The Others series by Anne Bishop; a series overview covering the first five books, with brief mention of the spin-off Lake Silence. Spoilers abound.
In broad terms, this is an urban fantasy series that descends into fantasy territory as it goes on, with the final books taking the worldbuilding to its devastating conclusions.
In specific terms, the Others is about a world where there is a second kind of sentient species on earth, and it’s always been there: terra indiginae. The Others. They’re predators who shapeshift and basically have a dozen+ variants. At their most primal forms, they’re elementals who control fire, air, etc. At their least primal they’re werewolves who can become recognizably human. This species has coexisted with humanity since the beginning, but not in a nice way – they regularly eat humans, and basically curtail human expansion. To this end, we get a modern world with a 90s vibe except that everything is off in interesting (and problematic) ways.
I’ll address the problematic elements upfront: the series concept opens by erasing native americans, it proceeds to have zero diversity, and the sexism starts invisible but gets steadily worse with gender stereotypes. There is also a magical kind of human that is addicted to self-harm and cutting, as that’s how they activate their powers. As for trigger warnings, there is non-graphic rape, child abuse, violence, threatened rape, and such. The villains in this book are nasty.
The story opens in 90s not-America (called Thasia) where humans have bargained with the Others for permission to live on and develop the land. To this end there are cities and railroads linking them, and even email connecting settlements.
Our heroine, Meg, has escaped from a laboratory-prison facility and escaped to one of these cities. She’s a special variant of human called a blood prophet, which means that she sees visions of the future when she bleeds – and given how valuable a skill that is, she was imprisoned for it since she was a child. So she’s your classic fish out of water protagonist, as she has zero experience with the outside world. In the opening scenes of the book she stumbles upon the Others’ Courtyard, which is essentially an embassy – human law doesn’t apply here. This is where humans come to talk to the Others about renewing permission to live on the land and other issues.
Given that Meg’s terrified of being captured and sent back to her cell, she finds the posted signs that the law doesn’t apply here reassuring, and she quickly finds a help wanted poster and signs up to become the Human Liason for the Courtyard. What this actually means is that she’s the local mailperson and responsible for receiving the mail from humans and delivering it to the various apartment complexes in the Courtyards. This sets her up in the perfect position to witness all of the plot for the rest of the books, as she gets to know everyone in the Courtyard.
Turning to our hero now: Simon Wolfgard. He’s a werewolf, in case you couldn’t tell. He’s the appointed leader of this specific Courtyard and responsible for making sure it runs smoothly and that the humans don’t get out of hand and trespass in places they shouldn’t, and such. He is your classic alpha male, in every sense of the word: he’s a bully, he’s overprotective of who he considers to be his, he’s terrible at understanding emotions, he’s powerful (and hot), and because he’s one of the Others, he eats humans on the regular. Meg, upon meeting him as her boss, decides very quickly to be good at her job so she doesn’t have to deal with this terrifying jerk very often.
Yeah, by the end of the series they’re in love. I know. I know.
Fortunately for all of us, it’s a very slow burn. This is where opinions will vary: I personally thought the author didn’t write very good chemistry between the two of them, but I know keikii loves them as a couple. Either way, it’s slow, believable development.
Right, plot! Most of the first book is really pleasant slice of life as Meg settles into life at the Courtyard and gets to know everyone. She charms the local ancient vampire, befriends the element of Winter, and has a really sweet arc where she helps a traumatized werewolf kid learn to live again. See, his mom was shot by humans last year and he’s been in wolf form ever since, a terrified puppy. His uncle Simon (our hero) absolutely sucks at taking care of him, so when he asks Meg to take over, she uses basic human kindness and patience to help this kid out of the black. It’s easily the best sequence in the entire series for a multitude of reasons, and it has a happy ending.
As for the main plot – aka the bits that lead to an action-y finale – well, humans are jerks. There are two main prongs here: first, our third protagonist, Monty. Monty is a human cop, one recently transferred to the city. He’s assigned to be on liason duty with the Courtyard, and becomes the main point of contact between the Others and the humans living in the city. He’s a good guy, in that he’s scared by Others and wants to be sure humans can coexist with them so no one gets eaten. He’ll be a constant through the entire series, but in the first book he’s mostly there to help develop the human side of things.
