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Friday, March 1, 2013

“Written In Red” by Anne Bishop (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

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Written in Red, out on March 5th (Published by Roc), is the first of a new urban fantasy series by Anne Bishop. Bishop is the author of the Ephemera and Tir Alainn series, and she is especially well-known for the Black Jewels series.

Fans of the Black Jewels and Ephemera series may notice echoes of familiar tropes: open-hearted girl with immense power who has a dark past fleeing to a place unfriendly to outsiders, yet becoming central to the lives of a bunch of dangerous people there, particularly the life of a powerful male character. I noticed the parallels, because after reading so many of Anne Bishop’s books, how could I not? But the characters and situations felt completely different, and they were still a joy to read, so I wasn't bothered in the slightest. It's an instance of an author using familiar tropes to weave a stronger story, rather than a clichéd one.

I'm used to reading high fantasy from Bishop, so I was curious as to how this would work out. It actually felt so much like a secondary fantasy world that it took me a little while to figure out that the author was writing a shapeshifter/vampire/fae urban fantasy. Since those creatures have flooded the fantasy market, I've long since grown very picky about stories that use them, but Bishop brought new interpretations of them so subtly I never had a chance to be suspicious.

The book begins with a prologue (well, actually it begins with a map, with a disclaimer that the author is geographically challenged and only drew what was relevant to the story at hand), which is a brief history of the world. Normally, that sort of prologue bores me, but this prologue was incredibly creepy with a ton of subversion. Namely, while the world is a parallel of our own, humans are very much not the dominant species. There are certain analogous locales, like "Sparkletown" for Hollywood, and some of the structure of human society is the same, but there's a lot that works very differently. I did love that in the town the story is set in, the main gathering place for the important characters is a bookstore connected to a café.

I quibble a little about the consistency of the Others' amorality: in the first chapter, the Others hunt down a human intruder and eat him while he's still alive; later, they seem to make all kinds of allowances to strengthen human-Other relations, until everything goes horribly wrong in an epic way. I wish I had a harder time believing some of the human stupidity that goes on (seriously, why would anyone with a brain piss off the fae? Why?), but Bishop makes even those instances believable.

Since Meg, the protagonist, doesn't know much about how the world works, we learn as she does. Bishop had me invested in Meg's story within a few paragraphs of the first chapter. I knew she was trying to escape oppression, she was a hard worker, she was intelligent, and she was willing to take a huge risk and probably sentence herself to death for the chance of freedom. Bishop doesn't waste any words and has a way of phrasing that makes me sit up and pay attention. There are the "Walking Names" and "Bigwig," and as you might expect they lack any particular individuality; my brain twitched when I read Meg comment that something was "more reassuring, in a scary way."

I was suspicious when I learned there was going to be prophecy in this book. I have enormous problems with the idea of unchangeable destiny, because personal choice and taking action to shape fate are important ideas for me. However, it's treated as a far more numinous thing in this book rather than a cut-and-dried answer, and I think Bishop took a fascinating approach, in particular to how foretelling works. Magic always has to have a cost, and for the cassandra sangues, it's a very serious yet inescapable (we'll see if that remains true in later books) one.

There's no romance in this book, though Bishop is beginning to lay the groundwork for it. I appreciated that it wasn't a central point, because the protagonist was in no way emotionally prepared to deal with that. Of course, she wasn't prepared to deal with most of the rest of what confronts her in this book either, but I would have had trouble suspending my disbelief if she'd managed to handle that, too.

My favorite character by far is Tess. I find it fascinating to read female characters who are so tied to death, especially since it isn't the norm for fantasy. Sure, there are plenty of female heroines in urban fantasy who kill people, and there are death goddesses, but that isn't quite the same as a non-deity character who is defined by death. Terrifying, yes, but also great fun to read.

Bishop has a way of making your heart wrench with joy and pain within a breath, and she does it especially through establishing the relationships and interactions between her characters. Everyone is complicated and well-developed, but you know exactly whom to cheer for. I loved this book. I'm so excited for this series.


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