YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
I'd originally assumed this letter would be for Ashers, because, well. "Urban fantasy" conjures images of saucy, badass women with weapons, which I instantly correlate with Ashers because of course. But Written in Red was actually so incredibly Lizzy that as I read, my eyes stung with missing you.
(Maybe also with the intensity of my reading; I devoured the book over the course of a day and a half, pausing for just a few hours of sleep when my eyelids decided enough was enough.)
Let's see how much I can tell you about this book without spoiling anything.
Enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities—vampires and shape-shifters among them—who rule the earth and whose prey are humans.
As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg's Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.
Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she's keeping a secret, and second, she doesn't smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she's wanted by the government, he'll have to decide whether she's worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.
The Plucky Heroine
In generic urban fantasy: Skinny, pretty, leather-pants-clad (usually white) woman with weapons and an attitude.
In this book: Skinny, pretty white woman who's defenseless and kind.
Why you'd like this: Watching Meg struggle to gain control of her body and her life—first by escaping the Controller who'd enslaved her, then within the tightly-controlled Courtyard of the Others—makes for engrossing and satisfying reading.
The Handsome Dude
In generic urban fantasy: Powerful, attractive, non-human. Either a leader or a loner. Often a jerk.
In this book: Powerful, attractive, non-human. Leader of his Courtyard (the area where the Others live and do business within the city of Lakeside). Sometime a jerk. (Fortunately, we see a good portion of the story from Simon's point of view, and when he does something rude we can at least understand where he's coming from, and his internal struggle regarding his own behavior.)
Why you'd like this: You prefer your dudes handsome, powerful, and with strong ties to their community. Also, you like climbing into a character's head to understand why they do what they do, as opposed to just hearing the heroine's internal dialogue as she swoons after a jerk.
In generic urban fantasy: More often than not, humans who can turn into animals, or need to drink blood, or whatever. Sometimes animals that turn into humans, or human-looking creatures from other planes/dimensions that humans (and readers) are vaguely familiar with (such as faeries). Usually either super secret (not public to humans) or some degree of integrated (mingling openly with humanity).
In this book: They're the Others, the terra indigene, the earth natives, and . . . well:
Humans have managed to spread across the globe, but only because the terra indigene realized humans were useful as well as delicious. The moment a human (or a city of them) proves more trouble than it's worth, that human (or city) is destroyed. As Simon makes clear to Meg early on:
Also, there's a theory that the terra indigene shapeshifters aren't, say, wolves (or crows, or hawks, etc.) that turn into humans, but creatures who took on their version of a wolf (etc.) form because that was the shape of a top predator. Over time, the wolf-shifting terra indigene became increasingly wolf-like in their thought patterns and mannerisms as a result of their choice of shape.
So these are not wolves (etc.) who can wear human bodies. These are monsters with wolfish behavior patterns, and wolfish bodies, who can shift into human bodies. And this makes them, honestly, so much more terrifying than wolves-turned-human or humans-turned-wolves, because at least I'm familiar with wolves and wolf behavior, and I don't know anything about the original state/mindset of these monsters.
(That said, they aren't completely alien; anyone who's spent time with dogs will recognize some of their behaviors. They respond well to dog treats, for example.)
Also, you would absolutely die for the vampires and Elementals, not to mention the mysterious Tess and her mood-ring hair:
(Oh, man. Tess. I swoon.)
Why you'd like this: I guess I already covered it: they're terrifying and intriguing and so incredibly not-human that I can't get enough of them. And, honestly, they (especially Tess and the Elementals) felt like creatures you would have written about. They were the source for most of my eye-stinging; so very Lizzy.
In generic urban fantasy: Heroine is faced with a problem (often hunting a monster or criminal), and uses anything at her disposal (magic, weapons, powerful handsome dude) to solve it before she (or someone else) is killed. Falls in love with powerful handsome dude, and engages in some kind of consensual adult interaction with him.
In this book: Powerless heroine is hunted, not hunter; she escapes captivity, knowing she'll ultimately die as a result but wanting to live free if only for a little while. Slowly, slowly makes a place for herself among the terra indigene who take her in. Slowly, slowly forms relationships for the first time in her life. Slowly, slowly learns to live, to have strength, to be in control rather than be the property of a Controller. (But, of course, her Controller wants his property back, and will do whatever it takes to retrieve it—even if it means facing the terra indigene. Who are, remember, really, really scary.)
Why you'd like this: This isn't an action-packed book. This is a traumatized young woman's first steps toward healing and empowerment—and how her personal journey affects those around her, changing their perspectives and, ultimately, if only slightly, changing their society. And, Lizzy, stories about healing, empowerment, and changing society were your specialty.
And you'd be all over the gradual growth of Meg and Simon's relationship.
And when the action does come, it comes fierce and bloody—which is also very Lizzy.
The Sense of Humor
In generic urban fantasy: Urban fantasy provides ample opportunity for humor, and most of the authors I've read have at least a few moments of brilliance.
In this book: The humor ranges from dark to silly, and it's all fantastic (though the silliness confuses the story's tone a little, I thought).
Take the signs placed beside the doorway connecting Simon's bookstore (Howling Good Reads) and Tess's coffee shop (A Little Bite):
Why you'd like this: This should be obvious.
Written in Red is told from multiple points of view, which provides a richer view of the world—but some of those points of view, I thought, were a little flat. Specifically, do-gooder police lieutenant Crispin Montgomery ("Monty"), and selfish scheming babe Asia Crane. Both are significant characters, but neither of them ever really broke out of their three-word descriptions. (Well, Monty has an internal crisis when we first meet him, but it doesn't reappear in an interesting way later. Asia was definitely flat.)
