As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.
Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow
Paranormal writers have it a bit rougher than most fantasy authors. When you’re writing something like traditional or epic or grimdark as long as you hit one or two key structures or themes you can pretty much do whatever you want in terms of content. Paranormal it’s a bit different. If you’re writing about vampires readers are going to expect blood drinkers that (usually) can only exist at night. Shapeshifters and weres are humans that take on a secondary form. Creating something fresh within these constructs that doesn’t get side-eyed (see: vampires that sparkle in the sun) can be quite difficult, which means that most authors usually leave the creatures alone and focus on the story to bring something fresh to the genre.
Anne Bishop, however, didn’t take that path. With one simple change, she managed to make entire genre feel fresh again:
The titular Others were never human. They are animal first, human second.
It seems like subtle distinction, but it’s one that changes the entire game.
Never once when reading this book do you believe that any of the Wolves, Crows, Owls or Hawks were human. There is always something alien about them. Something that feels just off enough to remind you that they wear our shape, but are not us. For example, the crows love the shiny (one of the lone humans introduces one of the Crows to glass cleaner who gets ridiculously excited over it) and occasionally has kleptomania and steals Meg’s pens. The Hawkguard don’t see mice in the Liason’s office as a problem – they see the mice as a quick and tasty snack, and so on. There’ small things, but you notice them, and it works wonders.
It helps too that the protagonist Meg is so likable. She’s very naive – kept that way deliberately by her handler the Controller – but she’s eager, willing to work and willing to learn. After having been so cloistered, she’s so open to the world that she doesn’t have the fears and prejudices that a normal human would to the Others so she’s open to them in a way that almost no one else is. It makes her a great curiosity to the community- and soon enough the community comes to embrace her and want to protect her, even the most fearsome of the Others, the Elementals (note do not piss of Winter or Fire or any of them really) and Tess, whose form is left a mystery for most of the book, but makes go whoa when you start seeing her in action. So often these kind of characters are grating, but Bishop does a good job with the balance and doesn’t make her too innocent or too perfect to be believed.
This book is one of the best character-driven books I’ve read in ages. It’s characters are so strong that I genuinely remained engaged as Meg went about her job – as a glorified mail person. You know the author is doing something right when you get pleasure reading about a girl in a Box on Wheels (BOW) dropping off the post. It just works. The characters are so much the heart and soul of this book that the plot is almost a throwaway in this as the Bad Guys come hunting for Meg. The main antagonist, Asia Crane, is just plain annoying, but she served her purpose well enough.
A few other things I liked: as much as the Others hate the humans, Bishop made sure that she didn’t just paint them all in a negative light. There are sympathetic humans here, which is nice to see given that humans are definitely not the top of the totem pole in this world. It’d been so easy to just show us the ugly ones and leave at that. Finally, I like how Bishop simply lets the worth breathe. Aside from Meg’s arrival at the Courtyard, almost nothing significant plotwise happens in the first third of the book. She spends the time letting us get to know the characters and the Courtyard. It works because by the time the action does start up, you’re fully vested in this world.
In a genre that practically grooms fans to expect little more than a solid story, Written in Red is a breath of fresh air. I will be getting my hands on Murder of Crows and recommending this to any fans of the genre is an absolute no brainer.
Verdict: Buy It