Review: Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red (The Others, #1)Written in Red by Anne Bishop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TL;DR review: reading this was like sitting down for a little snack of cheese & crackers with glass of wine. It looks insubstantial, but before you know it, your head and heart are full of new ideas that may leave you feeling a little dizzy.

This series is a breath of fresh air in the stuffy, packed room of urban fantasy. One of the beefs I’ve always had with the sub-genre is that the assorted supernatural species are often portrayed as regular people with extra traits or powers. They’re sometimes monstrous, but they’re always motivated by understandable morals, emotions, and drives. Magic is just another science waiting to be mastered with logic.

Not so, in Anne Bishop’s world. These werewolves aren’t people who change shape. These vampires aren’t blood addicts who sparkle or brood. They aren’t human beings with fur or fangs. They are the monsters who lurk in the dark, dark woods. Magic is a force of Nature that acts for reasons that make no sense to mere mortal minds, and it kills without remorse if its strength is not respected. Monsters rule the world, and they neither care about human lives, nor revere humanity as an ideal. We are a tolerated, carefully-controlled pest species, not the dominant one.

The world-building was meticulously researched, but it is left where world-building belongs: in the background. The main character is a traditional New Guy, and we learn about this reality along with her, and the minimal required exposition is handled deftly and without fuss. There are anachronisms, yes, and logic gaps show up on close perusal, but this is true for most sweeping rewrites of reality. It’s still a hugely ambitious idea, and what’s most remarkable is how matter-of-fact it all seemed while I was reading. The cultural and scientific blend holds together pretty well on second, and even third reading.

Imagine a reality in which the New World was never settled by ancient tribes crossing a land bridge from Asia because they were all eaten Imagine a world in which most of the political and religious struggles that shaped our history never happened. It’s a bit mind-bending. NOTHING would be the same, and it isn’t.

The only reason humanity hasn’t been eradicated is that every other sentient species on the planet respects the choices of their unseen, unspecified Creator.They study us, in between the ruthless purges required to make us abide by the rules, because they don’t understand why humanity was created, but they assume there most be a good reason. That provides a great basis for the series — the search for knowledges is always a great foundation for dramatic conflict.

More questions are raised than answered, but this is clearly meant to be an unfolding series. I have faith that the ideas I’m left pondering at the end of this book will eventually be answered, and I’m going to enjoy watching the drama develop.

Postscript: I sometimes read a review and wonder whether the writer read the same book I did. That’s how I felt about the official Tor.com book review of this title. I’ve now finished reading the second book, Murder of Crows, and my admiration of the author’s originality and talent only feeds my aggravation over the critical treatment this book received.

Yes, Bishop raises her favorite themes of subjugation of and discrimination against women. Yes, there are situations where sexual and cultural confusion is milked for easy humor. Yes, the main character has a problematic addiction. I can understand not enjoying a story containing those elements, but that’s a far cry from accusing the writer of including them for shock value or personal enjoyment. (!) It’s clear that Bishop opposes abuse and understands the lure of self-destructive behavior. That’s not the same as condoning or enjoying either one. Hmph.

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