~~MOVED FROM GR~~
Written In Red (The Others #1)
by Anne Bishop
***Warning: if you have a past history of self-harm or are sensitive to the issue, I strongly suggest skipping this book. And this review, come to think of it. Self-harm via cutting is an integral part of this book, and I'm going to discuss it, so both the book and my review carry serious trigger warnings.***
But first on to happier things.
You know all those box-office-gold movies where a vicious band of toughs--gangsters, murderers, monsters, aliens, whatever--find themselves unexpectedly burdened with an adorable and innocent child? Cue comic and heartwarming storyline, and get ready to rake in the dollars. Well, let our gang of toughs be an entire society of bloodthirsty monsters: werewolves, vampires, shapeshifters and more. You see, it turns out humans weren't the dominant species in this world. Instead, they were quickly conquered and now live only by the sufferance of the Terra Indogene--the supernatural monsters. These "Others" are vicious killers who hunt humans for pleasure and profit. There are only two reasons why the entire human race isn't already extinct: one, they're awfully good at inventing gadgets, and two, they're far too much fun to terrorize. As it is, the Others rule the human towns and maintain tight control over all natural resources.
So now that we have our toughs, it's time to introduce our ingenue. Granted, she's technically an adult, but she's so very naive and optimistic that she definitely qualifies for the role. Meg, a young girl with a mysterious past, has arrived in the town and stumbled into the position of liaison between the Others and the humans. While this mostly entails delivering mail, it also means she'll be in very close contact with vampires and werewolves who have only recently discovered that eating their disappointing employees might have adverse effects on the morale of the remainder. Meg hasn't encountered many Others, she is somehow completely devoid of the entirely rational fear that other humans have of them. Her obliviousness to threats and taunts at first makes the Others embarrassed and uncomfortable, but soon she starts worming her way into a few of their hearts in standard ingenue fashion. However, that's only the start of the story, because the dangers Meg is running from are swiftly catching up with her, and there's even more chaos looming on the horizon.
I've complained a lot about shallow worldbuilding in urban fantasy novels, when authors make radical changes to the past and yet expect culture and lifestyle to stay the same. Folks, this is well on the the way to doing it right. Bishop doesn't just slap on a superficial glamour; she makes massive structural changes to every aspect of life, from the politics (it's a feudal society with the Others on top) to geography ("Jerzy" and "Sparkletown" probably relate to the places we know, but Bishop made no other assumptions that somehow city identities would remain constant) to religion to technology. While cars, jeans, computers, etc exist, they're not precisely identical to ours. For example, this world doesn't have BMW's; instead, people have to get about in their electric-powered BOWs (Boxes on Wheels). Granted, I would have liked even more divergences from our reality, but then, I'm hard to satisfy and this is a first book. The fact that the characters didn't drink Starbucks and work on Microsoft PCs is so far beyond most other UFs that it already wins full points. I was very interested in--and rather perplexed by--the political tensions, and I'm not sure the societal structure was completely thought through. Bishop's humans are both nobler and dumber than my cynical heart would suggest. Rather than behave as unctuous sycophants to the Others, they openly resent and plot against their furry masters. For example, human leaders openly campaign on slogans such as "humans first," apparently without fear of reprisals. The Others themselves do little to control the hearts and minds of the humans, and are instead willing to allow the prey to grow restless. However, when harm does come to an Other, they are swift and final in their punishments, from using Elementals to call up hurricanes and storms to levying yet another tax on a necessary resource such as water.
The creatures and characters are also inventive and interesting. Bishop's werewolves aren't just ordinary people who go furry during their time of the month. I love how indisputably inhuman their thoughts and reactions were. I also thought that Bishop did a great job in weaving in elements from fairy tales and legends, from the red cloak that Meg wears at one point to the twist where an explicit invitation was required to enter a vampire's home. Simon, our ingenue's main werewolf contact, is a rounded and engaging character who continues, throughout, to consider actions that no rational human would ever take. The Others are thoughtlessly bloody and violent, and these tendencies aren't automatically changed just because Meg enters their lives, even though they discover a new love of cookies. The villians were slightly dumber than a box of bricks, but who cares? The human-Other interactions, whether with the villains or the protagonists, were so hilarious and entertaining that it just didn't matter.
OK, now back to the self-harm issue. This is actually what made me most uncomfortable with this book, particularly because my library shelved it as YA (Young Adult). Meg has a special gift (which I won't describe because of spoiler potential), which she activates by cutting her own body. While it worries those around her, this behavior is portrayed as a necessary evil to release the tangible benefits of her gift, and Bishop repeatedly goes into graphic detail, from the concentration and satisfaction Meg gets from making the cut to her euphoria after the event. Bishop characterizes it as somewhat self-destructive, but also controllable, self-sacrificial, and ultimately a positive, if dangerous, action. I know it is the current fashion to write YA books that romanticize and attempt to legitimize incredibly destructive relationships and behaviors, but I'm disappointed to see self-harm added to the list. Think cutting isn't a serious issue? According to studies, about one in five young women self-harm . I guarantee that you know someone who has secretly cut in the past, and I'll bet you know someone still actively cutting--you probably just don't know who they are. Cutting is used as a coping behavior for depression, a mechanism for temporarily relieving guilt, a way to express self-hatred, and a method to break the numbness. Yes, cutting is indeed a person's most private pain "written in red" onto their body, but I fear that a YA book that echoes the sentiments that self-harmers use to legitimize their actions might pull young readers into temptation. Cutting is addictive, pathological, and a "gateway drug" for even more serious self-harm. It causes incredible damage both to the individual's psyche and to the people who are helpless to intervene. It is not something that should be romanticized, especially not in a story geared towards its most vulnerable population.
To summarize, I found Written in Blood to be an enjoyable alternate-history fantasy; the world is fascinating and fully realized, full of depth and imagination. My major issue is not with the book, but with its target market: I strongly believe that if the book is to be read by an incredibly vulnerable audience, the themes of self-harm explored in this book should be approached with caution and without any attempts to glamorize or rationalize. Otherwise, the book is definitely a great read with a fantastically built world and and entertaining and engaging plot.