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Publication date – March 5, 2013
Summary: 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.
Review: Urban fantasy isn’t typically my go-to when it comes to preferred genres. I like it well enough… some of the time. But I find that a lot of the stories focus more heavily on romance than I tend to enjoy, leaving world-building and characters as secondary features rather than primary driving forces. That’s not to say that such books are bad, but they’re not typically my cup of tea.
Then along comes an author whose work I have enjoyed in the past, writing a series I’ve heard good things about, and my curiosity got the better of me. I had to give Written in Red a fair chance.
And I’m very glad I did.
The series takes place in an alternate world in which humans are not the dominant species, but instead live at the mercy of creates called terra indigene, earth natives, who are also known as the Others. We’d call them vampires and shapeshifters typically, which is typical urban fantasy fare, but it’s presented in such a unique way that although the story takes place in America, it feels enough like a secondary world that it was easy to forget, until place names were mentioned, that oh yes, this actually takes place on an alternate Earth, not some fantasy land or distant planet.
Written in Red tells the story of Meg Corbyn, an escaped blood prophet who has made her way to the city of Lakeside, seeking refuge in the section of the city run by the terra indigene known as the Courtyard. Inside Courtyards, human law does not apply, and as blood prophets are essentially slaves, Meg takes advantage of this to hide and keep her prior captors from finding her. She figures the danger of dealing with the terra indigene offers her a far better shot than returning to a captive life where she body and blood are bought by people who want her to speak prophecy for them, whether she wants to or not.
What surprises everyone is just how well she fits in with the Others in the Courtyard, making them want to protect her as though she were one of them and not a human. As a blood prophet, she had been locked away from the world for so long that her naivete gave her no real bad habits to unlearn when dealing with them, and to a degree that childlike nature of hers could bring anyone’s protective urges to the forefront. So when somebody finally does come hunting for her, she has a large group of very strong very aggressive companions to keep her safe.
If that sounds suspiciously like some aspects of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books, you’re not mistaken.
Bishop does seem to have something of a penchant for writing special young women surrounded by aggressive protective men, compounded by the woman acting as a sort of moral compass for other characters for the reader’s benefit. If a character is drawn to this special young woman, they’re a good person. If they dislike her, then they’re a bad guy, in no uncertain terms. It isn’t as though the reader can’t figure this sort of thing out on their own, mind you, but Meg the Moral Compass makes this painfully clear who we should be rooting for over the course of the novel.
Is this inherently a bad thing? No, not really. But of the 2 series I’ve read by Bishop, this character trope shows up in both series, and at that point, it does make me raise an eyebrow. Could we not have something more subtle? Could we not let the reader judge for themselves who to like and dislike without having their good-vs-bad nature spelled out for us on the page? There’s such a lack of nuance here, which is strangely at odds with the other nuances that I’ve gotten used to in other Bishop novels. It’s a weird mix of reading between the lines to see a beautiful and complex world with dozens of possibilities and implications, and bright neon flashing lights saying, “This one’s the bad guy, that one’s the good guy!”
I’m going to give people fair warning before getting into this series, there is a lot of touchy and problematic material to wade through here. I could make lists. In fact, I have. But the biggest ones to be aware of are the “for your own good” mentality of many characters, the borderline glorification of self-harm, and the very awkward subtle framing of North American Indigenous people as literal monsters.
Let’s start at the top with the “for your own good” narrative that runs through this book, and indeed, the rest of the series. When you’re dealing with a group of overprotective people, that’s going to come into play. “You want to go do the thing but I don’t want you to? Well, I’m going to stop you. Physically. Because you might get hurt. It’s for your own good.” It’s not like this protectiveness doesn’t have a reason, and it’s even a very good reason. When a blood prophet’s blood is spilled, she sees prophecy. She either has to communicate that prophecy and forget it but feel ecstatic pleasure, or “swallow the words” and remember the prophecy but feel excruciating pain. A blood prophet only has so much in them to give, and cutting across old prophecy scars can cause a confused jumble of images that will eventually drive a blood prophet mad. The terra indigene of the Courtyard want to keep Meg safe from that future.
