Written in Red, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
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.

Queen of the Darkness, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January, 2000

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Jaenelle Angelline now reigns as Queen-protector of the Shadow Realm. No longer will the corrupt Blood slaughter her people and defile her lands. But where one chapter ends, a final, unseen battle remains to be written, and Jaenelle must unleash the terrible power that is Witch to destroy her enemies once and for all.

Even so, she cannot stand alone. Somewhere, long lost in madness, is Daemon, her promised Consort. Only his unyielding love can complete her Court and secure her reign. Yet, even together, their strength may not be enough to hold back the most malevolent of forces.

Thoughts: The primary 3 Black Jewels books are finished, and the story of Jaenelle has come to something of an ending, albeit a pretty bittersweet one. Queen of the Darkness does quite a good job of wrapping up the story started back in Daughter of the Blood, bringing the tale of this incarnation of Witch to a satisfying close.

Years have passed between Heir to the Shadows and Queen of the Darkness, and Jaenelle has come more to grips with her nature and how she must rule. Dorothea and Hekatah are still reaching out to not just take over Terreille and Kaeleer but also to seize control on Witch and eliminate her ability to stand against them. Daemon is out of the Twisted Kingdom and has recovered enough to seek out Jaenelle once again, though he isn’t entirely confident about where he stands with her.

Much of how I feel about this book can be tied back to how I felt about the first book in the series, and in comparison to it. Where at first I found the darky-dark names to be over the top and very much “dark for darkness’s sake,” by this point I’ve grown used to them and they no longer seem quite so bad. It helps that there’s more to them than just references to things in real-world mythology; for instance, Lucivar’s name is, at one point, revealed to be fairly typical of Eyrien names, at least in terms of the ending (names that end in -ar are names used for males), so it seems less like a corruption of Lucifer and more like a proper name in its own right. Many of the questions I had while reading the first couple of books, particularly about how the world worked, got concrete and direct answers here, which was nice to finally see. Though admittedly, this is something of a retrospective drawback, since there’s a difference between a slow reveal and between just throwing a reader in and expecting them to overlook multiple things that don’t get explanations, especially when so much of Daughter of the Blood was devoted to info-dumps about how things work. It’s nice to see answers, but that floundering feeling isn’t a pleasant one.

It does, though, make this series have plenty of reread potential, since it will be rather interesting to go back and read it over again, knowing what I know about how it ends and how it all ties together.

Something I found quite interesting as the series went on is that while the story is, by and large, about Jaenelle, we never do see things from her perspective. This makes sense, since as Witch, seeing things through Jaenelle’s eyes would cause a lot of the mystery to be lost, but I found it also paralleled the idea of her being “dreams made flesh.” The reader’s view of Jaenelle is formed entirely through the eyes of those around her, just as she is the embodiment of the power to be what people need the most at that time. I have no idea whether this was intentionally done or just a wonderful and appropriate side-effect of keeping the perspective away from her to enhance the impact and revelation behind certain events, but either way, it was an interesting thing to note.

Somewhat frustrating but still appropriate was the way important character developments got almost side-stepped if they happened during the span of time between two books. The best example being Lucivar’s marriage. It was treated with no more than a fairly casual, “Yup, got married, this is my wife,” which makes sense since we’re seeing it through Daemon’s eyes at the time and also because the plot was already fairly complex and to add another romantic subplot would have potentially stretched the book on by a good hundred pages or more to properly do it justice, but in some ways, it felt like a bit of a cop-out, like setting it up would have been too much trouble and so it was just established that the whole event had happened in the past.

Then again, I will admit without shame that I’ve though similar things about other events in this series, only to be surprised later on at what the author clearly did make allowances for, so I may be entirely wrong on the matter. (And yes, I do know that there’s a short-story regarding Lucivar and Marian meeting and all that, but since I have not read it yet, I’m not taking that into account with this review. Can’t really review what I haven’t experienced.)

When I get right down to it, I have to confess that my initial opinions of this series were a touch unfair. Where I thought things were poorly done, there was often a reason and a reveal later on. The writing improves dramatically as the books go on, and in Queen of the Darkness, the repetition that bothered me so much in the previous two books is far less common. Seeing Jaenelle develop from a frightened and abused young girl to a powerful ruler, one who has immense otherworldly power and yet is still bound by very earthly rules and traumas, was interesting and well done. The characters grew on me, the setting grew more complete in my mind, and I ended up being pretty fond of the series as a whole, in spite of earlier issues with certain things. I’m now quite happy to take a look into the spin-off novels and short story collections and see what I think of those.

