Review: “Etched in Bone,” Anne Bishop

Pros: Warm, whimsical, dark in places, tense
Rating: 5 out of 5

In Anne Bishop’s “The Others” world, humans live at the sufferance of the terra indigene, or earth natives. These include shape-shifters and vampires, among other, less well-understood Elders. In a previous novel, the Humans First and Last movement tried to strike out at the earth natives, and triggered a horrific reprisal that shattered many human settlements. In Etched in Bone (A Novel of the Others), the humans are still on thin ice. A couple of Elders have come to the Lakeside Courtyard to watch the interactions between earth natives and humans in order to figure out which humans–if any–can be trusted. When Lieutenant Montgomery’s good-for-nothing brother Cyrus comes to the Courtyard expecting free handouts from Monty and their sister Sierra, the earth natives would be happy to run him off. Unfortunately, the Elders feel differently. They want to understand what makes certain humans dangerous, and they believe this is their chance. They tell Simon that if he doesn’t allow Cyrus to stay, they’ll have to default to killing off those humans who are trying to travel between settlements. Unfortunately Cyrus has Sierra under his thumb, and he’s determined to find some way to get what he feels he’s entitled to.

I love the world-building in here. The idea of a somewhat post-apocalyptic world in which humans have been isolated and are no longer the rulers of the world is fascinating. They survive in part because the terra indigene want goods that the humans have an easier time producing. There are also a couple of ‘types’ of humans who are sort of bridges between the earth natives and the humans. One are the Intuits, who have a sort of hunch-based almost-prophetic ability. The other are the blood prophets like Meg, who truly can see the future. Because of the Courtyard’s interactions with Meg, who fled to them for protection, they’ve become willing to interact with certain humans, and try to learn to live in harmony with them. However, this doesn’t stop them from seeing those humans who cross them as prey.

There’s also a fair amount of society-building going on. The Courtyard is finding the best ways to integrate certain human allies into their world. One of the things that gets explored in detail is really the question of what do you do when there’s someone who doesn’t have the full abilities or faculties of a normal functioning member of society? Both Meg and Sierra have their own sort-of addictions. For Meg, it’s the euphoria that comes from cutting to release prophecies. For Sierra it’s the siren call of trying to get Cyrus’s approval, even if it means her own kids go hungry because she’s given him her limited food rations. The earth natives support Meg because she’s working hard to overcome her disability, and does as much work as she can within her abilities. In fact, sometimes they have to remind her to cut back a little because no, she really can’t keep up with a ‘normal’ person. But while they give Sierra a number of opportunities to shape up and do better, when she allows her own addiction to take over her life and cause her to do bad things they run out of patience. There’s also a fair amount of exploration regarding fair working conditions and payment (for instance, the humans working at the Courtyard are paid a set amount, and have a certain allowance they’re allowed to use up at the stores, such as the food-related storefronts). It’s a fascinating look at how people support themselves and each other, and I wish all disabled people in our world had the opportunities and support network that Meg has.

“I don’t want to be the one who can’t cope with something that is easy for everyone else to do.”

Cyrus’s schemes only get worse and worse, and it won’t take long before the locals seriously regret the fact that they’ve been forced to keep him around. The situation gets very tense, especially when he finds out what Meg can do and how valuable she is. Note that while there’s no explicit sex, there is adult content, some of it a little dark.

We get to see Simon and Meg’s relationship evolve a bit as the two of them try to figure out whether they’re romantically inclined toward each other or not. It’s a nice setup that’s unusual to see in relationship fiction. Normally the interest is the one thing that isn’t in question, and in this case neither person truly understands what it means to be romantically interested in another, and they have to figure out their own feelings on the matter.

The humor is whimsical and quirky and there’s a certain warmth to the story, despite the family drama and the sometimes-dark events. I really love this series and this is a great entry in it.

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