I listened to the audiobook version of “Written In Red” in December 2013. I didn’t write a review because I was so blown away all I’d have been able to say was: “Best fantasy novel I’ve read in a long, long time.” I needed a bit of distance to get some perspective on what I enjoyed and why.
Last weekend, I was in “Forbidden Planet” in Liverpool and saw that the third book in the series, “Vision In Silver” had just been released in hardback. It was an instant and joyful buy. So I figured it was time to review the books that have brought me so much pleasure.
In my view “Written In Red” is closer to classic science fiction than it is to urban fantasy. Anne Bishop isn’t writing about supernatural creatures roaming city streets. She’s created an alternative reality, imagined the way good science fiction should be: starting with two small changes to our familiar reality – humans are not at the top of the food chain and shapeshifters are not only real but dominant – while keeping everything else the same and then working through the consequences. She then delivers complex, credible, I’m-hungry-to-know-more world-buidling in simple prose. But what makes this book unmissable is the way she made her world real to me by creating characters I cared about and putting them in peril.
The back story to Anne Bishop’s alternative reality is that humans evolved and developed their civilization away from the wilderness that covers most of the planet. Then they came into contact with The Others – predatory shapeshifters and fierce elementals – who dominate the planet and to whom humans are “clever meat”. The two cultures clashed. The humans lost, again and again, over centuries. Eventually the humans negotiated the right to specific pieces of land in exchange for services rendered.
At the time of the events of “Written In Red”, humans are thriving on their “reservations” and are being supervised by Others living in Courtyards from which they observe what the clever meat is up to.
The Others in “Written In Red” can be described as werewolves or vampires or even werecrows but Anne Bishop only uses the familiar tropes to twist away from them. The Others are not humans who shift into wolves. They are wolves who occasionally choose to put on human skin. The Others are fundamentally alien. They literally eat humans that displease them. They are fiercely loyal to each other. They have a strong sense of pack or flock or hierarchy. They are civilized but they are not at all like us.
Into this world comes Meg Corbyn, a homeless waif with a secret. A Courtyard takes her in as their “Human Liaison” and the history of the world starts to pivot. Meg is engaging vulnerable, empathetic, curious, kind, and dutiful. Her innocence is explained by her sequestered life as a cassandra sangue, a woman who can see the future if her is skin is sliced. That she is kind and extremely likable is explained only by the fact that she is Meg.
The interaction between Meg and the Others is one of the most enjoyable things about the book. They laugh at her and puzzle over her but they also give her shelter. They declare her to “Our Meg” and protect her even though they are unaware of her background. She becomes, in effect, a valued pet human.
The treatment of the cassandra sangue by humans is far more monstrous than anything the Others do. When the Others sell human flesh as “Special Meat” it is an honest, malice-free act. When humans exploit the cassandra sangue, their actions are both fundamentaly inhumane and realistically human.
Anne Bishop’s alternative reality is as dark and threatening as an ancient forest. Immediately after reading the book, I might have said that the darkness came from the constant threat the Others pose to humans, but the darkest image lingering in my imagination is Meg’s razor: the one with her number on it, the one that was used to slice her skin to force her visions, the only thing she carried with her to her new freedom. The razor is a source pain and pleasure, a sign of slavery and a badge of honour, a bone-deep fear and a heart-felt desire. The razor and all it means, makes Meg Corbyn much darker than she first appears to be. In many ways it brings her closer to being one of the Others and makes her disturbing as well as engaging.
In “Written in Red”, most humans who have power or are seeking it, are not mentally equipped to accept a status quo in which they are not at the top of the food chain. They are constantly plotting, looking for an edge that will enable them to become the apex predators. This seemed realistic to me, although I think the human evil-doers would have been more interesting if they had been a little less irredeemably venal.
“Written In Red” is original, rigorously thought through, passionate and written in deceptively simple prose. I believe it is the start of an outstanding series.