Tue
Mar 12 2013 4:00pm

How Not to Build an Alternate America: Anne Bishop’s Written in Red

Written In Red Anne Bishop Alternate Earth Book Review

As it turns out, successfully building an alternate Earth is a lot more complicated than changing a few place-names and dropping in paranormal characters to spice things up a little. In the hands of a more skilled writer, the alternate America of Written in Red could have been used as a setting for an interesting examination of race, gender, and the legacy of colonialism, but unfortunately it ends up being a fairly predictable urban fantasy with many elements that, on further examination, become increasingly problematic.

Written in Red takes place in an alternate North America known as Thaisia, where humans and Others live in uneasy truce—the Others being the terra indigene, the supernatural were-creatures, vampires, and far older beings that occupied the Thaisian continent—and most of the rest of the world, outside of Europe—long before the humans arrived. In larger cities, urban populations of Others live in designated neighborhoods known as Courtyards, where human law doesn’t apply and where trespassers with mischief on their minds may end up as “DLUs”—Deceased, Location Unknown—which generally translates as dinner for the Others.

One of these cities is Lakeside; heroine Meg Corbyn stumbles into the Lakeside Courtyard and, despite having no obvious skills or known background, into the job of Human Liaison, responsible for taking deliveries from the human-owned businesses that sell to the Courtyard’s residents. She is naive and unworldly, but a quick study and also determined not to go back to her past life, and soon establishes herself as a valued member of the Courtyard.

The past that she’s so eager to escape? Meg, as it turns out, is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet. Such prophets are a special breed of human, apparently always girls, who see prophetic visions when their skin is cut. The visions are accompanied by euphoric ecstasy if spoken aloud at the time, or by excruciating pain if the prophet keeps them to herself. Meg has escaped from a compound where girls like her are routinely cut and abused, and their talents exploited for profit.

Bishop is a reasonably proficient storyteller. But her novel is packed with a lot of problems, most directly related to the worldbuilding, which is lazy at best. Despite the world supposedly being largely dominated by terra indigene, technology and civic development appear to have not diverged very much from that in our own world, and Lakeside feels a lot like any smallish Midwestern Great Lakes city in our late-twentieth century America. It also feels strangely and uncomfortably white-bread; even a character named “Asia” turns out to be a blonde, and little thought appears to have been applied to the ethnic identity of the terra indigene characters, all of whom have names like Henry, Simon, and Tess.

There was the potential for something interesting in the idea of a native population that refused to be conquered and colonized by incoming Europeans, instead finding a way to live alongside them, but that possibility is ignored. Instead, the terra indigene still—after what can only imagine is centuries of cohabitation—seem to resist learning much about any more human society than they have to (they are not even sure how to medically attend to a human), and are also literally a bestial Other. Actual Native Americans as we know them have no place in the structure of this world; Twilight, for all its many flaws, handled that subject better. It’s worth noting that the book is part of a series of “novels of the Others,” not “novels of the Terra Indigene.” Bishop appears to have left this angle entirely unconsidered.

Another apparently unconsidered angle is the fact that it’s impossible to read about Meg’s gift for prophecy and the way in which it is used without thinking of the very real issue of self-harm through cutting, a behavior known to affect young women in particular. I am not a psychologist and cannot claim to have any real background in this highly sensitive subject, but it does make me uneasy to see the main character’s prophetic gift—which, though clearly presented as morally ambiguous, is used to save lives before the story is over—associated with deliberate self-harm. I certainly would think twice before recommending this book to anyone who has an emotional trigger related to this behavior.

In the mix as well is a staggeringly dumb female antagonist, the aforementioned Asia, who is thoroughly demonized (and ultimately punished) for her sexuality; a straight-from-central-casting good-hearted new-in-town cop; and a number of supporting terra indigene characters who would be perfectly likable if it weren’t for their presence in an otherwise very average book. Giving the North American continent a fancy name and replacing its natives with paranormal creatures, as it turns out, is not the best shortcut to a convincing urban fantasy world, and raises far too many problems that Bishop has ignored in favor of an entirely conventional story about a special-powers damsel-in-distress, and how her newfound community rallies to save her from the bad guys. Lots of plot threads are left hanging for the sequels, which one suspects that it will be a lot more of the same.

Written in Red is published by Roc. It is available now.


Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

18 comments
Shelly wb
1. shellywb
Wait, so she set this story in Lakeside, Ohio? Which she then filled with bloodsuckers and were-creatures and other things that eat humans? I'm sensing some sarcasm in this...

(The real Lakeside is as whitebread as it comes. It's a gated Methodist community.)
Nicholas Winter
2. Nicholas Winter
For a much better take on a paranormal Earth, I suggest reading the Jill Kismet series by Lilith Saintcrow which explicity explains the relationship of the paranormal to the Catholic Church and the State over the centuries while being set in a fictional New Mexico city that none-the-less feels very real.
Nicholas Winter
3. HelenS
Actual Native Americans as we know them have no place in the structure of this world

This is all sounding distressingly familiar.
Nicholas Winter
4. Megpie71
Worldbuilding theory 101: if you're going to show an alternative Earth, you have to know at least two things.

