The Others series (books 1-3), by Anne Bishop

>> Sunday, March 13, 2016

Anne Bishop's most recent series is set in an alternate version of our reality, one in which humans share the planet with beings they call The Others and who call themselves the Terra Indigene. We discover some of the many different varieties of Terra Indigene through the series, and there are many, but in general they are beings of great power and much closer to nature than humans. Some of them can shapeshift into human forms, and this is how they interact with the species they see as greedy and invasive and troublesome.

Humans developed in parts of the continent which in this universe would be roughly equivalent to Europe (I think!). A few centuries before the start of these books they evolved technology to the point where they could travel across the ocean to what would correspond to our North America, which was where they encountered the Others. The first few colonies they tried to establish were easily wiped out by the Terra Indigene, who had no intention of sharing their land with them. However, later wannabe settlers were able to negotiate an agreement. The Terra Indigene found some of the technologies the humans had had to develop to compensate for their lack of power and lack of connection with nature quite useful, so they traded. In exchange for providing the Terra Indigene with their clever inventions, humans would be allowed areas to settle in and establish cities and towns, as well as access to food and raw materials they could trade for.

Over the centuries, this arrangement has worked, albeit with many tensions. Neither side trusts the other, and they don't really interact much, so each side knows very little about the other. This despite the existence of "Courtyards" inside every city, enclaves where Terra Indigene live and keep an eye on humans to police the agreements between the two sides.

The books centre around precisely one of those Courtyards, that in the city of Lakeside, where a woman called Meg Corbyn finds refuge. Meg is human, but a very special kind of human. She is a blood prophet, which means she sees extremely accurate visions when her skin is cut. These visions can be directed through questioning, which makes them very useful. Meg grew up a prisoner in a place where many of her kind were kept under close control and their prophetic abilities sold to the highest bidder. Want to know what the biggest risk to your business is in the next few months? Pay for a cut to be made to a blood prophet's skin and the right question to be asked.

Meg was able to escape, however, and made it to the city of Lakeside, where she ended up in the Courtyard. Fortunately for her, this particular courtyard is a pretty special one, one where the Terra Indigene have set out to learn more about humans. To do this they have opened a few businesses where humans are allowed to come in, and Meg ends up being hired as Human Liaison / mail clerk, and adopted by the Terra Indigene, who see her as different from the other horrid humans.

Now, usually I would write a separate review for each of these books, but having read the first three now, that didn't seem particularly necessary. It's true that each book has its own plot, to an extent. The first one has "The Controller", the guy in charge of the institution from which Meg escaped, trying to find her and bring her back. The next two are more focused on the bigger-picture tensions between the Terra Indigene and humans: in book 2 the danger is a kind of drug created to target the Terra Indigene, in the third it's a human-supremacist group trying to fan hatred. However, for all that each book has some closure for these plots, the broader story feels like it continues through all three books.

There's Meg's efforts to understand her powers and how they work and to keep them from destroying her. The way the whole blood prophecy thing works is a bit more complex than I described earlier. Cuts generate euphoria, so cutting becomes addictive. Many a blood prophet has lost her mind after a few years (the general consensus seems to be that prophets get a thousand cuts before their minds go). That's obviously not a great prospect to look forward to, and throughout the series Meg, with the help of the Terra Indigene and the "human pack" she develops in the Courtyard, learns more about what she can do and how to do it safely.

There's also Meg's adaptation to the outside world, which is a major feature in book 1 but continues in later books as well. Blood prophets are kept isolated from the real world, learning about it only through image albums which help them put their prophecies into words. When they leave that controlled environment (and as the series develops, many more do), the real world overwhelms them. So Meg must learn how to function without breaking down and how to help others do so.

And of course, there's Meg's relationship with Simon Wolfgard (and I'm surprised at myself that I haven't mentioned him earlier in this post, as Simon and Meg are basically the main characters in the series, even if they're not the only POV characters!). Simon is a Wolf, and he owns the Courtyard's book shop, into which Meg stumbles that first day. There's something about Meg that doesn't trigger Simon's usual distaste for humans, and they become good friends. Simon is very much not a human, no matter how much he looks like one when in his human shape, so their relationship doesn't follow human patterns, and is as much a learning experience for him as it is for Meg. It's also not really (not completely?) a romantic relationship. Well, it's kind of weird, because parts of it feel like one, but not quite. It's hard to describe, and really has to be experienced. It's really interesting, anyway.