Monty may not have changed over the course of the story, but he's likable, easy to relate to and sympathize with. He was also the only black character; not a very diverse book we're talking here.
Too-Familiar Human Civilization
I am 100% in favor of a world historically dominated by non-humans. The idea of humans being allowed to carve isolated villages and a few handfuls of cities—and two very large cities—out of the vast landscape of the Americas is intriguing, to say the least. This is a world where the human population is significantly smaller than what we know today, and society has been shaped by and around the largesse (if you could call it that) of the terra indigene.
However. Somehow, this human society still looks identical to ours: cars, computers, universities, a booming film industry, publishing houses—not to mention a governmental structure including governors and mayors and police chiefs, and so on.
I had a really hard time accepting the idea that human society and technological advancement in this world would be identical (or even nearly identical) to ours.
What's Up with the Courtyards
I also wasn't clear on the purpose of the Courtyards—or, at least, why they're located inside the human cities rather than at an easy distance outside them.
In the explanatory prologue we're told:
Here's an explanation of Courtyards, provided by Simon to Meg when she first arrives, looking to fill the Courtyard's vacant Human Liaison position:
The terra indigene have zero interest in mingling with humans. They want two things from humans, period: their nifty inventions and their tasty human meat. They don't interfere with human politics or daily life. They don't "watch over" the humans in any way. The less they deal with humans, the happier they are.
To that end, most terra indigene live in the wild lands separating human towns; only a percentage live in Courtyards. (Or maybe I'm wrong? But if I am, why would most terra indigene live in fenced-in areas surrounded by human cities when they "own" all the land of the continent, and most of that land is still wild?)
Placing the Courtyard smack inside the cities certainly benefits the plot, but doesn't feel realistic. If the terra indigene need a post office to receive their human-made goods, why not have a post office on the edge of town, or a half mile outside it? If they need an office for their consul, why not have that on the edge of town, too? The consul is really the only one who goes out among humans, ensuring the human government pays the appropriate taxes to the terra indigene—and as far as I saw, the consul goes to the humans' offices, not the other way around. Is that really a sufficient reason for the terra indigene to be living within the city?
(If anyone reading this letter has read the book, and better understands why Courtyards are positioned where they are, please let me know! Or perhaps it's revealed in the sequel, Murder of Crows, which I'll be picking up shortly.)
Problematic Racial Undercurrent
In this North-America-equivalent, the native peoples are literally called the Others (by humans); they are closely attuned to nature, and hold great respect for their shaman-equivalent; their land was colonized by a significantly more "advanced" species, who gave them baubles in exchange for land usage; they have remained significantly less "advanced" than the colonizers to this day (a time when many natives live free on the land, while others live in fenced-in preserves—and humans, meanwhile, seek to take as much control from them as possible).
I'm definitely excited to see a world in which the natives maintain dominion over the land, and exploit the colonizers' technology/labor—but I felt distinctly uncomfortable with the Native American vibe I occasionally got from the terra indigene.
I don't believe the author intended to suggest that Native Americans are less than human, or to imply that they are inherently less "advanced" than the people who colonized their land. Nevertheless, I perceived a parallel there that gave me the fidgets.
(Again, if someone else has read the book and has a better/more informed perspective on this issue, I'd love to hear it!)
Monster Love Interest
There's a line to be drawn between realistic-monster-love-interests (naturally vicious non-humans developing healthy, loving relationships with humans) and dickish-monster-love-interests (naturally vicious non-humans developing dangerous, abusive relationships with humans), and I felt that Meg and Simon's relationship is too young at this point for me to clearly see which way it would fall. I do think Simon's rude behavior was portrayed and explained well enough to make him relatable rather than off-putting, and Meg was quickly developing the strength to stand up to Simon's alpha personality, but there is definitely potential for abuse in their relationship.
As a cassandra sangue, a slice in Meg's skin opens her to prophesy. I won't go into the details (suffice to say each new snippet of information about the cassandra sangues had me incredibly excited), but it shouldn't come as a surprise that Meg does cut herself over the course of the story.
The cutting (and Meg's internal conflict regarding it) was portrayed in an unflinching, powerful way that was (I thought) beautiful. Beautiful as in artful, not in any way enticing.
I wouldn't label Meg's cutting as self-harm. She doesn't cut because she is depressed, angry, hurt, or numb. She doesn't cut because she enjoys the euphoria a prophesy can bring (although that is a temptation that she resists). She cuts because there is a prophesy that needs to be seen, and that is how she will see it.
Blood magic isn't a new concept, in books or out of them. People prick their fingers, cut their arms, slice the throats of children or virgins. Anita Blake kills chickens, or goats if she needs stronger blood. Blood's been a part of magic forever (more or less).
The point of cutting in Written in Red is the idea of agency; the cassandra sangue are by law kept by Controllers who oversee when, where, and how the girls are cut so as to, quote unquote, ensure they are not harmed by incautious cutting. The girls are allowed no power over what happens to their bodies, and Meg's memories of being strapped down are sickening. The issue here is abuse, not self-harm. Once free, Meg takes control of her skin and her power, refusing to let anyone else dictate when she will and will not open herself to prophesy.
Some people could certainly see this as Meg's insistence on being allowed to self-harm, but I read it as another step in her journey towards empowerment.
Although there's plenty more I could say, for the sake of word count, if not spoilers, I'll end this letter here.
In short: if you're looking for a spitfire heroine smart-talking and shooting her way through a high-intensity plot, this book won't satisfy. Pick it up when you're in the mood for complex character development with a smidge of gore.