Thursday, August 15, 2013

Written in Red

Cookie Monstress and Smartypants sent this one my way because they both sort of enjoyed it but weren't sure it was a good book, per se. My short answer is....sort of: it has good ideas and worldbuilding but absolutely ridiculous characterization.


Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Expansive without dragging (433 pages in hardback)
Publication: March 5, 2013 from Roc
Premise: Meg Corbyn is running from dangerous people, so she retreats to a place where human law doesn't hold sway: a compound of the Others, the supernatural races who rule the world. That choice should be more dangerous than facing her fate with other humans, but she doesn't smell like prey to them and matters go well...until she could be the flashpoint of an inter-species incident.
Warnings: cutting, gore, attempted kidnapping
Recommendation: If you're looking for slightly different urban fantasy worldbuilding and can tolerate melodramatic characterization, check this one out: I really don't recommend buying it in hardback unless you're a hardcore Anne Bishop fan already.

There are mild to moderate spoilers in the red pen section to hash out exactly what was bothering me.

What keeps these pages turning:

Meg Corbyn is new to the world and to her own name because she is a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, and she's spent her whole life being only a valuable piece of property. Her escape leads her to temporary safety at the Lakeside Courtyard, a place where the Others who rule the world choose to meet with humans and try to create some measure of understanding between these species. Humans offer technology and innovation, but most of the Others still see them as meat that has to earn the right to live by being useful. Meg intellectually understands that from her video training, but her unusual blood and instincts ensure that she doesn't smell like prey the way other humans do-- she doesn't have the background to be fully afraid, and that helps her fit in when by all logic she shouldn't. She's there to accept mail between humans and the Others who want the advantages of human inventions like toys and movies without having to venture out into the world and cause a mass slaughter in a fit of temper, but she seems to bring out the best in them.  This central dynamic works quite well, since Meg and the Others are often working together to puzzle out what normal human norms ought to be, and they al tend to see things with just enough of a slant to be entertaining.

The overall worldbuilding mechanic feels fresh: I enjoy stories like the Mercy Thompson series where the supernatural is slowly showing itself to the human world, or the Kitty Norville premise of the weird just seeping through without a species-wide plan,  or the Soulless setup of everyone knowing what's going and working in some functionally chaotic way to keep the world ticking. But there's just something fun about seeing that the things going bump in the night are going bump in the day as well and are interested in compromise only insofar as it's convenient. Humans don't have a neat catalog of exactly what different Others, or terra indigene (earth natives) can do, so they're forced to make educated guesses based on horror movies and the rumor mill and try not to become prey to the stronger beings who control access to every natural resource. Most humans are smart enough to stay away, but others are stupid enough to want a sexy walk on the wild side or determined enough to take a calculated risk on a confrontation, even knowing that the Others have drowned cities for killing one Other and regularly kill trespassers who should have known better. This relationship makes the human fear of death and retaliation deeply believable and reinforces at every turn that the Others started out as animals or spirits that learned to take up human masks for convenience. People at the Other bookshop Howling Good Reads are regularly told that shoplifters lose a hand and annoying people are eaten, but they come back out of fascination and the Others can't help but study them.

This dynamic is shaken up a bit when Meg is hired on as Human Liaison at the Courtyard because she doesn't smell or react in any way that resembles normal (more on that later), but her powers and past are by far her strongest points. She spent her life viewing images and having her skin carefully cut with a razor so she can spill the images it shows her into the ears of a listener. Literally every inch of her skin is valuable real estate and a single cut can go for thousands of dollars, and her jailers keep all of her kind weak and confused to ensure that they couldn't survive outside. Once on her own, she has to fight the temptation to cut again because she craves it like a drug, even just for physical release, and she also knows that the answers in her blood could help her understand where she is now after the visions that helped her escape. She was cut across several older scars as punishment and came close to madness, but the flood of images gave her enough information to get out, and now she has the opportunity to choose her own cuts and blood prophecies....or to refrain, since each cut pushes her closer to death and most blood prophets are dead by thirty-five. Her addiction and her desire to help pull her to the cuts, but she's aware enough of the risks (and insistent enough that her life isn't for anyone else to decide) that it comes across as a compelling struggle.

The red pen:

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Written in Red does the best job when Bishop is trying new things and falls down most awkwardly when she's rehashing material from her previous series: overprotective males, females snarling at them and crying, awkward period references (it makes no sense for Sanguinati/vampires or Wolves to ask if it's that time of the month when they can smell blood, this was ridiculous), all the gender essentialism in the world, quirky animal views of the world, a protagonist who may as well fart rainbows, the works. At some point I'll do a post about the way writers like to recycle favorite tropes-- for now, let's just say that it's jarring to see characters developing what feels like a unique relationship and suddenly fall into an interaction style that matches a couple in one of Bishop's previous novellas. This is especially true when it comes to Meg and Simon, who is the leader of the Wolfgard presence at Lakeside as well as Meg's direct boss. The other characters aren't phenomenal either, and only a very few human police officers seem to come with actual personalities. The world and the overall power struggles over resources and profit tend to be good enough to make up for it, but it's disappointing to not hear more of a balanced human voice from people who (not unreasonably) hate and fear the others for controlling the world with a judicious mix of economic monopolies and murder. We only hear from evil anti-Other humans or nice humans who want to be allies and keep people safe, and that lack of principled opposition hurts the story.

