Three hundred posts has given, at the very least, perspective on why a particular book may or may not appeal to me. As I wrote in my review of the surprisingly ghastly The Diviners (review), “I tend to read for three things: plot, character and language. Usually at least one can sustain me through a book” (You see, I’m citing myself so I don’t turn into Jonah Lehrer). Anne Bishop’s The Others series is light on all three, and yet it is the Pringles in my reading world: I can’t put them down.
I should dislike this. The plot nominally revolves around a twenty-four year-old woman who is astonishingly naive. Normally, this would cause at least a small eye roll, but the context is that until six months ago, she’s been confined against her will, her life structured and optimized to divine the future when her her skin is cut and blood drawn. Actually, her innocence to behavior subtleties becomes a clever narrative device, allowing her to seek explanations along with the reader.
Many reviews rave on the world building, but I’ve found it glaringly incomplete–good heavens, it’s odd. If Sanderson gave the impression of having created the world before writing a plot in The Way of Kings (review), Bishop seems to be discovering it in context of moving her plot. Inconsistencies appear, but because Bishop spends so little time on the details, I’ve managed not to dwell on them either.
Consider: The Others are a lifeform native to America (or whatever Bishop calls it, but since it has the Atlantik Ocean and five Great Lakes, let’s go with America). Currently, many Others live in Courtyards in large human cities, similar to embassies. There are small human communities as well, particularly ones around farming settlements. However, The Others control all the land, leasing it to the humans, with wild spaces between communities for their more wild brethren. But humans mine, farm, log, ship, and presumably, work in the steel mills they mention. Trains run between communities. Ships sail the oceans. Snowmobiles and golf carts exist. There are also cars, electric lights, email, computers, videos, cellphones and telephones. Not mentioned is the corollary that there are rubber plantations, power plants, cobalt mines, movie studios, satellites and telephone lines. Questions: why does news take so long to travel? Why do The Others have to take trains with humans to get from community to community instead of emailing, calling or using their other form? Why does Bishop continually call attention to The Others rescinding leases for pollution without recognizing those industries are all ‘dirty’? There’s enough cars to cause accidents. At the same time there’s all these normal/current resources, why are The Others concerned with understanding the human community? Haven’t they already understood it enough if they can drive, use computers, lease land, have Other-focused movies and Other-focused books?
It’s a mess, I tell you. I mostly accept it, and in this book, even grew to appreciate it as Simon, the leader of The Others in Lakeside, wonders if The Others taking human form are going to evolve into the replacement for the humans. I’ve also assumed that Bishop was hinting at technological developments that would win the war against The Others, such as airplanes and mass-produced weapons. But guns are already in play in this society–hunters are talked about in the first book, and this book points out that one of the fearsome Others needs to be in a certain range in order to harvest life, and being wounded by a gun is possible. So sure, it’s clear humans can’t win against earthquakes, tornadoes and snowstorms, but are The Others ready to lose the more corporeal-based lifeforms, and why are they so innocent about the risks humans present? And holy distractions–are The Others really any different from humans if they enjoy hanging out in front of a movie with some popcorn??
World-building aside, characterization is not particularly layered. It’s an ensemble cast and Bishop commits the crime of repetitive description, adding little information time they appear. Crows like “shiny,” Tess’ hair turns color with her mood, wolves growl when they are irritated, spirits have the characteristics of their namesake (‘Winter,’ ‘Spring’). Monty, one of the policemen, gets the most chance to develop when we meet his family. Meg, the blood prophet, shows a little character growth, although there’s some not-so-slick reverse engineering allowing it (after 6 months outside her compound, she suddenly discovers too much sensory detail is ‘overwhelming’ and she’ll ‘shut down’). Other than that, the narrative character-switching mostly gives the reader the sense that something is happening, when really, it is isn’t. At least not in a large way. Personally, I have the feeling that Bishop was trying to get the reader to the point where such shifts in world-view would seem seismic. They didn’t, of course, but they did seem significant.
More significantly, there’s a lot of chauvinism in the series. Males are leaders, enforcers, and spiritual gurus, whether Others (Simon, Eliot, Blair, Nathan, Henry) or humans (governor, mayor, cult leader, policeman). Women are the balancing act, the emotion, the social glue that keeps things running, soothes chaos and can be diverted by movies, yoga and jewelry. Most readers won’t complain about the chauvinism because it is of the Noble Knight School of Sexism, where strong men protect the young/women, broker the deals, do the investigating, the fighting and the traveling. Men are predators. Yes, yes–this book has a scene that has an exception to this. One. I was thinking about this again because a normal real wolf pack always has females, particularly a very dominant one as co-leader, and there are no female wolves present in this situation. It’s clear that there is a very gentle, growing relationship between Meg and Simon, so a lack of female balance keeps the social relationships focused on where Bishop wants it. But it is notable for me as another area that usually results in a serious amount of annoyance–particularly when done by Jim Butcher (review).
And the writing. I’d give it tenth grade level, give or take. Simple structure, straight-forward punctuation and very few superlatives. The simplicity fits with Simon and Meg’s voices, but the rest of the time? I suspect that because so much of it is dialogue-focused, it isn’t as noticeable. Still, as I enjoy a vivid descriptor (note the ‘beautiful language’ tag), so I find it interesting that this doesn’t bore me:
“Meg didn’t remember much about the storm that struck Lakeside after she’d fallen through the ice on the creek. But she remembered being stuck in the hospital… because the whole city had been trapped by a record snowfall… Crows followed them as they continued down the road. Hawks soared overhead or found a convenient observation perch. A couple of Owls, who should have been home by now, flew over their heads.”
So it’s clear, right? I should be vehemently opposed to reading this, but I can’t stop–it’s so delicious! After I finished this one, I started re-reading it the next day. And finished it again. Sure, there’s problems, but nothing really has pushed me into full eye-roll. I also remain intrigued because it’s the only UF I’ve read so far that treats humans like inferior citizens and hints at an upcoming disaster. I can only conclude that Bishop has hit the taste trifecta of ideal composition of Sugar, Salt and Fat (review).