Sunday 17 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 136. "Written in Red" by Anne Bishop

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I try not to resort to book blurbs to summarise the books for my reviews, but sometimes, they're bloody hard to do without some help. Hence:

No one creates realms like New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop. Now in a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities - vampires and shape-shifters among them - who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans.

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 Liason job. First, he senses that she is 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 the humans and Others that will surely follow.

I hadn't actually read the blurb when I started the book, and was therefore extremely pleasantly surprised by the world building presented in the introduction. The Others, or the terra indigine are the original inhabitants of Earth. They are vampires, and shape-shifters of all manner of varieties. There are elemental spirits, and ancient terrifying things that go bump in the night. The humans originated in this world's version of Europe, and as they started exploring new parts of the world, discovering that there were a lot of things out there with teeth and claws who would considered them prey. In Thaisia, this world's version of America, the humans eventually managed to settle enough people to make safer settlements. The humans are clever and inventive, but the Others control all the natural resources they need to make their new inventions work. In the more heavily populated human areas, there is usually an uneasy truce between the Others and the humans. In every large city, there has to be an Others-controlled Courtyard, where the Others operate the businesses and keep an eye on the humans, making sure they don't get any ideas above themselves.

The Lakeside Courtyard, where Simon Wolfgard (guess what he turns into) is the leader, is probably the most progressive of all of Thaisia's Others-controlled areas. The Others in the Lakeside Courtyard even have human employees and generally seem pretty tolerant, but if the local humans forget themselves and trespass, they are still ruthlessly eaten. Meg comes stumbling into the Courtyard in the middle of a fierce snowstorm, nearly frozen to death. Just the fact that she's poorly dressed for the elements and seems so unafraid of the Others, intrigues Simon and the other terra indigine of Lakeside. They always have to have a Human Liaison, who does just what it sounds like, liaises between the Others and their peculiar and often a bit hostile ways, and the humans who deliver post, services and goods to the Courtyard. Meg, knowing that no expense will be spared to recapture her, is relieved to be in an area where human laws don't apply, and big, fierce shape-shifters and bloodsuckers will eat anyone who tries to trespass.

Meg is wary among the Others, but a lot more terrified of being taken back to the compound where she was held captive. She and her fellow blood prophets (always female, it seems) are locked up and every aspect of their lives are controlled. They're told when and what to eat, how much to exercise. As long as they co-operate, they are pampered, but they can also be brutally punished for disobedience. Every inch of their skin is a valuable commodity, as every cut yields an absolutely true prophecy, which can be triggered by a specific focus. Hence the Controllers sell the predictions, and the girls are discarded when they no longer have skin left to cut. The girls are taught about the outside world through pictures and films, and occasionally given misinformation as well, to test their prophetic abilities. It's clear that Meg vaguely remembers a time before she was taken to the compound, and given a number rather than her name, so it's clear that girls suspected of her "gift" may just be seized when their prophetic abilities manifest. Because the girls are driven to cut themselves to get the prophecies out, no matter what, and sometimes they end up hurting themselves if not controlled, the government has decreed that all cassandra sangues are to live under the "benevolent ownership" of state-approved Controllers. They have no legal rights of their own, and are as such, slaves to their masters.

"The Meg" as she is called by the inhabitants of the Lakeside Courtyard is a fascinating character. She could easily have been seen as a Mary Sue, because every new thing she sets out to do, she seems to manage admirably almost immediately, and pretty much everyone seems to love her within minutes of meeting her. Yet it's also clear that the blood prophets aren't entirely like normal humans. They're not entirely Other, but there is a reason that Meg doesn't smell like prey to the shape-shifters, and that her "sweet blood" is deemed off limits to the vampires. In addition, because Meg knows that she needs to stay in the Others' good graces, so she's not eaten, or worse, left to fend for herself against the Controllers' men who are looking for her, she tries her best to be open-minded, polite, efficient and agreeable. Because she has so little practical experience in the real world, she frequently struggles with fairly mundane tasks, and the various species of Others find her very amusing to watch. She's also not been brought up with the prejudices towards Others that most humans have. While she forces herself to be cheerful and useful around the Courtyard, she's clearly both afraid and annoyed by Simon, and the fact that the two of the grate so much on each other is clearly a sign that in future books they are meant to be. There's a little bit of romantic tension in the book, but anyone looking for paranormal romance or lots of kissing and shape-shifter/vampire smexy times, will be very disappointed.

I already mentioned that the world building does something completely new to me in paranormal/urban fantasy. The idea that the supernatural creatures are not the minorities that have to hide their true selves from most humans, or "come out" as part of the story, but are in fact the dominant species, cause let's face it, they are bigger, faster and stronger and humans are just clever meat to them, is awesome. It's such a nice twist on what you normally find, and had me intrigued from the very first page. That the various supernatural inhabitants in the Lakeside Courtyard are all well developed, with a number of interesting and complex characters in the community making the story not just about Meg and Simon. There's just as much diversity among the human characters. Some are selfish and prejudiced and anti-Others, and some are determined to make sure they leave in harmony with them, avoiding pissing them off to the point where they just exterminate the human settlements.

I've complained before that with a lot of the genre, you have to read a couple of books before the world is fully established, you really get a feel for the characters, and the stories really get going. This is not the case here. Bishop skilfully hooks you into her world, she makes you care deeply about her characters, and she introduces enough complications and plot momentum that you are never bored. I kept expecting the book to lose me, it couldn't possibly be quite so perfect all the way through, but this really is a great start to a new series. I couldn't really find niggles. The main plot of the book is also tied up, so it can be read as a stand alone, but there is a lot of tension set up between the humans and the Others that will clearly become important later in the series. I'm also glad I waited this long to read the book, as it means the next one is out in March 2014, making the wait for the next one less painful. If you like paranormals, but are a bit bored with the sameyness of the genre - do yourself a favour - read this book.

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