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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.
Alexandra Harris does an excellent job as the narrator, particularly with the voice she uses for Meg.
"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.
18 of 18 people found this review helpful
This is truly a wonderful book, from start to finish, just outstanding. The book is 18 plus hours, I managed to listen to the entire book in about 30 hours. I did nothing else! The characters and the world that they live in are phenomenal. As events unfolded, I kept checking to see how much longer I had. This will probably be one that I go back and listen to again. And don't you just love it when the bad guys get exactly what they deserve?! It was really an outstanding performance with both Anne Bishop and Alexandra Harris. And you have got to be damned good to deliver such a fantastic performance without even one love scene!
This performance is worth BOTH of my credits for the month, so it was a bargain at only one credit.
94 of 99 people found this review helpful
Where does Written in Red rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
I bought this after seeing it recommended on a list of credit-worthy listens by Audible and was not disappointed. It is hard to find a fantasy story where both the author and narrator are as good as the standard here. I would personally class this story as a fantasy romance but don't be put off by that if you are not a romance fan because the romance is mild, while the story and characters are strong. I wasn't board once in eighteen and a half hours and will be buying the squeal if it also comes to Audible.
There are many things I like about this story. The fantasy universe is well realized. The author has merged aspects of quite dark subjects and characters, with aspects of almost child like wish fulfillment, providing something new and interesting for her readers. There are several interesting plot's converging in the book and the writing is of a good standard in all the things that are most important to me as a reader: characterization, imagery and plot.
The narrator is also excellent. Time and again I am put of wonderful stories by the grating and robotic tones of a narrator. Alexandra Harris on the other hand, tells the story in a lively and engaging manner, voicing the different parts for the characters. She is one of the few American narrators of a fantasy book that I would recommend and I only wish there where more like her.
Why isn't it a five? Partly it's a four because I'm comparing against my favorite authors like Terry Pratchett, Patrick Rothfuss and Anne McCaffrey and if I give this a five, I have nowhere to go for them.
DO NOT READ IF YOU WANT TO READ THIS STORY UNSPOILED.
Another reason I haven't given it a five star rating, is that there is a vast and interesting background plot which, if given more focus in this novel, would have greatly improved the story. Instead the author appears to have chosen to tell it over a series and the story looses a bit of momentum and potential because of that. Also, it has to be said that the heroine is the typical outcast who quickly brings anyone of importance round to caring for her, sacrificing some credibility and potentially interesting plot developments because of this.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
I really enjoyed this calm and smooth book - totally involving invented world. I didn't expect to like it but I loved it. I will now search for any other books I hope it's a series.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Where does Written in Red rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
At the top! I loved it!Pretty much complained via email right away because the second book is not available on Audible yet!! Hurry up!Anne bishop creates worlds that just capture me completely. She is an amazing author who inspires me and keeps me entertained in ever book she has written.Meg Corbyn is a blood prophet known as a Cassandra sangue she can see the future when her skin is cut, each cut brings her closer to death, each cut earns her controller money. Meg is a strong character, from the get go almost freezing in her escape. She may appear fragile to the others but she is anything but. Meg finds protection, safety and friendship in the unlikely place of the courtyard of the others, run my Simon Wolfguard. The tension between Meg and Simon is beautiful and not many authors can pull that off!Meg and Simons growing and evolving relationship is so natural and gradual. You can read a million urban fantasy novels and the same things happen over and over, girl meets boy, they get together profess their love, struggle, win - happy ending. Anne does not do that, it all plays out naturally, its slow and moving and beautiful. Your relationship with the characters grows as their relationship with each other grows. You smile and laugh when you as the reader know/ understand their confusion of their thoughts and feelings. Its powerful. Its something Anne is a master off.
Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
The transformation of Sam brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eyes. It was awesome to read, funny and sad all wrapped in one.
Any additional comments?
Quotes are endless“Whether you’re beaten or pampered, fed the best foods or starved, kept in filth or kept clean, acage is still a cage.” ― Anne Bishop, Written in Red “People who entered the Courtyard without an invitation were just plain crazy! Wolves were big and scary and so fluffy, how could anyone resist hugging one just to feel all that fur?“Ignore the fluffy,” she muttered. “Remember the part about big and scary.” ― Anne Bishop, Written in Red
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
was very impressed by the writer and narrator ..
looking forward to the next book.