And in addition to the character stuff, the big picture developments very much carry through the series, slowly building and changing. The relations between Terra Indigene and humans become worse and worse, something that our protagonists try to mitigate through the deepening relationships between the inhabitants of the Courtyard and an increasing cast of humans who see that if humanity tries to go head to head with the Others, they're basically screwed.

So I've written a bit of a treatise here, but not very much about what I think of the series, really! Do I like it? Well, yes, but. None of the elements work perfectly, and there are (many, many) flaws and things I find annoying. But I still find this addictive. Basically, I find this world and these people absorbing and fascinating and weirdly comforting to read about. Bishop's got the sort of writing style that makes you sink into a story. It really is strange. A big part of book 1, particularly, is spent following Meg around as she basically learns how to live a normal life. That means a lot of time spent with her sorting mail. And I loved it.

The world I find pretty much as intriguing as I find it disturbing. For starters, I'm not sure if I should read the Terra Indegene as Native North Americans. If I do, it's disturbing because it feels uncomfortably close to the Magical Indian stereotype. If I don't, then it means the entire existence of Native Americans has been erased, which feels even more disturbing.

I also find myself very bothered by the attitude of the Terra Indigene, especially Simon, to humans. Humans other than Meg are called derogatory names ('monkeys', which feels a bit too close to real world racism towards black people), and basically seen as potential food ('clever meat', they actually call humans). The Terra Indigene are very clear that humans are inferior, and really, it often feels like so does the narrative. Although we're periodically told that there are also some bad Terra Indigene, all the villains in this series are human. The lack of empathy to humans does evolve, though, and in later books Simon and others are much better able to see things from the point of view of humans, at least the ones they like.

Really, though, for all that I enjoyed being in this world, it feels like it doesn't bear deep thinking about it. The actions of the evil humans feel a bit unbelievable, too eeeeevil, and other than our small minority of good humans, the rest are like sheep, either willing to swallow anything or not wanting to get involved (hmm, well....).

The imbalance between the power of humans and the Terre Indigene is interesting. At first sight, it shouldn't work. Bishop has made her Terre Indigene so powerful that it is obvious this is not a contest humans have a prayer of winning. So how does she even have a plot and generate a sense of danger and tension? Well, part of it is a bit of handwaving. There's a character who becomes important in the second and third books, a motivational speaker who has huge influence on humans and uses it to create hatred against the Others. Considering how casual the Terre Indigene feel about human lives, it doesn't make sense that they don't just send someone to kill him. It would be extremely easy and easily made to look like natural causes. But they don't, and it makes no sense. On the positive side, though, the main tool Bishop uses to create tension is making it clear that the danger of the situation is to humans. The Terra Indigene will be fine (even if a handful of individuals die), it's humanity in general and the group of humans who are the Courtyard's 'human pack' in particular who are in danger. It works.

In terms of the characterisation, there are several annoyances. Meg is portrayed as childishly innocent and this is equated with purity and goodness. And the other thing that annoys me is the weird cutesiness that permeates the series. A lot of these books is pretty dark, what with what's going on in the world and the violence we see first-hand quite often, but this is mixed in with instances of whimsy that don't really fit in well with the characters or the tone. Even the names of the shops in the Courtyard, like Howling Good Reads and A Little Bite (a café). Am I really supposed to believe Simon and Tess (a truly scary being) named them that?

And yet, all this feels minor in terms of my enjoyment. I keep reading and liking, if not every minute, most of them.


Written in Red: B+

A Murder of Crows: B

Vision in Silver: B-


Li 14 March 2016 at 20:18  

You've pinpointed what bothers me about the world-building, but at the same time, they are very readable!

I am also on the fence about the way cutting is portrayed - just started the fourth book and will see.

Rosario 17 March 2016 at 06:46  

I kind of think of them as the literary equivalent of popcorn! :)

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