Written in Red by Anne Bishop
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I'm rather surprised that I didn't get into this nearly as much as I had hoped I would. Something wasn't clicking with me, and as I kept reading, I spent way too much attention on other things. Like little things like why I ought to care. I expected Urban Fantasy, and to me, it doesn't even remotely equate with sparkly vampires or huggable monsters of any stripe. I like grit. I love plot. Characters are everything, but if I had to place all my hopes upon one thing and one thing only, I'd say it had to be conflict.
For way too long in the novel, there was no real conflict. Sure, we have the Others and the Monkeys. We have Meg running from her past and her late-revealed ability. That's all out there as potential conflict, but in the meantime, we've got growls and innuendo and something that smells entirely of a different kind of novel.
Like I said, it took me a long time to figure it out. But it dawned on me: this isn't really an UF novel. If you ignore all the light fantasy elements, what we've really got is a novel about an awkward girl from a bad home that ran away and took up living with a gruff immigrant community, and specifically with a mean-sounding bookstore owner with a heart of gold. She gets bedazzled into being a jack-of-all trades and she eventually gets adopted by the enclosed community.
Mary-Sue syndrome? Yeah. Self-esteem issues boiling down to cutting, but magic making it a useful trait? Yeah, there's that, too.
If there hadn't been magic in the novel at all, it might have been a rather heartwarming tale about a kid finding a community to belong to, with other heartwarming elements like befriending the abused puppy, discovering that sorting mail really is interesting as long as you can use REAL PONIES... oh wait.. I mean elemental steeds... and getting that heart-in-throat moment when, against all odds, your new friends go way out of their way to protect you when your official family tries to drag you back to your old hell.
And you know what? I might have been more at home in this real life setting kind of tale. I'd likely have attached to each character more deeply.
And you know what really scares the living shit out of me? I'm A HUGE FAN OF SF/F, almost to the exclusion of all other genres. I NEVER say this kind of shit about any book. I never pine about how a tale might have been better served vanilla. And yet, I just did.
There were a few elements of magic and history that were promising, such as the drowned city. Maybe if a little bit of the plot had revolved more around the implications of the magic rather than just being bad ass and driving away all the bad monkeys, I'd have at least had that to point at, but as it was, almost the entire novel was mundane this and mundane that. Getting Sam to trust anyone, let alone quasi-human Meg, was all very nice, but he was just a hybrid abused boy/abused dog.
I wanted to like this more. I really did. The end action was, unfortunately, too little, too late. The magic and the UF elements were too bland. I couldn't even taste them through the mundane. Needs more spice.
I'll read the next in the series later this month because I've already promised that I will, but I really hope it picks up with more real conflict than this.
Mundane conflicts are mundane conflicts. They appear larger only as long as there's nothing else to compare them with. Once you add some truly breathtaking conflicts, the rest of it just fades into the background.
Maybe for some readers, all this mundane buildup served the function of complex character building, but I haven't seen that much in the way of character development or change except in how Meg is no longer prey and is accepted. Of course, all of that could have been accomplished with some severe editing out of 300 or so pages until we were left with an actual interesting story with all the fantastical elements not being drowned out.
Here's to hoping it gets better!
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