The other prong of the plot is that Meg escaped, and her captors want her back. Reports of a thief with a description of Meg are sent to all the police stations in the region, and when that doesn’t work, things escalate into kidnapping manuevers and worse. This isn’t resolved in the first book, by the way – the main villain who wants Meg back only begins to get looked at in the second book. So the first major threat here is a woman named Asia Crane (yeah, I know) – she’s a wannabe spy, sent here to investigate the Courtyard just for general information for mysterious backers. Then word that Meg escaped gets out, and she turns her spying into finding out how to best support capturing Meg and sending her home. You’ll quickly discover that she has the defining features of the author’s villains: dumb as a brick, completely unsympathetic, and evil to the gills. At no point in any of Asia’s POV chapters do you get to actually like her, because she’s driven purely by greed and doesn’t want to understand the Others, only get information out of them.
This is going to be a weird point about this entire series: not a single one of the villains are likeable or complex or anything. They are 2D caricatures of villains, existing only as obstacles for the Others to eat so Meg can be happy. This starts out kind of charming, because it’s nice to read a straight good/evil story…but.
Alright, before I get into my problems with this series lemme do a quick sketch of the plot beyond the first books.
Once the first book is over, the plot shifts to look at the effects of the Humans First and Last movement. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a hate group. Members of HFL believe that Others are vermin, that humans should have unopposed ownership of the Earth, and anyone who sides with the Others is against them. And here is where I really want to praise these novels, because the evolution of this hate movement and how it infiltrates and then takes over a society is effective. It starts slow, with just whispers, but it turns into people wearing HFL pins. It turns into workplaces demanding that their workers join the HFL or be fired. It turns into anyone who isn’t HFL having their homes vandalized. Acts of random violence increase, fear becomes the rule, and the Courtyard has to become a shelter for their human employees, to the point that some humans have to live there permanently or be killed.
I. love. this.
I love how it’s so believable and terrifying and recognizeable. I’m writing from America 2019 and I’ve seen the spread of islamophobia, anti-semitism, racism, homophobia. So far we haven’t descended to those depths, but history has plenty of examples and seeing a story unflinchingly show what this kind of hate can do is powerful.
Shame it’s wasted on the Others. Because yeah. Okay. In the build-up, as the HFL spreads, for roughly four books (1-4) you’re treated to seeing how HFL infects society and harms people. The Others can’t do anything about this, because eating every HFL member would mean basically eating the entire human population and they’re not ready to do that.
Then we find out that the HFL movement has erupted into actual warfare in not-Europe, and now they’re ready to eat everyone. In book 4, not-Europe is basically turned into a blasted hellscape, is partially underground, and all human travel there is forbidden. not-America gets to live, but I want to say that at least half of its cities and settlements get destroyed. It’s an apocalypse event, in short, and society is forced to regress.
Book 5, the final book in the main sequence, is a low-stakes novel where Meg and Simon finally hook up and the author spends a lot of time lavishing detail on how society works now.
I think I’m ready to talk about why I have problems with these novels. There’s a lot to them, and while I adore the main thrust of watching a hate group take over a society and then an apocalypse event, the rest of the details all fall apart.
First off: the Others start off by seeming alien and animal, but as the series goes on they all become human except for a few quirks. This is a problem in most fiction featuring monsters, but here it’s especially frustrating because they start off pretty damn scary.
Second: Meg. She’s both fascinating and frustrating. Blood prophets have problems with self-harm (they’re addicted to it) and adjusting to change. They’re definitely not neurotypical, and Meg is a great example of a character who needs different care. Schedules are important to her, and a lot of the series is devoted to helping her find out how to control her cutting so she doesn’t hurt herself or cut too often. This is all solid character work, so I don’t mind that. What I do mind is that she essentially becomes the most important person in the universe, with literally all of the Others deciding that she’s important and then doing anything to protect her. If she wants something, they get it for her. If she has an enemy, they get rid of it. This is…frustrating as their undying loyalty for her comes out of nowhere and is never discussed or explored. It’s just a fact established in book 1: Meg is queen of the universe, the end.