The first is where the difference between the Earth you're showing and the one we live in occurred. This is the easy bit - it just requires an idea.

The second thing you have to know is all the differences which you have to account for between your alternative Earth and the one we live in. This is the one which really requires a lot of work, because the writer needs a good grasp of history, of politics, of the psychology of individuals and groups, of how all of these things fed into the development of technology and the harder sciences, and so on. If your alternative Earth isn't any different from the one we live in, you still have to know these things, because you have to explain why the changes haven't happened.

Or in other words, the urban fantasy trope of "just like today, but different" is actually something which requires worldbuilding skill comparable with creating a flourishing and believable multi-planet outer space millieu - just turned in a different direction. It might even be the harder ask, because we know this world in a way it's not possible to know any others, and so we notice all the little differences. Plus, of course, there's the problem of Overthinkers like myself, who will sit there and niggle at loose plot threads until they've unravelled the whole thing.

From this review, it sounds like I'll be skipping "Written in Red".
Nicholas Winter
5. SrsLii
It was one of the better books I've read in the past several months. I am sorry your inability to enjoy things that are fun and unpretentious can't allow you to get any joy from this. Too many people on here define a story's worth by how many politically correct statements it makes, and it is honestly a freaking buzzkill. I enjoyed this story for what it was. I recommend it happily.

There is so much actual awful garbage out there to dump on, seriously, this is not part of that category.
Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
I think worldbuilding has always been a weak spot for Bishop. It took me an exceedingly long time to understand what was going on in both the Black Jewels and Tir Alainn series. Once I figured out what was going on, I was hooked. Her work is explicitly feminist, and it tends to be all about how patriarchal power systems corrupt.

That definitely seemed to be the intent with this book, but like much white feminism, it's failing in intersectionality. Still, I'll take it. Flawed feminist work is better than no feminist work, IMO.

Still it's sad how often this stuff fails. Patricia Briggs work is a little too white centered, besides having a WOC protagonist in Mercy, IMO. At the same time, there is some good stuff. I love Jacqueline Carey, she puts a lot of time into researching and creating her POC characters so they don't feel like caricatures or stereotypes, and enough effort at worldbuilding is done so you understand WHY this world is different, but it's still recognizable as OUR world.
Nicholas Winter
7. Lalo
I remember enjoying the Black Jewels books--I read them at a much too young age for what was going on (at least, from my viewpoint) and haven't revisited them because I have a couple of...questionable memories that I don't want confirmed or denied in regards to the books.

That said Bishop has always interested me.

However as someone who struggles with self-harm I don't think I could read this book. One of things I spoke about with my therapist was that when I cut (or burned) myself I felt 'better'. Perhaps not euphoric, but to the point where just the suggestion of putting the blade to my arm (or finger or leg) calmed me far more than it should have. During the worst moments I truly believed I was in more pain because I wasn't burning my skin then I felt when I burned my skin.

I can't speak as to why Bishop decided to have such opposite feelings--except to make it seem less bad? Here let us bleed you, don't worry you'll feel happy about it as long as you speak! Think of the torture if you don't!--but I don't think she meant to make it a trigger anymore than she meant the abuse the characters in Black Jewels suffered to be a trigger. Its just a lack of understanding on her part, or perhaps emotional resonance.

I don't think I'll be reading this. I've read other reviews that are far less complimentary in regards to what Meg is like and I can spend my time elsewise I think.
Russ Allbery
8. rra
Bishop in general seems to provoke rather polarized opinons, and my impression, both from reading the Black Jewels trilogy plus a few subsequent books (fair warning: I'm one of the people who enjoyed them, albeit with quite a lot of awareness of underlying problems) and from reading various reviews, is that this is because she tends to be an "unquestioned id" sort of writer. In other words, her books tend towards scenes, characters, and situations that provoke strong emotional reactions or that play with stereotypes and fantasies without a lot of filtration for whether the world makes logical sense or whether the scenarios are tromping over fraught topics.

For example (and this is a relatively minor example), Black Jewels is absolutely stuffed to the gills with hurt/comfort scenarios, up to and including rape. It reminds me a little bit of some subdomains of fanfic (from me, this is not a derogatory comment, but an acknowledgement of a different mode of writing) where writers let their id out on the page even when it's deeply problematic. The focus is somewhat more on hitting emotional power chords rather than on dealing honestly with stereotypes or inequality or, for that matter, with human behavior in general.

If I'm right, that means one's feeling about Bishop's writing is strongly influenced by whether or not she happens to hit one's emotional buttons. I suspect she falls into the guilty pleasure bucket for a lot of readers: the book that you enjoy despite the fact that there are so many things wrong with it objectively that you don't know where to start, and therefore you're very reluctant to recommend it to anyone you don't know well.
Shelly wb
9. shellywb
@8, yes, yes, and yes. I've never thought of it that way, but I think you nailed it.
Nicholas Winter
10. Miriamele
Well, it's an urban fantasy, why does it have to be an examination of race, gender and the legacy of colonialism???