Which brings up the issues of “benevolent ownership,” which comes up multiple times in the book. Blood prophets are slaves, property, in order to keep them safe, it’s argued. Better to control their prophecies and their lives than have them uncontrolled and unaware, risking madness and death because their own powers overwhelm them. Written in Red asks how much freedom is worth when it brings uncertainty and danger, and how much safety is worth when it comes at the cost of one’s freedom. But even Meg’s freedom from slavery has its drawbacks, with the terra indigene wanting to keep tabs on her at all times, wanting her to follow their orders so they can keep her safe. It’s not benevolent ownership, per se, but it sure skirts the line, at least in my eyes.
As for glorifying self-harm… Hooboy, this is another tangled mess. As I mentioned, blood prophets cut to see prophecy, and speaking it aloud brings them great pleasure, so there’s an addictive draw to cutting that isn’t so much hinted at as laid bare right on the page for all to read. This is… touchy, to say the lease. Now yes, I have read the rest of the series, and I know this issue gets addressed later on in a much more satisfactory way, but coming at this from the perspective of someone who has only read this book? I can see why people would be averse to this. I can see why it sounds like an absolutely terrible idea to put such a troubling thing in a compelling light. I’m not saying people at risk of self-harm are going to read this and think, “I’m a blood prophet too, so I have an excuse to cut now!” I’m saying that people at risk of self-harm are going to read this and likely feel extremely uncomfortable at the reactions Meg has to cutting.
I say this because I have a history of self-harm, and that’s the reaction I had. It made me deeply uncomfortable, and I felt bad for anyone who started in on this series and was blindsided by the revelations of what blood prophets go through.
Lastly, the issue of Indigenous peoples. Again, I’ll say that I’ve read the rest of the series and know that certain points of this get addressed later on, but again, from the standpoint of someone only reading the first novel, this bears saying. The book takes place in North America, thus we have a North American viewpoint. It’s established that people came over from Europe and wanted to settle in these new lands, only they found terra indigene there who were not happy about the arrangement and fought back, eventually settling on an uneasy truce where small human settlements were allowed in certain areas, provided they followed strict rules and made things useful or interesting to the terra indigene. The Others were there first, they make the rules, and they’re the caretakers of the land that humans are at the mercy of.
Or, to put it more bluntly, “What would have happened if European settlers arrived, only to find that Native Americans were all vampires and shapeshifters?”
Given that North American Indigenous peoples have been portrayed as inhuman in the past, this is… extremely awkward.
It’s not any less awkward to insist that the Others are not stand-ins for Indigenous people because Indigenous people are human, and there were no humans in North America before Europeans came. That just wipes out multiple cultures from history, declares them unimportant to the point where they don’t even have to exist, but what matters more is the history of the white people who crossed the ocean first. Human history in North America starts with them, according to these books. And that’s already enough of a problem in the real world.
Do I think this was intentional? No, not really. But I do think it was an oversight with large implications. As much as the terra indigene are not slavering wild monsters, great care is taken to establish that they are not human and do not behave in typical human ways, that their humanity is a facade to make humans feel more comfortable as part of a great experiment, as it were. But they are not human, and humans, in general, fear and mistrust them.
That being said, I rather think that the Others make a lot of sense and I rather like how they work, socially. Seems like the biggest trick to dealing with them is deferring to their judgment, being polite, and not being arrogant; that so many humans have difficulty with this says a lot more about human nature than it does about Other nature. The Courtyard society was interesting to see, and I liked seeing the interplay between characters, the different dynamics that arose as different groups of shapeshifters did their own things will still existing relatively harmoniously.
For all that there’s a lot of problematic material in Written in Red, I still enjoyed the story. It felt mostly like a set-up book, setting the stage for the greater story still to come, rather than a fully fleshed-out story in its own right, but between that and the fast smooth dialogue and interactions between a wide variety of characters, I was definitely compelled to pick up the second book quickly after finishing the first one. This isn’t a book, or a series, for everyone, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here under the right circumstances.