So because she’s protected by the Others, they basically become predators who can do no wrong ever. They only eat bad people, they never quabble amongst themselves except in minor ways, and there is zero mystery about them after the first few books. There’s a lot of discussion about how much they should adapt to humanity, and if they should keep humans, but in the end it’s moot: they will do anything to protect Meg, including keeping her favorite humans around. They will kill the bad humans. The end, no nuance.
No nuance really is my problem with these books, because outside of the depiction of HFL and helping blood prophets learn to care for themselves, there’s no nuance. The good guys have solutions for every problem, there’s nothing they need to really think about or dissect, and evem after the apocalypse you can see the author basically having fun designing her perfect small-town community kind of society.
Third: Anne Bishop is in her sixties and it shows. There’s a fetishization for small town communities and conservative values. Cities are where humans go to forget the Others exist and thus become willing to believe that they aren’t scary, and cities are also where people go to become prostitutes (gasp!) or sell weed (GASP) or otherwise become evil. Small towns where everyone knows everybody else means that the community will help everyone out, they’ll gang up against evil outsiders, and so on. This extends into sexism as well – if a woman is unmarried there are assumptions that she needs to find a man. Men are protectors, women are caretakers – but writ large. The only aggressive, forward-thinking woman who wants more for herself than getting married is Asia Crane, and she’s dead by the end of book one.
You will be initially fooled into thinking the sexism isn’t that bad, as Meg lives in her own apartment and is pretty forward about getting what she wants, but… she doesn’t live alone, because the Others can hear anything that happens in her home. And because she’s queen of the universe, the Others also help her get whatever she wants, and it’s never anything that threatens their authority. Other women in the series are either teachers, nurses, or employees of the local bookstore. There isn’t a single female cop until book five, when there’s a world-shaking event where the Others force the local cops to accept a woman in their ranks – and even this is handled in the most ham-handed way. She’s a novelty, not a person.
There’s also this profoundly stupid running “gag” where not a single man in the entire series can talk about a woman’s period without having to use euphemisms and act embarrassed. Are they stocking up on products for winter in case there’s a shortage? Better ask Meg carefully if she needs, ah, feminine products. Oh, and be careful in case she gets angry! This also ties into how Meg and her friends will scare off her werewolf bodyguard by telling him that they’re talking “girl talk” and just… it’s so immature. Bad stereotypes written to be funny and it grosses me out.
Four: A quick but important complaint: villains in this series are stupid. The Others constantly eat humans. They demonstrate throughout history and in on-screen events that they will kill anyone who angers them. The HFL movement should not have had the legs it had, and literally every villain in the series just believes that the Others aren’t that bad, really. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary in front of them. It goes back to how there’s no nuance – because the good guys are so obviously good, and their values so sensible, anyone bad must be willfully blind in order to do bad, right? Right! Sigh.
So if I have all these problems with these books, why did I read them? Because they’re page-turners! Even when I was tuning into my bookchat to complain about things every ten pages, I was still constantly reading, to the tune of 200-300 pages a day, which is a lot for me! I could not put these down, and had a lot of fun with them until the problems became so glaring I couldn’t ignore them.
If you’re interested in reading these, I’d cheerfully recommend the first four. Meg and her devoted protectors are fun, the villains are evil and it’s fun watching them get squished. The hate group movement is chilling, and the Others’ reaction to it fascinating. But for the love of god stop there. Book five has little to no plot, and book six – a spin-off named Lake Silence – is one of the worst books I’ve ever read, with all of the bad things about these books amped up to eleven with all of the good bits removed. It’s so bad I don’t know if I even want to read the other spin-off, because at this point the charm is completely gone. But definitely look at book 1, as it’s a lot of fun.