Let’s take a little break from our irregularly scheduled blog updates for a Quick Read, because why not.
Over the course of the last few years I’ve accidentally stumbled into a very particular niche– reading bad books with wizards in them– but there’s so much more out there to take in. Like YA novels! What’s going on with them lately?
The influence of The Hunger Games (and through it, Twilight) is waning further and further with each passing year, but there are still Hunger Games-like elements at play, only now they’re mixing with other stuff in odd ways. I’ve recently noticed an uptick in dystopian fantasy stories, and today we’re going to look at a prominent example in the form of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen.
First, the cover. It’s… kind of strange. I like the basic idea, but the fact that the crown is upside-down bothers me. And the tagline is as generic as can be, which doesn’t bode well.
I hate First Friday. It makes the village crowded, and now, in the heat of high summer, that’s the last thing anyone wants. From my place in the shade it isn’t so bad, but the stink of bodies, all sweating with the morning work, is enough to make milk curdle. The air shimmers with heat and humidity, and even the puddles from yesterday’s storm are hot, swirling with rainbow streaks of oil and grease.
Pretty good, as far as opening paragraphs go. It sets the scene quite well. Note also that the author has supposedly committed a cardinal writing sin by not Starting With Action, and yet the universe didn’t collapse in on itself. How about that.
Our heroine steals some stuff as the markets are closing down, although oddly we don’t learn what exactly she took except for an apple and “trinkets”. What are trinkets? Are they valuables? Is she going to sell them? Calling them trinkets gives the impression that they’re not worth much, which in turns makes me wonder if the main character is just stealing this stuff for the hell of it. I’m sure that’s not the case, but that’s what I took away from this one vague word choice.
The high, stilt buildings for which the village is named (the Stilts, very original)
Uh oh. Is the main character a snarky sarcastic Joss Whedon-esque quipster? She better not be, I hate quipsters almost as much as I hate twee wizards. At least, in certain circumstances. I get very annoyed when the protagonist’s narration gets all snarky and quippy and Whedon-esque, whereas I can tolerate a certain amount of it in dialogue.
In short order we learn that our main character, Mare Barrow, is on the verge of turning eighteen and can expect to be conscripted into the army to fight against “Lakelanders”, a fate that’s already befallen her three older brothers. So okay, we’ve got some tension right up front, but this part bugged me:
Almost everyone looks forward to the first Friday of each month, when work and school end early. But not me. No, I’d rather be in school, learning nothing in a classroom full of children.
If this area is so poor and people are desperate to find whatever work they can, and Mare has to steal to get by… why is she still in school at the age of seventeen?
You see this a lot in SFF YA novels (The Hunger Games did it) where the protagonists are still going to high school in settings where it makes no sense. Even in the United States, and even relatively recently, it was normal for working class people to finish their schooling young and either get a job or work on a farm if their family owned one. I know people from my parent’s generation who dropped out of secondary school at the age of fourteen to go and work at unskilled labour, and that was seen as completely normal.
(Also, “I’d rather be in school, learning nothing in a classroom full of children” is the approximate equivalent of “I’d rather be in a car, moving at speed along a road” or “I’d rather be on a boat, floating on top of water”).
I didn’t really believe they’d have to go, not until the legionnaire in his polished armor showed up and took them away one after another.
Oh hey I wonder if this speculative culture has a vaguely roman-esque aesthetic. Never saw that before.
And wait, what’s the technology level of this place? The mention of parents getting their children’s uniform buttons back after they die in the war makes me think WWI-ish at least, whereas dudes going around in metal armor dials that estimate back a few millennia. Maybe it’s just some sort of ceremonial outfit, but even still, the word choice is once again confusing.
Mare runs into a smirking dude who is her childhood friend, and shows refreshing signs of not entering into a love triangle with him in the near future.
Which reminds me, so far Mare:
- lives in a poor area
- has a useless mother and a little sister she seems very attached to
- meets her childhood friend while out scrounging for food
- has to watch out for vaguely dystopian “Security officers”
- is dreading an event where she’ll be dragged off to fight to the death
Now granted, the similarities with the Hunger Games are vague, but they’re still present.
But the Silvers love their silk, don’t they?
This world is split into two social strata, with Mare and the other poor people making up the lowly Red caste, dominated by the ruling Silvers. The Silvers have literal silver blood.
