Anne Bishop’s The Others series is a little bit odd. There is a lot in the books that is cool, interesting, and different, but I also found parts of the books to be tedious and amateurish. Bishop is not some green writer, so I can only assume that it’s just her style… which makes me hesitant to seek out her other books. I finished out this series because I was sufficiently curious how it would end, but overall I felt that the books didn’t quite live up to the potential of the world-building, and that Bishop made some choices that undermined the impact of the story.
Quickly from the start of the series, you learn the history, the players, and the rules of the world, and the stage is effectively set to understand the unease and instability that permeates it. In short: in this world there are humans, and there are the Others. The humans are mostly mundane i.e. not supernaturally inclined, while the Others are a large and diverse population of terra indigene, a.k.a. “earth natives” with varying abilities that demonstrate their connection to the natural world. Among the terra indigene are the shapeshifters, which have a human form. They are able to interact the most with ordinary humans, but most of them still prefer their animal shapes and feel more kindred with the other earth natives than with the humans. The other, more powerful terra indigene, who live in isolation from humans, are as ancient as the Earth and are feared and respected by humans and the shape-shifters alike. The Others suffer the humans to live because of humans’ propensity for technological ingenuity, and even though the Others are comfortable living off the land, some human inventions are beneficial for everyone. To facilitate peaceable trade, commerce, and communication with humans, the Others have adopted some human systems and institutions, but within their own territory, “Human Laws Do Not Apply.”
This leads to one of my favorite world-building choices: the shape-shifters are more animal than human in a very literal sense. The very common convention in fantasy is that shifters = were-animals, which is to say they are human in origin. As a result, if the shifters in the story are good guys, they generally respect humanity. That’s not so in this series, where the shifters were animals first who evolved a human-appearing form over time. Consequently, the shifters don’t conform to expectations for human behavior and instead maintain their own code of conduct that’s more in-line with their animal instincts. The Others are predators and the humans are prey, and it’s up to humans not to be antagonistic, because the Others are legitimately dangerous and not particularly inclined to be protective and empathetic toward humans just because. Humans are not the de facto heroes in these books, and there is no presumed deference to the value of human life. It’s a somewhat unique angle on a supernatural fantasy story.
With an assist from Goodreads, here are brief plot summaries from the five “core” books in the series (those that feature Meg Corbyn and Simon Wolfgard as main characters.) The summaries and my key thoughts for the later books might contain spoilers for the preceding books.
Written in Red: 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 if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.
This is a solid opener that delivers a lot of necessary background exposition while introducing the characters. It’s a successful hook for the overarching story. It also, unavoidably, introduces some of Bishop’s annoying writing tendencies. The biggest one right off the bat is the faithful documentation of the type of menial details that are usually left out of books because they don’t advance the plot and our brains know how to fill them in anyway. In large sections of the books, the writing just sounds like a police report or court document. It’s hard to make up a short example of what I mean, because the problem isn’t just a few overly detailed sentences here and there, but rather that this stuff makes up significant portions of the book(s).
Imagine that Meg needs to relay some information to Simon, but she doesn’t know where he is. Also, this information isn’t time-sensitive, so there’s no tension or excitement to be gained from her searching for him with increasing urgency. Generally, in these low-stakes situations, you’d get an abbreviated account of this, like “after asking around for his whereabouts, Meg found Simon near the Wolfgard complex and shared what she had learned.” But Bishop will give you the unabridged version where you get to drive around with Meg in real-time while she encounters into other members of the Courtyard and has conversations with each of them, in which they inevitably ask how she’s doing and she reassures them that she’s fine, before asking if they know where Simon is. Some of them will say they don’t know, but the whole conversation was recorded for due diligence. Oh and by the way, you’re also treated to Google Maps-like precision on the layout of the Courtyard and the turns that Meg is taking to go from place to place. And then when she finally gets to Simon, she lays out the information exactly as she realized it herself, so as a reader you get to learn the information as if it were new twice. This isn’t a real example, but it’s my honest impression of the amount of filler in all of these books.
Murder of Crows: After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.
The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard – Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader – wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.
As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now, the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet – and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.
Vision in Silver: The Others freed the cassandra sangue to protect the blood prophets from exploitation, not realizing their actions would have dire consequences. Now the fragile seers are in greater danger than ever before; both from their own weaknesses and from those who seek to control their divinations for wicked purposes. In desperate need of answers, Simon Wolfgard, a shape-shifter leader among the Others, has no choice but to enlist blood prophet Meg Corbyn’s help, regardless of the risks she faces by aiding him.
Meg is still deep in the throes of her addiction to the euphoria she feels when she cuts and speaks prophecy. She knows each slice of her blade tempts death. But Others and humans alike need answers, and her visions may be Simon’s only hope of ending the conflict.