Much though I tried to pick a culprit, Meg and Simon are in a photo finish for most annoying character, with the main villain falling close behind. Meg has some undeniably great moments of trying to figure out what things are for, or bluffing her way through learning to drive, but she just radiates this Mary Sue glow of being the best and nicest and most considerate person ever in such a way that the most powerful people around take an immediate liking to her and want to protect her from threats. She has gaps in understanding because of her background and she makes mistakes, but she doesn't seem to have actual character flaws. Her struggle over whether or not to cut works, but after she's started fitting in, she takes the next accidental step of managing to perform psychological rehab on a traumatized child of another species (Simon's Wolf nephew) and getting him to pull a complete 180 in less than a week. The (clearly supposed to be) adorable Sam is a walking plot point designed to create conflict when some of the other Wolves take her methods of help as an insult....but only one or two lower-ranked people actually speak up or try to do anything about it. This isn't interesting, and it deflates the worldbuilding to an extent: the Others are clearly stated to be dangerous, brutal, alien, prone to eating human flesh, not cuddly and in need of love...unless it's from someone who smells different and orders cool things like dog beds. Delivering movies in a timely manner is not enough to earn the degree of respect she receives from a senior vampire. Being polite and grabbing library books is not enough to warrant the way Elemental spirits place her under their protection. She does as much as she's capable of doing, and it's admirable given her past, but having her everyday acts of kindness turn this compound of supernatural menaces into her buddy-bodyguards just isn't interesting.

Simon doesn't warrant his own wall of text: he's....the leader. He doesn't like wearing a human mask, he's sick of humans but still willing to work with some of them, and he doesn't know why he feels so protective of this strange female. They have a dull tiny shouting match very early on in the book about how her hair stinks of dye and he realizes that it's because she puts him off-balance. He doesn't know how to deal with her when he's upset, but he wants to take care of her. Unlike Meg, he's guilty of annoyance by omission rather than action-- he just doesn't do anything interesting. He took literally no action that wasn't predictable pages if not chapters in advance, and far too much of his characterization, both in thought and deed, revolves around Meg and how she might be feeling at any given moment. He's obnoxiously high-handed about taking away the razor she needs to cut safely "for her own good" at one point, which was also predictable, but he comes off as more of a package of rage-on-demand than a person. The secondary characters inside the Courtyard mostly manage to get around this problem by having other jobs and interests (Tess in particular is the best kind of mysterious menace), and I'd love to see more of absolutely any of them in the sequel to flesh out this world beyond the two main characters.

Asia Crane serves as the villain of choice for Written in Red and also as the poster child for wasted potential. She comes off as shallow and attention-seeking at first, and she undeniably is, but she also could have been a commentary on the way this world works. Asia is an actress who has been hired to get information about the inside of a Courtyard and learn more about the Others-- the Others obviously don't want their business shared, but they also control access to natural resources and kill more or less at will, so it's easy to make a solid case for humans needing to learn more as insurance against their whole species being wiped out. Asia could have been an investigator for some high cause as well as money, looking to introduce more truth about the Others into public consciousness for safety or to even the balance of power, but instead she's a cookie-cutter Bishop villain who tries to use sex as a weapon get what she wants and intimidate the less-beautiful but more virtuous protagonist. She wants to be rich and star in her own TV show and is willing to go to nasty depths in her attempts to get there, but after about three of her segments they all sound exactly the same: she's going to do X because she's awesome and the Wolves are gross and Meg is ugly and stupid and she can spin a story any way she wants. That's it. That's her whole arc because that arc is a straight line of her learning nothing and failing to grow, and that flatness makes it impossible for her segments to carry any tension. In short, she lacks the drive and genuine cunning to threaten a main cast this powerful in any serious way.

The verdict: On the whole, Written in Red lives up to some of the hype but not all of it-- the worldbuilding shines with danger and alien beauty, but it doesn't do so brightly enough to make up for the fact that the characterization flops somewhere between inexplicable and bland too much of the time. Odds are that I'll read the second when it's out, but I would much rather see Bishop start a project that ventures further afield from patterns I've read in literally a dozen of her previous books.

Prospects: This is the first novel of the Others. The second, Murder of Crows, is slated for release on March 4, 2014.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Robin McKinley's Sunshine is my favorite vampire book for a multitude of reasons, but it does a good job of portraying a human society that's slowly falling prey to the darkness, and that gives the worldbuilding a somewhat similar style (though McKinley has maybe never heard of gender stereotypes, and that's great).

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for reviewing this! I feel like I finally understand why this book wasn't as good as it should have been. Your comments about how Meg receives an inappropriate amount of respect and protection for doing seemingly innocuous, job-related activities is spot on. I am so happy to finally know why I just couldn't like this book more.

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    1. Thanks for making me get around to it! It took me a while to figure out too, but I've read enough of her other books where the main female leads basically fart sunshine that it finally snapped home. I can see her kindness being a decent introduction and then her winning real respect and allies over the course of several sequels as she gains strength, but it was just so...Snow White befriending the woodland creatures, except that the Others are supposed to be dangerous and distrustful.

      Bishop is definitely getting better about this over time, though, and Meg is a huge step up from Jaenelle or Glorianna Belladonna in that way. Even if what she's doing is a little silly, she's still doing something instead of just *being* something.

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