Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red by Anne BishopWritten in Red by Anne Bishop
Narrator: Alexandra Harris
Series: The Others #1
Published by Penguin Audio on 3/5/13
Genres: Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Story: A-
Narration: C

Quick Review:

An excellent story with a new twist on werewolf/vampire origins, vibrant characters, intriguing world-building, and very good pacing make this a highly recommended read. The narration, however, was something of a challenge for me.

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed this story immensely; so much so that I ended up buying a copy of the e-book with the intent to revisit the intriguing world of the terra indigene. The prologue gives a short snippet of how humans and the Others found themselves coexisting in Thaisia and I was immediately wrapped up in thoughts of an alternate history where colonists landed on the coast of what I picture as North America (given the references to the Great Lakes and Sparkletown in the west where movies are made) and, à la the Roanoke Colony, disappeared. Subsequent settlers encountered the powerful natives who viewed them as prey but they were eventually able to bargain with them for small plots of land and access to natural resources in exchange for the goods and technology human ingenuity could produce.

The natives learned to assume a human shape and moved between that and their natural forms which were generally either an animal form or, in the case of the Sanguinati, a mist-like form that can draw blood through the skin of its prey. That was a refreshing world-building perspective for the origin of werewolves and vampires. More frightening than the Others whom the humans interact with, however, are the elemental powers that dwell in the heart of the terra indigene lands.

When Meg Corbyn stumbles into the Courtyard, shivering and under-dressed for the winter weather, the first person she encounters is Simon Wolfgard – leader of the Others in Lakeside. Simon is considered progressive among his kind. Human settlements often have a Courtyard – a large area of land off-limits to humans where the Others live and can keep an eye on their human “tenants” – but Simon has set up a shopping area where humans are permitted and interaction between the races takes place. Gruff and growly Simon reluctantly agrees to hire Meg for the job of Human Liaison and timid, on-the-run Meg thinks she’s finally found a place where she can hide from the powerful consortium who kept her enslaved in order to use her abilities as a cassandra sangue or blood prophet.

At this point, I was pretty sure I had a handle on how this story was going to be constructed and although I did slide into the story like I was pulling on a familiar and comfy sweater, I didn’t get too far into it before I realized someone had turned my monochromatic wardrobe into something brilliantly colored and patterned and I couldn’t stop reading.

Simon is confused by his urge to care for, rather than hunt, Meg. She doesn’t smell like prey so in his confusion he snaps and snarls at her at every turn. Meg is something of a tabula rasa, holding only a limited set of visual and auditory experiences that were provided to her via media by her Controller in order to give her just enough experience of the world to prophesy and, in theory, not enough to enable her to successfully escape and evade imprisonment. As a character, this made her an interesting foil for the community of Others she is surrounded by. The contrast between the predatory and powerful terra indigene and the very young-seeming and innocent Meg is a dynamic that worked to strengthen and ground the characters of the various Others that Meg is surrounded by. It was almost as if her naïveté and inexperience set her up as a negative space that ends up defining the shapes (characters) surrounding her and allowing the reader to see them more clearly and in more detail.

The point of contrast that I was less satisfied with was the ingenue/femme fatale dichotomy of Meg vs. Asia Crane. Asia has been hanging around the Courtyard and trying to pique Simon’s interest. Her real goal is to star in her own TV show and in order to achieve that, she’s taken on the job of infiltrating the Courtyard to learn more about the Others on behalf of a shadowy figure in Sparkletown she calls the “Bigwig.” Her manipulative, jaded, sleep-with-someone-to-get-what-she-wants personality was such a contrast to the innocence of Meg that it made her seem overdone as a character and villain.

All of that doesn’t mean Meg is a weak or unfinished character. She may be unworldly and somewhat fearful but she does stand up to Simon when it’s important and her struggle with her itching need to prophesy when she senses danger might be near is affecting. Given how very young and stressed she seemed, I was actually slightly uncomfortable being an observer to her process of cutting herself to bring on a vision and the pleasure/pain combination this engendered in a cassandra sangue.

Providing a completely human perspective on life in Thaisia among the Others is Lieutenant “Monty” Montgomery. Monty has been transferred from the big city of Toland to podunk Lakeside in disgrace. His new captain makes him the intermediary between the police and the Others. Through his eyes we learn how the Others handle trespassers (hint: they eat them), how humans generally view the Others, and exactly how much control the terra indigene can exert on the human settlements if the whim strikes them. Monty is a well-developed and interesting character but really, my main comment about him at the moment (if you’ve read the book) is a question: why on earth is his daughter’s name Lizzy Borden?