For the shadows of war are deepening across the Atlantik, and the prejudice of a fanatic faction is threatening to bring the battle right to Meg and Simon’s doorstep…
With Meg now being a favored member of the Courtyard who the Others value and want to protect, the books start to focus a bit more on the interpersonal relationship between Meg and Simon, and their difficulties in communication that result from his being a wolf, and her lacking a normal human upbringing. In highlighting the problems they encounter stemming from these backgrounds, Bishop reveals yet another of her quirks. There are certain phrases and concepts she repeats over and over throughout, either verbatim or close enough to it to count. It’s impossible for her to seemingly ever write a scene where Simon thinks over his interactions with Meg, without including the reminder that “He was not human, could never be human.” One particularly dangerous terra indigene, Tess, can basically express her emotional threat level via her changing hair color, so guess what status update we get whenever she’s around? There’s also a recurring motif of “humorous” misunderstandings where the shifters rationalize classic sexist stereotypes as they blunder their way through trying to understand human women. This is all so that the story can build toward solving the crucial dilemma of how humans and the terra indigene can truly live communally together, by illustrating the pressure points in the process. But it was just really superficially and repetitively handled.
Across the second and third books, I was also completely vexed by the pacing. I still feel like I haven’t adequately explained how weird the writing is about this. I’ve enjoyed just fine plenty of books that are heavy on background detail, as well as those where the logistics and planning were key features of the plot. But this series distinguishes itself with its loyalty to the banal. It’s not that things aren’t happening, but Bishop’s writing style often prioritizes rote miscellany over actual plot points. You have a series about a young woman who can speak prophesy in the midst of escalating conflict between humans and supernaturally-powered earth natives, but if you want to know how that’s actually going, you have to wait, because first you’re going to go on Meg’s mail delivery runs with her every day. And then there’s the blink-and-you-miss-it critical event at the end of Murder of Crows, where the shifters mount a rescue of the blood prophets from their prison. The whole book builds up to it — albeit in fits and starts — and then it’s just done and over, just like that. The consequences are eventually laid out in Vision in Silver, but how do you just spend your whole book gathering intel and putting the pieces in place to execute a plan of the utmost importance, and then completely whiff on the suspense and energy from the plan being executed?
Marked in Flesh: Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.
But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…
The biggest problem, which I believe drives all of my issues with the previous books and finally crystallized after finishing this one, is that ultimately, the Lakeside Courtyard is the ideal model and test case for a collaborative community between humans and terra indigene, a fact which is not lost on the Elder terra indigene. That means our Lakeside protagonists are functionally already perfect for what the story needs them to be. That doesn’t mean they already have everything figured out, but as a group, they have the right disposition. In essence, these are not characters that are very complex and layered, or that need to develop much over the course of the series. Even Meg, who has the most obvious transformation as she must rapidly adapt to the larger world outside of the blood prophet compound, is comfortably coddled by the Courtyard members and faces few personal challenges that define her growth as a character. Also, the Lakesiders are only drawn into conflict when it’s brought directly to them by external sources, so this is otherwise a group who are pretty happy with their own status quo. And when conflict arises, they’re diplomats. They work well with each other of course, but they also actively aspire to represent their community to outside humans in the best light. So even though the shifters are more than capable of defending themselves and being intimidating, they choose to project an image of peace and cooperation. All of that goes to say that what ends up transpiring across 4 books is a war that takes place in the background, while our characters sit around and do their administrative jobs, take phone calls and have meetings about how shitty the rest of the world is, and only occasionally intervene when they’re directly provoked. At the end of Marked in Flesh, you know what happens? The Elder terra indigene wipe out most of the human population on the planet. You know how much impact that has? Practically none, because none of the the Lakeside Courtyard members and allies were involved, so no one you care about was in any danger and you can write the rest off as shitty humans getting their comeuppance. The protagonists were protected so they could be left alone to keep doing exactly what they were doing before. So this huge event that the entire series built to so far was just handled off-page while our characters were sleeping. What’s left to write about?
Etched in Bone: After a human uprising was brutally put down by the Elders—a primitive and lethal form of the Others—the few cities left under human control are far-flung. And the people within them now know to fear the no-man’s-land beyond their borders—and the darkness…
As some communities struggle to rebuild, Lakeside Courtyard has emerged relatively unscathed, though Simon Wolfgard, its wolf shifter leader, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn must work with the human pack to maintain the fragile peace. But all their efforts are threatened when Lieutenant Montgomery’s shady brother arrives, looking for a free ride and easy pickings.
With the humans on guard against one of their own, tensions rise, drawing the attention of the Elders, who are curious about the effect such an insignificant predator can have on a pack. But Meg knows the dangers, for she has seen in the cards how it will all end—with her standing beside a grave.
This was just a huge mistake of a series ender. I can’t fathom what Bishop was thinking. The big war is over, but the book still needed a villain, so since we’ve already established that everyone in Lakeside is great and everyone who is not great is dead, she brings in a total random to stir the pot. And this guy is just the poorest excuse of a bad guy. He’s a complete cliche and hardly manages to be effectively menacing because he is so stupid and obvious that you literally do not believe that he’ll actually get away with any of his asinine schemes. So of course when he’s actually able to kidnap Meg for a minute, the only reason why that was even possible was because somehow the entire Courtyard of shifters — all of whom, we’re lead to believe, keep a close eye on Meg at all times — lost track of her for long enough to get her shoved in his trunk. It’s just dumb, and the reasons for him even being in Lakeside are dumb, and the reasons for him being allowed to stay in Lakeside when he’s so cartoonishly evil are the dumbest of all. Honestly, forget this book even happened because it was nonsense.
I probably don’t have too much left to say here to wrap this whole thing up. Obviously this series was really not for me, but I appreciate that the audiobooks were available without a wait, which made them easy to buzz through on my commute. I wish it all had been written very differently, but I’m not a bestselling author so what do I know.