Built ten years ago, the arena is easily the largest structure in the Stilts. It’s nothing compared to the colossal ones in the cities, but still, the soaring arches of steel, the thousands of feet of concrete, are enough to make a village girl catch her breath.
Steel and concrete, so we’re definitely in the equivalent of at least the latter half of the 19th century. Mr. Metal Armor must not actually be fighting in the stuff.
The only thing that serves to distinguish us, outwardly at least, is that Silvers stand tall. Our backs are bent by work and unanswered hope and the inevitable disappointment with our lot in life.
This doesn’t really feel like the observation of someone who’s actually living in this society.
All we get are hard benches and a few screechy video screens almost too bright and too noisy to stand.
Oh. Huh. An earlier sentence implied that electric lights were a privilege enjoyed exclusively by the Silvers, which makes the presence of screens seems out of place, technology-wise. Unless this is another Hunger Games scenario where the ruling elite is 100 years more advanced than everywhere else for no apparent reason.
He doesn’t understand what the Feats are about. This isn’t mindless entertainment, meant to give us some respite from grueling work. This is calculated, cold, a message. Only Silvers can fight in the arenas because only a Silver can survive the arena. They fight to show us their strength and power. You are no match for us. We are your betters. We are gods. It’s written in every superhuman blow the champions land.
Sort of a reverse Hunger Games situation, then. I like it, kind of novel.
Mare talks about the different “kinds” of Silvers, and it turns out she wasn’t kidding when she called them superhuman, because some of them straight-up have telekinesis and other psychic powers. Are the Silver X-Men style mutants or something that rose up and took over the world?
Actually, now that I think about it, isn’t this potentially weakening the Silvers in the eyes of the Reds? They’re demonstrating their strength, yes, but they’re also showing the limitations of their abilities and potentially letting people figure out ways to counter them. It would be more effective to keep the Reds believing that the Silvers can do anything.
As calm as I might look, anger boils in my skin. Anger, and jealousy. We are gods, echoes in my head.
Nope, not buying it. The book’s not selling me on Mare’s anger. Paradoxically, the fact that it’s going to such great lengths to highlight that anger is what’s breaking it for me. Mare’s attitude isn’t one born of familiarity with this society; she’s reacting to the Silvers as though she’s only just encountered the idea recently, instead of growing up with them as a constant reality.
Let me give you a scenario to show you what I mean. Assuming you live in a democratic country now, let’s say you were teleported tomorrow into a parallel universe that’s a total autocracy, ruled absolutely by a single leader whose word is law. He’s not necessarily cruel or violent– he doesn’t burn people alive or go around setting fire to villages for the lulz– but it’s a fact of life in this world that the ruler’s soldiers could, if they saw reason to, kick your door down and shoot you in the head right in your own home, and there’s absolutely nothing you or anyone else could do to stop them.
Now you, the newcomer, would probably find this an outrage and a violation of human rights. But if you had lived all your life in this society, would you necessarily see it the same way? Isn’t there a good chance you’d accept it as normal, and just try to keep out of the authorities’ way? Movements for societal change always have to overcome the first step of just convincing people that there’s a problem to begin with, even when the problem is something like slavery or women’s suffrage or child labour that seem obvious to us after the fact.
Mare doesn’t feel like someone who’s lived all her life under the rule of the Silvers. She feels like our hypothetical teleportee from the real world.
Anyway, the big strong guy fights a small skinny guy but the skinny guy totally rocks his socks because it turns out he’s a super-rare and powerful variety of Silver who can use mind control.
In school, we learned about the world before ours, about the angels and gods that lived in the sky, ruling the earth with kind and loving hands.
Ooh. Is this a reference to space colonies or something?
Mare goes home and there’s some family drama over the fact that her parents and sister don’t approve of her stealing, which I’m going to skip over because it’s not terribly interesting.
Before I open the door to the usual chaos, I pat the flag fluttering from the porch. Three red stars on yellowed fabric, one for each brother, and room for more. Room for me. Most houses have flags like this, some with black stripes instead of stars in quiet reminder of dead children.
That’s a pretty interesting bit of world-building, and it creates an evocative image.
Silvers. They’re the only ones rich enough to use private transportation. While they enjoy wheeled transports, pleasure boats, even high-flying airjets, we get nothing more than our own two feet, or a push cycle if we’re lucky.
