★ ★ ★ ★
Remember how I said Half-Off Ragnarok was like sugary breakfast cereal? This is sheer milk chocolate candy addictiveness–the M&M kind–where you think “sure, I’ll have a couple,” and then it’s a couple more, and then just a few more, and suddenly the bag is half gone. Written in Red is melt-in-your-mouth goodness targeted squarely at the urban fantasy-paranormal fan whose appeal is intensified by a couple of surprising features. It was so very readable, going down exactly like those M&Ms; before I knew it, it was 3 am and I was almost done. Kudos, Bishop, kudos.
A brief prologue orients the reader to the history of the Others, the indigenous spirits of the world, and of humans. At creation, humans were given isolation to learn and grow, but as they spread throughout the world, they encountered the Others. Humans and Others skirmished, with humans largely on the losing side as the Others control natural resources. Currently, they have forged an uneasy peace, with the Others maintaining compounds in some larger human towns and cities, much like diplomatic enclaves.
The first chapter starts in the city of Lakeland, with Meg on the run during a snowy night. She sees a sign at the Other compound requesting applications for a human liaison, and realizes this could mean freedom from her prior life, as human law doesn’t apply in Other territory. Samuel, dominant wolf and leader of the compound, is vaguely troubled by Meg but gives her the job–after all, they could always eat her. Quickly installed in the Liaison’s apartment, Meg soon begins learning about the Others…as well as herself. Interwoven with Meg’s story, the narrative also follows Asia, a human woman scheming to learn more about Samuel and the Others; and Lt. Montgomery, a recently transferred police officer who takes on the role of ambassador for the department with the Others.
The creation of a supernatural/mystical creature dominant world is one of the most interesting aspects of Bishop’s world-building. I found myself fascinated by the idea of an alternate-history universe where we have many of the same things (cars, sneakers, bagels, chick-flicks), the same rough geographic layout (the Atlantik Ocean, the Great Lakes) but with the threat of the Others looming in the everyday background. For instance, it isn’t long before Monty learns that the the legend of the Drowned City is actually true–a human uprising in the area was punished by a massive flood.
Characterization was acceptable, if rather standard for the genre. Because of Meg’s ability to make predictions through cutting herself, she had a heavily circumscribed upbringing that prevented exposure to the outside world. Thus we have the standard naive young woman who possesses ‘book’ knowledge without ‘street’ knowledge with a highly valuable (magical) skill-set. Bishop’s choice to use blood prophecy was inspired, particularly as ‘cutting’ is a taboo real-world issue. Meg does develop as she struggles with agency, particularly as she starts to understand more about her own abilities. Likewise, the elemental spirits were well conceptualized, with a sense of indifference to consequences and a selfish focus on their own interests. Tess was one of my favorites of the Others, with her moody hair and mysterious identity. However, Samuel mostly seemed angry and conflicted, and rarely gave the sense of a confident, focused personality that one might expect as leader of a large, dynamic group. Likewise, while the vampires initially gave a feel of spine-chilling fearfulness, any efforts in that direction were completely undermined when one of them asked Meg is it was “that time of the month?” Truly, by the end, they did seem a little like television vampires, perhaps because of their own obsession watching it. The two other narrative viewpoints of Monty and Asia were also very straightforward. The police officer might as well have been called Trueheart, and Asia was a one-note scheming narcissist.
Actually, what has been perplexing me is that in the wrong mood, I might have easily hated this book. The language is relatively unsophisticated and dialogue-focused. The plot turned out to be predictable–my tension reading was out of concern that Bishop, as a writer new to me, might come up with unpleasant surprises, but there weren’t any. I could probably make a couple of educated guesses at the next book as well. There’s also the larger issue of Samuel’s tendency towards violence, anger and possessiveness. I think he comes off as more combative narcissist than ‘wolf,’ and more disturbed human than ‘Other,’ no matter how many times he mentions the need to be in his “other skin.” Gender, identity and sexuality are all very straight (literally), with Meg and Tess the only unknowns in the story. Plotwise, Bishop is clearly setting up the beginnings of a romance, but not until Meg learns her own dominance. And Meg is one marvelous, Speshul Snowflake. To meet her is to love her, apparently. For a lot of reasons, this could have gone the other way.
But the marvel was it didn’t. I devoured the book in one sitting, expected plot, Speshul Snowflakes, anger issues and all. I can only conclude that Bishop is meeting my genre expectations so well, with that flair of intriguing difference, that it was irresistible. In fact, when I finished, I was seriously spent a couple of minutes debating whether I should download the next book on Kindle and keep reading. It was only discovering that only the first and second books are out, with book three not expected until March 2015 (and four and five in the works) that kept me from an all-night reading binge. So I re-read this one instead.
Hook me up and pass the M&Ms, please.
Additional thoughts: maybe part of the appeal is that it fails to hit my annoyance buttons. Meg has agency, imperfectly realized. She is kind, a quality I value more and more in my old age. She also generally fails to display TSTL traits. Simon, while over-aggressive, is at least consistent within his species/race/whatever, and shows a great deal of internal conflict. And, as cheesy as it sounds, the themes of the book are tolerance and friendship.