After two months of slump, I’m finally back with a (veeeery long) review, y’all! Bear with me, dearest booksprens! 🙂
This book was exactly what I needed to avoid a Fantasy slump: a different kind of Fantasy that is lighter, shorter and easier to read. However I didn’t expect it to be this strange mix of fun/light and of dark, as Written in Red features some really dark themes (addiction, self-harm, rape, subjection and exploitation…) and includes more than one gruesome death.
I’ve been seeing this series frequently appear in my feed but I admit I didn’t know much about it, aside from it featuring a girl with a special kind of magic, mysterious folks called the Others and a Courtyard (my mind associated it with a gloomy, nightmarish yard or graveyard, go figure!) Though I got the first two elements right, the Courtyard was neither gloomy nor creepy, though the creatures that roam it would undoubtedly give you nightmares!
Even though the world created by Anne Bishop is similar to other UF stories, in that it features magic, vampires and shapeshifters in an urban setting, the author managed to infuse it with new and original elements.
The terra indigene, also known as the Others, populated the world long before humans first appeared on Namid. The Others are the world’s most ferocious predators. Though their true forms aren’t known to humans, the earth natives learned and assimilated other predators’ forms long ago in order to always be the dominant species. Some chose animal forms and enhanced them (Wolves, Grizzlies, Crows, Owls…), some manipulate the elements (the Elementals) and some are bloodsuckers that can shift to smoke (the Sanguinati)… And all of those can take a human form when they decide to live near human settlements and cities (spaces allotted by the Others with strict rules and conditions) in order to learn from them and enforce the agreements made between Others and humans.
The Others looked at humans and did not see conquerors. They saw a new kind of meat.
This was without doubt the harshest and most terrifying world for humans I ever encountered in UF. Even though humans thrive in a lot of places across the world, the human-controlled cities are still isolated areas separated by hundreds of miles of wild country and supervised by terra indigene (living in the Courtyards) who keep close scrutiny to make sure humans don’t break the agreements they made.
Energy sources, raw materials and the wild country (with its hidden and deadly dangers) are controlled by the Others. This brings me to a point I wanted to mention and that is the “deep ecology” and “living in harmony with nature” vibe this book strongly carried and that reminded me of movies like Disney’s Pocahontas or James Cameron’s Avatar. I found it super interesting that Bishop used this theme in an UF setting by opposing the terra indigene’s “primitive” and natural way of life to the invading human when the latter’s greed and thirst for power overcome their instinct
We are the tenants, not the landlords […] We only borrow the air we breathe and the food we eat and the water we drink.
You might notice I spent a lot of time (and words) talking about the setting rather than the story. I did so because I wanted to give you an idea of what kind of world and atmosphere you’re diving into (if you pick up this series) and because I found this setting to be both fascinating and refreshing. I usually avoid to talk about the story anyway to avoid spoilers and the risk of ruining part of the plot.
Just know that there are a lot of characters in this book, and a lot of POVs allowing the story to be told from both sides: humans and terra indigene. Some of the story is told from the antagonists’ POV, which I found both fun and frustrating, because while it kills part of the suspense as you know something bad would happen soon and you keep watching for trouble, it also provides enough tension to keep you interested without revealing too many details.
The story mainly revolves around Meg Corbyn though, a young woman who can speak prophecies when her skin is cut (another fascinating, and a bit macabre element) and who seeks shelter and a job in the Lakeside Courtyard, where human laws don’t apply.
“Whether you’re beaten or pampered, fed the best foods or starved, kept in filth or kept clean, a cage is still a cage.”
I really, really loved Meg and I loved the sweetness she retained despite the terrible past she ran from. And I loved seeing her naivety mirrored by the Others, who despite being Namid’s most ferocious creatures, lack both guile and knowledge about humans’ customs. There was friendship in this book. There was humor and hilarious cross-purposes. And there were heartwarming and cute moments that encompassed timid steps to reach for those we fear or don’t understand.
Despite all the good things I have to say about this first book, I know that this story won’t appeal to everyone, for various reasons. Firstly, the writing is very simple and can be “info-dumpy” at places. Secondly, the pacing will deter a lot of readers. More than halfway through, nothing of note happened, except for a few revelations, and the plot was definitely repetitive. Some parts were day-to-day routines which was fine by me since it allowed me to get more acquainted with Meg and the Others she interacts with, and the specifics of the Lakeside Courtyard. And some parts were exchanges between characters and provided valuable information about history, the Others, the blood prophets (Meg’s kind of magic) and the wild country. I liked it and had a lot of fun but you might not, if you prefer your books to be more fast-paced!