Okay, what is with the technology level in this world? The descriptions of trench warfare heavily imply– hell, they demand– a firmly WWI analogue, but apparently the Silvers also have what sound like fairly modern planes.
Is this a Hunger Games Capital situation where the Silvers have access to technology centuries greater than everyone else? If so, why wouldn’t they use it in the war? Aerial superiority would completely negate all that trench fighting that they’re throwing their soldiers at.
Most keep their hair short to hide their gray ends but I don’t. I like the reminder that even my hair knows life shouldn’t be this way.
I really hope we get an explanation for why Mare is way more radical than everyone else.
Gisa will achieve what few Reds do and live well. She’ll provide for our parents and give me and my brothers menial jobs to get us out of the war. Gisa is going to save us one day, with nothing more than needle and thread.
She’s totally going to die, isn’t she.
(Also, I’m getting heavy Prim flashbacks from this character even though their personalities aren’t really similar at all)
Later that night smarmy-dude shows up at Mare’s window and reveals that the fisherman he was apprenticed to has died in a sudden accident, and as a result he’s eligible for conscription and will be packed off to the front lines in a week’s time.
Okay, I like that the plot is getting moving, and this is a decent catalyst for drama, but there’s a jarring slipped-on-a-banana-peel quality to the way smarm-lord’s master just has a random fall and kicks the bucket out of nowhere. I feel like his death could have been set up some way in advance, maybe by giving him a pre-existing illness that took a sudden turn for the worse or having him run afoul of the authorities or something.
(And yes, I know that in real life people die all the time in random accidents, but books avoid certain aspects of realism for a reason)
Mare convinces Smarmy that they should make a run for it even though no one’s ever successfully evaded conscription before (which I find hard to believe), and goes to a black-market trader she knows named Will.
Conveniently, there’s some sort of outlaw lady in the back of his wagon who agrees to smuggle Mare and Smarmy to safety for 2000 crowns, which they can’t afford. Mare accepts anyway, and she’s given two days to get the cash together. That night, she asks Gisa for help and they embark on some sort of zany scheme the next day.
So I said I was happy that the plot is moving, but it feels like it’s moving a little too fast. Who was that woman in the back of black-market-dude’s caravan? She basically teleports into the narrative with zero context or explanation. I mean, it’s way better than endless waffling and wheel-spinning, but there is such a thing as going too far in the other direction.
Anyway, the zany scheme involves sailing incognito to Summerton, a town built around the local Silver bigwig’s summer palace, where Gisa goes frequently as part of her apprenticeship.
“It isn’t glass,” Gisa tells me. “Or at least, not entirely. The Silvers discovered a way to heat diamond and mix it with other materials. It’s totally impregnable. Not even a bomb could get through that.”
I might be wrong about this, but I don’t think diamond is actually super tough against things like explosions.
The Hall of the Sun shines like a star, reaching a hundred feet into the air in a twisting mass of spires and bridges. Parts of it darken seemingly at will, to give the occupants privacy.
I can’t tell whether this is super-advanced technology or straight-up magic.
“Move along,” the officer says, gesturing with a lazy wave of the hand. Two young girls are not a threat in his eyes.
Gisa nods in thanks but I don’t. This man doesn’t deserve an ounce of appreciation from me.
Mare’s rebelliousness is starting to get irritating now.
Gisa guides me past a bakery with cakes dusted in gold, a grocer displaying brightly colored fruits I’ve never seen before, and even a menagerie full of wild animals beyond my comprehension. A little girl, Silver judging by her clothes, feeds tiny bits of apple to a spotted, horselike creature with an impossibly long neck. A few streets over, a jewelry store sparkles in every color of the rainbow.
It’s not as over the top as the Capital– the people aren’t dressed in wacky candy-coloured clothes or using cosmetic surgery to make themselves look like furries– but we’re still getting wealth disparity to such a ludicrous degree that it makes me assume the Silvers are just keeping the Reds poor for the lulz.
The chapter ends with Mare about to embark on whatever her mission is, but we’ll pick up with that next time.
So far, not too bad. The story is interesting and the pacing lightning-quick, but the setting is both confused and getting increasingly derivative and I’m not thrilled about Mare as a character. Let’s give it one more post to win me over.