library. I was pleasantly suprised that my library was carrying it.
I absolutely loved this, it was one of my favourite reads of 2013. I absolutely can’t wait for the next book. I really liked the slow pacing honestly — some of my favourite reads are day-to-day instead of action sequence to action sequence. I was not at all a fan of the Black Jewels books, but I read them afterwards and feel like those books are worlds apart from this.
I’ve seen a bunch of people love this one, (it even appears on a number of best of 2013 lists, which… really?) but for me it was a dud. Not offensively horrible, nor unreadably bad, just meh. Ploddy and somehow simultaneously overwrought, and frankly, I didn’t see the appeal.
@Ani Gonzalez: Yes, I can see the True Blood comparison. I enjoyed the first several Sookie books. This one is subtler. A bit wilder, too. It takes its time. That’s interesting to hear about the character development in Black Jewels. I really did think it was strong here. Hope you enjoy it!
@Susan: Thanks! I initially saw tons of rave reviews. Then the more mixed ones started filtering in. I’d be interested to hear where you fall. It did have its flaws, but I was surprised at how riveted I was for such a quiet story. I agree with you on the price. I was shocked the ebook was so high!
@JL: Right? I still kind of marvel at how it held my attention despite those problems. That tension you point out was really key for me. I loved the slow burn.
@Brigid: Oh, so do I. Have you read Cassie Alexander’s Edie Spence books? That series has been a recent one for me that differentiated itself from the rest of what’s out there. Yeah, I’m still not sure about the Black Jewels ones. Kind of don’t think they’re for me, but I can’t wait for the sequel to this one!
@Amanda: I did the same. Every time I felt another pull to try it, the price gave me pause. It looks like the mass market is out on March 4th, though…
That sounds a lot like her Dark Jewels books. I can see all the problems the books have and some of them are issues that usually annoy the hell out of me, yet I love the books and have re-read them a number of times. It’s a really weird phenomenon.
Guess I’ll give Written in Red a try once I’ve managed to reduce my stack of books-to-read.
I didn’t care for the Black Jewels books, but this one really enthralled me — it’s one of my best books of the year.
I listened to the audio while commuting, and the slow pacing and focus on the daily lives really worked in that context; normally I have difficulty listening to ANY fiction while driving, since I find it either too boring or too distracting, but this hit just at the sweet spot.
I was impressed by the worldbuilding, but I have read reviews that objected to the way that all non-European indigenous peoples were quite literally Othered. I personally put this in the category of “Problematic Tropes That I Should Be Aware Of But Won’t Keep Me From Enjoying This Anyway”, but I want to point it out, because it may well be a deal-breaker for potential readers.
Great book. I loved it. After reading it I read the Black Jewels trilogy which was excellent as well. I have the others to read as well.
I also really liked this book. Pretty sure I picked it up based on one of the Open Thread recommendations and used a Kobo coupon to buy it. I had a pretty intense fall with a lot going on, both good and bad, that took a huge amount of emotional energy and stamina to get through and I DNFed almost everything I picked up, including most of my tried and true comfort reads. But for some reason this book really worked for me. I think it’s because it was dark and different enough, without being too gory. A couple of times it came close to being too much, but always stayed just this side of my line for violence. So if you are feeling angry, edgy, out of sorts and like nothing is quite hitting the spot, this might be the book for you.
I loved the Black Jewels trilogy, even though I was unhappy with where she took it beyond the main trilogy in subsequent sequels (and I found myself unhappy in general with her other non Black Jewel offerings). This book brought me back firmly into the Anne Bishop fandom. I absolutely LOVED this book, and found it fun and compelling despite there being in my opinion some flaws in pacing. I can’t wait to return to this world. I found it alien, yet familiar enough so that I wasn’t completely lost. Her writing has definitely evolved from the Black Jewels trilogy, I’d say she was in her best form here.
I keep seeing this on various Best Of lists but I honestly hated The Black Jewels Trilogy with the passion of a thousand suns and I just don’t think I could go through that again.
I literally thought the Black Jewels series was one of the worst professionally published things I’d ever read – and it’s hard for me to reconcile the strength of this review (which is quite appealing!) with how truly execrable I found those books to be.
I thought the heroine was a total superspecial Mary Sue. And dont get me started on the over the top portrayal of the sexually aggressive female villain. That said, I will probably read the next because of the world building.
@Pamela: I’ve read exactly one Meljean Brook. I liked parts of it a lot. Which are your favorites?