There were a double handful of supporting characters and every one of them was an integral part of the story. As they wove their way in and out of the story, I never begrudged them page-time in favor of more Meg or Simon. Meg ends up baby-sitting Simon’s nephew, Sam, who was traumatized when his mother was killed by humans when she and Sam were out for a run. Meg and Sam are simply adorable together. The scenes where some combination of Simon, Meg, Sam, or Nathan (another Wolfgard member) engaged in playtime or Meg was introducing them to the delights of dog snacks and dog beds were very amusing. The nosy and acquisitive nature of the members of the Crowgard clan who keep an eye on Meg was another humorous aspect of the book that nicely rounded out the story.

Great characters, interesting world-building, a nice blend of humor and tension, and a well-paced and satisfyingly dramatic ending with a wrap-up that left me looking forward to finding out what’s next in the world of the Others make this a recommended read in text form.

The Narration:

As a performer, Alexandra Harris has a very pleasing voice. In addition to that, she created a voice for Meg that was nicely youthful and she did a very good job vocally reflecting the character’s lack of worldliness . Her voice for Sam was also well done and she’s one of the better narrators I’ve listened to in terms of delivering a believable child’s voice. She then deftly ages her voice for the character of Erebus in such a way as to immediately convey both his position as the oldest of the Sanguinati and his unimaginable power.

On the whole, though, I had a very difficult time engaging with the narration of this audiobook. My initial thought was that I was being read to rather than being so drawn into the story that I lost awareness of the narrator but I kept rejecting that thought. After all, there was very good voice differentiation and the narrative section was performed differently than dialogue (both critical factors in preventing a “you’re reading not narrating” impression) so why should I feel like I was being read to? As the book progressed though, I returned again and again to that initial analysis and here’s what it boiled down to for me: the combination of very deliberate enunciation, single-speed pacing, and a tendency toward artificial inflection intended to mimic emotion rather than express something actually felt prevented me from enjoying the audio.

Deliberate enunciation: being able to understand the narrator is critical but rather than leveraging the performance marker of chewing the syntax to highlight the author’s intent, the way in which the story was deliberately and precisely spoken was reminiscent of how a reader might slow down and speak very clearly and with simplified dramatization when reading to a child. That had a secondary effect of making me feel like this book was distinctly young adult or even middle grade…which it isn’t at all. (Not to mention the YA audiobooks I’ve listened to have all had the same presentation as “adult” books.)

Single speed pacing: the unwavering consistency in pacing made the humor that’s sprinkled throughout the book fall flat because there was nothing to lift it out of the surrounding lines. On the other end of the spectrum, even the occasional use of the word “fuck” by a character – something that usually stands out because of its placement as an emphatic pejorative – was rolled into the sentence as if it was just any random noun or adverb. As events were progressing (theoretically) at a fast and furious pace as they reached the climax of the book, the narrative pacing didn’t appropriately reflect that forward motion and it also made transitions between scenes invisible, leaving me momentarily confused when we switched days/characters/locations.

Artificial inflections: the performance marker of Emphasis (to paraphrase producer Paul Ruben who defined the performance markers I keep in mind when reviewing) asks the listener ‘is the emphasis in the delivery emerging from an immediate discovery of the events taking place and so is organic (natural) or is the emphasis modulated (forced) in order to “juice” the narration?’ I doubt the narrator is consciously trying to punch the narration up but the delivery doesn’t strike me as organic. It holds a more intentional tone that might be better suited to voiceover delivery. Character voices had much more vibrancy and a somewhat more organic flow (as, of course, they should) but I still felt a dissonance with natural speech patterns and completely realistic expression of emotions.

While the author’s text is the heart of the story, a strong narration of the audiobook version can do amazing things in terms of enhancing the reader’s experience with a book. Unfortunately, the narration detracted from the text for me and made it a lesser experience that I might have wished.

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from Peguin Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com
 
three-half-stars

Comments

  1. I’ve noticed this extremely careful enunciation into the microphone a few times too, but I think mostly at the beginning of the audiobook, not all the way through. Now I’m not sure if the reader loosened up as the book went on or if I got used to it and stopped noticing!

    • I’ve had that experience more than once as well. I’ve heard performances where you can tell the narrator is relaxing into their delivery as the book progresses. Other times, what they bring to the table in terms of story-telling and just becoming each character makes any niggle about persistently careful enunciation simply fade away.

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