You couldn’t blame Anne Bishop if she took one look at the phenomenal success of her bestselling dark fantasy series the Black Jewels (which I may or may not have read a time or two), and never wrote another book without royal politics and magical intrigue. But for the past few years, she has been expanding her horizons and winning over fans new and old in a different genre entirely: urban fantasy (albeit with a few secondary world flourishes).
The subgenre switch-up has clearly done little to stifle Bishop’s talent for building worlds that twist convention and populating them with compelling, flawed characters: the Others series, beginning with Written in Red, stands alongside her best work, even as it stands out on crowded bookstore shelves. If you’ve yet to encounter them, fret not! Not so long ago, I was just like you. Today, I am a full convert, and I’m here to bring you up to speed, and tell you why you need to jump onboard, now.
The Others takes place in an alternate-Earth realm called Thaisia. Humans knowingly share the planet with the “Others” of the title; these shapeshifters and powerful elemental beings are the landlords of nearly all of Thaisia’s surface, leasing it to humans for brief, fixed periods while retaining control of far larger territories and all access to water. Humans are constantly reminded that they hold little power, and exist at the grace of the Others.
Humans do meet and trade goods and knowledge with some of the… tamer Others in “Courtyards” in cities across the continent, each barely tolerating the other’s existence—humans out of necessity and the Others largely to keep the peace and get their hands on the singularly human products they enjoy (even vampires appreciate bad movie night).
But then, something apparently small upsets this delicate balance: in the city of Lakeside, a dirty, frightened girl tumbles in, begging the resident wolf on duty for the job posted outside the Courtyard bookstore, apparently lacking in general knowledge of, well, everything, with fear in her eyes and a clear reluctance to answer questions. This is Meg Corbyn, member of the seemingly human Cassandra sangue, a race of women who carry prophecy in their blood, and release it by making a series of cuts across their skin, slowly killing themselves in the bargain. Her arrival triggers the discovery of a long-buried tragedy involving her people, and as long-buried secrets come to the surface—and Meg’s life is threatened again and again—the fragile links between humans and Others are pulled to their breaking point.
At the same time, a massive conspiracy is underway, as, over the course of the first three books in the series, the politics of Others and humans the world over are suddenly colliding. Anti-Other prejudice is on the rise (a movement calling itself “Humans First and Last” striking particularly true during our current, real-world political season), “random” deaths are proliferating with suspicious rapidity, strange new aggressive drugs have appeared on the streets, and there are rumors of armies on the move, helped along by vicious orators stoking the fires of hatred and fear. Someone has engineered the end of the long peace between humans and the Others, and it may herald the end of humanity, period.
The structure of this world is markedly different from those found in Bishop’s earlier work—and excitingly so!—but faithful readers will find plenty of what they love about her writing, including a cast of characters we can’t help but grow attached to as quickly as they are introduced. There’s Simon, the beleaguered, doing-his-best Wolf leader of Lakeside Courtyard (sure to be a favorite of many a Lucivar fan). There’s Vlad of the Sanguinati, a smoke-shifting vampiric being with a strong sense of duty and an under-appreciated sense of humor. There’s Tess, she of the dangerous, multicolored hair; those who see her bad side rarely live to tell the tale. Add in a pair of harried, well-meaning police officers doing their best to keep the peace; Meri Lee and Ruthie, girlfriends with the mostest; and a slew of wolves, bears, crows, vampires and ponies (oh, the ponies!), not to mention Meg, our protagonist, struggling to find her way in the world, and you’ve got more memorable characters than any one series has a right to.
Bishop’s signature mixture of darkness and innocence is also wholly present. Dark threats continually surround her characters, with attendant mysteries for them to solve; it’s rare they aren’t racing against time and a rising tide of threats they never saw coming. Terrifying power is always on the brink of being unleashed, and taking everything down with it. But Bishop knows that these are but symbols of the real threats: the ones that come from within. She is at her best when dealing with never-ending battles fought on psychological fronts, against vicious inner voices and internalized abuse that can never quite be shaken—swords can be met with swords, but there are very few defenses against your own poisoned mind.
Yet these books are far from a relentless, miserable march. Bishop combats the abyss with cheerful doses of impish humor and childish fun that keeps things about as light as they’re going to get when people are fighting to the death, with themselves and each other. Wolf puppies, cookies, girl-talk, scary movies, and misunderstandings about appropriate attire (or a lack thereof): the series feels like the best of both possible words. It is pure escapism that also gives you something to think about, an absorging plot that throws a terryfying encounter at you, then follows it up with a soothing bite of adorable comfort food.
By the time we reach the end of Vision in Silver (the last published book, though thankfully not for long—Marked in Flesh is out next week), Bishop has built a fascinating world, populated it with unforgettable characters, and set them crashing together in exciting action sequences, all while slowly teasing out an overarching plot that is poised for explosive expansion and raising enough questions that we simply must keep reading to find out what happens next.
This is a series that welcomes binge-reading, actively rooting for your heroes, booing and hissing at the villains you love to hate, and throwing popcorn at the screen when the other shoe finally drops, and drops, and drops. Clear your schedule, and get started.