The series touches on issues that are still important and prevalent today, and so has something of a timeless feel. It’s something that I feel could appeal to many if they take the time and patience to let themselves sink into the story and really immerse themselves in it. Ultimately a very satisfying trilogy in a very rich, complex, and dark world.

Heir to the Shadows, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April, 1999

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Enough time has passed for the young girl Jaenelle, heir to the magical Darkness, for her physical wounds to heal, while amnesia keeps her frightening memories at bay. But with Saetan–a Black-Jewelled Warlord Prince and Jaenelle’s foster-father–to protect her, she will continue to grow. Her magic will mature. Her memories will return. And Jaenelle will face her destiny when she remembers Daemon, Saetan’s son, who made the ultimate sacrifice for her love….

Thoughts: While it took me forever and a day to finally get around to reading this book, I came away with the feeling that it was definitely better than Daughter of the Blood in many ways, that characters got greater development and many of my initial issues with the first book were resolved satisfactorily. My greater enjoyment of it over the first book was, I admit, rather subjective, since while I did rate the first book decently, I also had many negative memories attached to it that coloured the experience, and since this was the first time I’d moved further in the trilogy’s plot, I had no such experiences to colour this one.

Heir to the Shadows continues Jaenelle’s story, focusing on her teenage years and her struggles with post-rape amnesia and the eventual return of those memories, along with the fact that she holds an insane amount of power that she must also learn to master. Placed under Saetan’s care to keep her from the family that allowed years of abuse to happen, she teeters back and forth between being a relatively normal child (as normal as one can be when they’re being raised by the Lord of Hell, anyway), and being the living embodiment of the power that the Blood hold. Meanwhile, the corruption in Terreille is making its way to Kaeleer, threatening them all.

It’s interesting how Bishop essentially makes a large chunk of a fantasy novel about sexual politics and recovery from sexual trauma, and not only that, but she does it well. Much of the early sections of book that centre on Jaenelle and those around her are very focused on how to handle someone who has undergone a serious trauma but has blocked the memories, knowing that those memories will have the be faced eventually but all of them wanting to keep her from harm for as long as they can. There was a section that particularly impressed me, as it’s something that’s still as relevent today (and often spoken of today) as it was when the book was written.

Then she seemed to shrink into herself. “But, Lucivar,” she said weakly, “what if it’s my fault that he’s aroused and needs relief?”

And:

“You have to service me!” Roxie shouted, pushing herself into a sitting position. “You got me aroused. You have to service me.”

How many times have we heard lines like that appear in recent media and news?

But even aside from the sexual politics and commentary that run throughout the novel, the rest of the actual story is also something that’s well worth reading. Lucivar gets far more page time and development than in Daughter of the Blood, which was nice to see because previously he was someone who showed up for a few scenes and was supposed to be important but didn’t actually play much of a part. Daemon was largely absent, contrary to his very large role in the first books; it’s like he and Lucivar got switched when it came to who to shine the spotlight on. We also get a chance to see the character list expand, with Jaenelle’s friends, and this affords readers the chance to see what a good Queen ought to be, rather than just the looks at corrupted Queens from the first novel.

Heir to the Shadows does a lot of that, really. Comparisons to earlier material, and expansion upon what was previously established. Much occurred in the first book that I felt wasn’t really explained well, or seemed very random and coming out of nowhere. Here, time is devoted to explaining that in greater depth, and not just in pages of exposition for the reader’s benefit or in conversations that characters probably wouldn’t actually have. You can see the evolution of Bishop’s writing already, just between one books and the next. It also gave me a much better appreciation for her ability to world-build; even if it wasn’t explained or presented in the best way early on, all the information about the very complex world and its various cultures was there in her head from the beginning, and realising that gave me a huge amount of respect for her.

Heir to the Shadows turned my opinion of this series from “okay but I may or may not continue with it” to “I really want to finish this trilogy and read the other side novels and short stories.” Aside from occasionally irritating repetition in the text (but hey, everything has its price), the writing has improved noticeably between the first book and the second, the characters have had ample room to grow and develop, and the book’s story ends in such a way that left me wishing I had a copy of the third and final book in the trilogy on my shelves right there and then. It may have been written 15 years ago, but the writing ages well, the issues relative to the real world still stand today as they did then, and it’s an intriguing set of dark fantasy concepts that Bishop plays with here. Very much looking forward to finishing the trilogy now, and I have high hopes for it!

Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 1, 1998

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Dark Kingdom is preparing itself for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy–the arrival of a new Queen, a Witch who will wield more power than even the High Lord of Hell himself. But this new ruler is young, and very susceptible to influence and corruption; whoever controls her controls the Darkness. And now, three sworn enemies begin a ruthless game of politics and intrigue, magic and betrayal, and the destiny of an entire world is at stake.

Thoughts: I first read this book in high school, and couldn’t understand what people were raving about. I mean, it was an okay book, but I just couldn’t see what was so special about it that made so many people quick to call it one of the best books they’d ever read.

Now? I still wouldn’t say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I certainly do appreciate it more now than I did then. It straddles the line between dark fantasy and a fluffy read, easy on the mind without being simplistic, dark without letting itself get bogged down in grit and melancholy. It has much the same feel that a lot of mid-90s fantasy did, which made it a comfortable book for me to fall into when I felt like reading something new yet familiar.

The story mostly revolves around Daemon and Saetan, who, along with Lucivar, revolve themselves around Jaenelle, a young and abused girl who is also Witch, powerful and prophesied. Jaenelle knows nothing of her destiny, only that she sees and hears things that others believe aren’t real, and that the truest friends she has are those who live in other realms. Daemon has his sights set on being her lover, when she’s older. Saetan views her more as a daughter. Lucivar… Well, we don’t really get to see much of Lucivar. He shows up in only a few scenes, we know he’ll play some part in all this, but it isn’t so much mysteriously hinted at as not really dealt with.

Added to all of this is the fact that the politics of the landed are corrupt and brutal. The society being a matriarchal one is not unheard of in fantasy, but the level of abuse that the females in power believe they can inflict upon males is nothing short of abuse in itself. I’ve heard a good many people insist that this portrayal of society is unrealistic and smacks of “girl power gone insane.” In some ways, they may not be wrong. What is worth keeping in mind though is that what Bishop did here is nothing but a gender reversal. If you saw the same situation with males in power and abusing females as their sex slaves, their trophies, it wouldn’t be remarked upon as being unrealistic at all. Bishop did a good job of pointing out gender inequality by doing nothing more than flipping it upside down, less a subtle undercurrent and more of a blatant, “Take that.”

I did have my problems with this book, though, and the setting in which it takes place. First off, many of the Blood characters seem to be inconsistent in their emotions, one moment being cunning and calculating, aloof and powerful, the next throwing hissy fits because somebody won’t do what they say. This did little but make me feel uncomfortable and disgusted, and to little end given that the political and social situation running through the entire novel did that in a far more profound way.

I’m also not a big fan of the ‘dark’ names used throughout the novel. Saetan, Daemon, Lucivar, Hekatah… All allusions to dark figures from various real-world mythologies, and they gave off the feel of “dark for the sake of dark.” That sort of thing never impresses me, and often leaves me with the feeling that the author couldn’t have a character’s dark side stand on its own but that the audience would need a constant reminder.

Ditto when it comes to the sexual aspects of this book. It seemed like the characters took every opportunity to make sexual references, not in the form of bawdy jokes or leers and stares, but in more casual mentions. It wasn’t enough to say that a woman had been broken, or broken by a Warlord. No, we have to have it pointed out that she was “broken on a warlord’s spear.” It seemed needless, and once again seemed like it was trying to be edgy without having a need to be edgy. Really, when a main plot point in the novel is the sexual abuse of young girls, readers aren’t going to be shocked by casual euphemisms.

But in all honesty, when most of the things I have a problem with in a novel are small nitpicky things that don’t actually affect the storytelling or the plot itself, I can consider the book to be a pretty good one. I’m glad that I took the time to revisit Daughter of the Blood instead of letting my decade-old impressions continue, as now I’m quite interested in pursuing the rest of the series. The world that Bishop weaves is complex and many-layered, the characters interesting and not without considerable flaws and foibles. It is, in short, what many fantasy novels strive for and fall short of in their development. It’s by no means perfect, but it is still good, and that’s quite enough for me.