Written in Red
Anne Bishop can always be relied upon for excellent prose and wildly creative worldbuilding. Written in Red does feature both. Unfortunately, the characters and plot aren’t strong, and the romance is (deliberately) nonexistent. I’ve read enough better fantasy, often by Bishop herself, not to recommend this book even as a non-romance, but later books in the series might do better.
Meg Corbyn is a blood prophet who sees the future whenever her blood is spilled. The book opens with Meg’s escape from the Controller, who legally owns her and cuts her to sell her prophecies. She takes refuge in the settlement of Lakeshore, run by the Others, because she sees the magic words on the fence: H.L.D.N.A, Human Law Does Not Apply.
Simon Wolfgard is a werewolf (duh!) who manages the Others settlement at Lakeshore. The Others come in many forms, like vampires, were-creatures, and the Elementals, who control weather and temperature, among other powers. He hires Meg as the Human Liaison, who sorts and delivers mail. According to the book jacket, the conflict is whether or not Simon will defend Meg when Human Law comes for her. That’s pretty much a foregone conclusion, so the conflict is really more about how and why Simon and the other Others rally to Meg.
Meg is a heroine in the mold of old Garwood or McNaught heroines: weak but just so gosh darn nice and well-intentioned that everybody is gradually won over. The terrifying vampire grandfather falls for her because she delivers his videos without leaving them in a snowbank. The godlike Elemental Winter falls for her because she buys Winter a scarf with snowflakes on it. She buys the wolves cookies and dog beds, and of course befriends and heals a sad, wounded child. The author tells us over and over how dangerous the Others are and how hostile they are to humans, but what we’re shown just doesn’t match.
Simon is probably Meg’s eventual romantic pairing, but Written in Red is not a romance. It’s not even fantasy with romantic elements. Nothing happens between them in this book, and I’m not sure I’m fired up for what they do in the sequels. Frankly, I couldn’t get past the part where Simon, even after befriending Meg, eats human flesh. (It’s suppose to be okay because Meg’s blood prophet blood means that she “doesn’t smell like prey.”) I guess I have to go back and add “eats humans” to my list of deal breakers.
The plot isn’t spectacular. The Controller wants Meg back. Someone has, for reasons which I don’t understand, promised a disposable villainess named Asia Crane her own television show in return for spying on the Others and stirring up trouble. Meg’s ability to see the future is a handicap to the author, because predictions kill plot tension. As a result, Bishop makes Meg’s visions inconclusive and then tries to persuade us of a single interpretation to allow for a plot twist later on. The problem is, the single interpretations are transparently set up to not come true. For example, in Meg’s premonition of her own death, revealed on page 17, is of “A white room. A narrow bed with metal railings… feeling so cold her lungs couldn’t draw in a breath. And Simon Wolfgard…. pacing and snarling.” Maybe I’m not reading clearly, but I missed the part where feeling cold in a bed means dying?
Urban fantasy readers may be most surprised by the setting. Written in Red is not about supernatural creatures in modern cities. It’s set in a version of North America in which the Others were the indigenous inhabitants at the time of colonization. Their supernatural powers have enabled them to restrict the humans to small settlements and hold them there by virtue of their power over natural resources (a city which irritated the Others is not called “the drowned city” lightly). It is fascinating to see the relationship between the Others and the human authorities, and the human police and Other activity. My favorite character was Lieutenant Crispin Montgomery, or “Monty,” exiled to Lakeshore and separated from his daughter for shooting a human pedophile to save a child who turned out to be a wolf. He was by far the roundest character, struggling to do (and even identify) the right thing while navigating species prejudices and departmental politics.
The world of the Others was intriguing enough that I might read the next book in this series despite my letdown. If so, I’d be hoping for a less wimpy heroine, a better plot, and the return of the human policeman who would hopefully be a romantic lead. But if you’re looking for your first Anne Bishop, try Sebastian instead.