Actually, people in it have to be white because in this world Europe was the only place where humans developed, Africa and Asia only had terra indigene inhabitants, so humans are white (or Mediterranean light brown). What the book shows is a world where Europeans couldn't colonize and conquer native populations because these populations were stronger.

I'm not too interested in politics so I didn't mind that we didn't get to explore the government of this world, etc. On the other hand I really enjoyed the way Bishop showed how different the others are, the way she used language to show it. The wolves consistently say paw where people say finger or hand, there are different oaths and so on.

The cutting bothered me too, but it was actually emphasized in the book that it's dangerous, addictive and self-destructive. And it's not a children's book. The blackflap mentions the cutting, so the people for whom it's potentially dangerous can decide not to buy it. If we eliminated everything controversial there would be very few topics to write about. I mean for example there couldn't be a single thriller published because they all contain murder, rape or kidnapping and it might harm readers.

I don't think Asia was demonized for her sexuality. I mean have you read Bishop's other work? In Sebastian the hero is a sex demon, in the Black Jewels novels Surreal (one of the female leads) is a professional whore and Daemon the hero is a sex slave irresistible to males and females alike. Asia was punished because she was a villain. She also used sexuality as a tool to manipulate people but it wasn't
Nicholas Winter
11. Robin B
I actually liked the world-building in Black Jewels. I loved those books, too.

I've not read this book, so I can't say much about the world-building ... but what makes me less inclined to read it, is how awfully similar it seems to Black Jewels. And Ephemera. And Tir Alainn. Vulnerable girl who turns out to be really important and powerful and has males rallying around her in defense? Seein how the characters in Ephemera were bascially rip-offs of the characters in Black Jewels, I don't exactly feel any hope that things will be different here. Which, sadly, makes me believe that Anne Bishop isn't the great writer she appeared to be when she wrote the Black Jewels. Or that she's so much in love with the same character concepts that she don't want to write anything else.
Nicholas Winter
12. JJrolls2
I have enjoyed every single book that Anne Bishop has written! You can always find something negative to say about anyone and everyone who writes. You know why? Because none of us are perfect, that's why? So, who can honestly throw the first stone? Whatever happened to just simply enjoying a book for whatever story was written? If you can't do that, I think you're cheating yourself!!!
Nicholas Winter
13. trixbat
It's interesting that this is about the one negative review posted for Written in Red - a book that has received almost universal accolades from those who have red it. I'd suggest that the reviewer is, simply, dead wrong about the book's quality, and has allowed their dislike of a worldbuilding choice to muddy their perceptions of a good story.

Heck, I leant it to my 70 year old mother, a former professional newspaper book reviewer, and she fell in love with it as the best book she'd read all year, and the closest thing she'd read in a long time to the works of Charles de Lint.

The style of the book is very little like Black Jewels, by the way. It's a much gentler book, though there is violence in it.
Nicholas Winter
14. Elizabeth Bennefeld
Anne Bishop had suggested her earlier novels are not suitable for me, so Written in Red and Murder of Crows are the first of her books that I have read. I am delighted with the series. I've reread both books at least three times, never ceasing to enjoy them. (This may not make sense to anyone other than me, but in an odd way they remind me of A Civil Campaign by L. M. Bujold.) They have a lot of humor and a lot of "real" in them. I eagerly look forward to the next one.
Nicholas Winter
15. CaroToo
I very much enjoyed this books and I am 66. And why do you have to dissect these books. You either like it or you don't. You are talking about race in her world building. Maybe race is irrelevant in this world. There are just humans and the others. We are reading about werewolves, vampires, etc. It is a urban fantasy.
And how can you comment on a book you have not read.
Nicholas Winter
16. balen black
it's escapism people!!! if I want a sociological evaluation of the international industrial/political complex I read books by political/sociological experts. (Cambridge, U.S.War College, etc, I do not read urban fantasy writers.) However, I totally enjoyed these books, and Ms. Bishop is a rare talent! Where else can you find an author who can blend First Peoples mythology,western European expansionism, female control psychology, Driud/Wiccan beliefs and My Little Pony? One final note, her characters are truely different, Simon growls, Tess (Medusa like) Monty, they each see thing differently than other story characters. They think differently. And the ability that the humans have to understand that they are "different meat" and still function is well developed here and seldom seen in other works. Thank you Ms. Bishop.
Nicholas Winter
17. only stardust
Wow, think a little before you open your mouth people; race might be irrelevent in that world but it isn't in this one! How is this supposed to be escapism for people of other races, seeing a world where an author has deliberately chosen to completely whitewash everything and where they literately have no place and do not exist? Or do those people just not matter as long as it's escapism FOR YOU?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with dissecting a book; people are allowed in fact to have an opinion in-between hate it and love it, and say ' I liked this part but I didn't like this part'. Saying you must like or dislike it is a false dichotomy.
Nicholas Winter
18. balen black
I'm sorry, "whitewashed"? did you miss the Lt's description. Brown skinned, tending towards stocky, dark tightly curled hair. sounds like a man of Color to me!! and Mediterranean vampires, and Vlad is the "tall dark handsome dangerous" stranger:-)

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