@Lindsay: I’m amazed at how much diversity some authors have in them. It sounds like this one really is wildly different from the BJ series.
@FD: It was ploddy for sure. I kept expecting to hit the wall, but it kept me interested. This one seems to inspire feelings across the board.
@Daniela: Interesting. What in the world is it, I wonder?
@hapax: That’s a good point. I’m glad you mentioned it. I think I did the same as you, but saw after that it understandably bothered some readers. It sounds like it would be a great commute audio book.
@SandyH: I love hearing from people who’ve read this and her Black Jewels series. There seems to be a huge range of reactions to both. I think I’ll wait and read the second one in the Other series and then see how I feel about reading BJ.
@srs: I agree. It’s just different enough that my attention never flagged. So nice to find one that works even in those intense phases in our lives.
@Marumae: Good to hear. I agree with the pacing flaws, but overall I really enjoyed my time with it. Very excited for the sequel.
@Tabs: Lol. I know how you feel. At least with other series I’ve read that have put me off an author entirely. No judging here.
@cbackson: Ugh. I am sorry. Not having read them, I can’t comment. But you definitely encourage me to just wait for the next in this series and give the Black Jewels a wide berth.
@CG: The female villain was ridiculous. I got to where I just wanted to skim her parts. I really hope Bishop avoids that in the second book.
Anne Bishop has historically been a weird one for me. I loved her Black Jewels series despite the over the top alpha males, because the world-building was absolutely amazing and the characters were really complex. The Ephemera series was meh for me, though – I read them but had literally no feeling one way or the other to them. And the straight-up fantasy series that she wrote – I can’t even remember the name of it, but I hated that series SO MUCH.
However, because I love the Black Jewels series, I gave Written In Blood a chance and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. “The Meg” made me giggle rather a lot, and I enjoyed that the love interest was a VERY slow burn and he was just as much pissed off by his attraction to her as he was piqued by it, if not more so.
Also, I completely fell in love with Tess. How cool was she?? I wanted to BE her before the book ended. ;o)
So yes, while I agree that it did drag a little in places, overall I was very pleasantly surprised and I’m definitely on the watch-list for book two. Thanks for the review!
Hey Angie – I found the world-building a tad more problematic than you did, I think, but agree that the relationships totally made the book for me. Add me to those impatiently waiting for the sequel.
Re the Black Jewels hate/love, Tor.com published a review a while back (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/03/review-written-in-red-anne-bishop), and I thought this comment #8 kind of encapsulates what’s right/wrong with Bishop’s writing, when talking about her Black Jewels books:
[…] The focus is somewhat more on hitting emotional power chords rather than on dealing honestly with stereotypes or inequality […]
I read this one a few months ago and it just didn’t really do it for me. I’m not sure why because I loved the whole idea of her as this sheltered woman who has this gift of sight combined with cutting…just enough grit and innocence. Also! I loved the shifters community — super awesome. What did NOT work for me was Meg’s seemingly boring interactions for most of the book. I thought I was gonna beat my head against the desk if I read about her sorting/delivering mail one. more. time. That said, I will most likely be picking up the sequel, my interest is still there, I’m just a bit wary is all.
Also re: the Black Jewels trilogy — I read it years ago and remember thinking “these books are CRAZY” — lots of creepy dark stuff going on. BUT various scenes and conversations have stuck permanently with me — they were that emotionally charged. Not my favorite books, but totally unforgettable (if that doesn’t just confuse you all the more).
@Michaela Grey: Yes! “The Meg” never failed to make me grin. And the oh-so-slow burn was just what was needed. And Tess was stone cold awesome.
@Li: I need to go back and do a reread of the beginning where all the world info goes down. I think I was acclimating for much of it and wonder if some of the problematic parts would make a bigger impression with a second go-round. Thanks for that link. I have a lot of poking around to do before branching out through her backlist (if I do).
@Michelle: I noticed it hadn’t worked that well for you, Michelle. I’m sorry. That’s the funny thing, the whole time I was reading it I was like, I can totally see how this would drive a lot of people bonkers. I kept expecting it to lose me as well. I really did start to skim Asia’s sections (blech). And yet. Kinda loved it, too. Seriously, the Black Jewels series sounds crazypants. Guess I could dip my toes in and see . . . :)
@Angie: Oh, don’t get me wrong – I’m another of those Black Jewels fangirls (keeper shelves etc), BUT I would probably not do a full re-read of the series… crazy, right?