IN SIX WORDS: Derivative, bland, unlikeable protagonist, slow, ineloquent.
I don’t like giving up on books. I always try to read as much as I can, to push through to the end, to try and find some positive element. I simply can’t put myself through more of this. Every time I try to pick up Victoria Aveyard’s 2015 debut Red Queen, I manage two pages on my Kindle before I have to put it down, take a deep breath, drink some tea and cleanse my brain with a short story of Bardugo’s or a chapter of Tolkien. I think part of what did me in was the hype. Hype can be such a killer. This sounded like it was going to be a fast-paced story, imbued with politics and societal musings while retaining the excitement and drama of YA along with intriguing world building. Y’know, like The Hunger Games, except with cool magic. Alas, this isn’t at all what it turned out to be. I don’t know if it’s my own standards on YA Fantasy, but I just want a good story with good characters and a good world. I didn’t get that here.
The premise is a world populated by a society split in two – the elite class of Silvers, who have various superhuman abilities (such as telekinesis, manipulating natural elements etc) and the slave class of Reds. Already, this isn’t a particularly interesting system, nothing foreign to your standard dystopia. I’ve never been a fan of such distinct half-and-half societies in any case. Still, there was potential to really delve into interesting social dynamics beyond the cut-and-dry oppression and resultant rebellion, particularly since the MC ends up deep in the enemy camp. It never came to light. The world building in general was painfully bland. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think that calling for more than the bare bones in a fantasy novel is a tall order. I couldn’t get a feel for the world, for the people in it, for the lives they led, beyond the general ‘we are poor and work while the rich live lavishly and spend money’. Okay, but how? Why? What brought them to this place? Even a character with little education should know enough to give the reader a better taste of these question before they’re (hopefully) revealed later on.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel for or envision anyone or anything in this book at all.
My main problem is Mare. I think she’s the main problem for most people, going by other reviews, but I’m going to reiterate what a negative, unsympathetic nuisance she is. Don’t get me wrong, downtrodden characters can be incredibly compelling when written well. There’s a reason I loved Katniss Everdeen, at least in the first book of The Hunger Games – there was a deeper element to her character, and you saw it right off the bat with how deeply she cared for Prim. I just do not see this in Mare. I just loathed her narration, and loathed her as a person.
– Her opinions of her ‘friends’ (honestly, I don’t know how one can even consider Kilorn a friend after that doleful monologue she gave describing their history)
– Her perfunctory relations with her family (because they didn’t feel like anything more than that)
– Her incessantly selfish nature (with no inherent quality to redeem an otherwise perfectly understandable element of her character)
– Her attitude – was it meant to be spunk? – was little more than abrasive and unnecessary.
When an MC does that to you within the first few pages, and there’s neither worldbuilding nor good prose nor other exciting characters to hook you in further, you know you’re close to doomed. I also wouldn’t have commented on her name at all – name your characters what you like as long as you’re conservative with apostrophes – but since my friend called Mare Barrow a “farm lexicon”, I had to share that impeccable description.
As far as others go, I knew the moment Evangeline was introduced she would be the bitchy side-character who would for sure resurface later to make poor lil MC’s life a living high school hell. Cal was an utter bore as well – we spent a scene with him and I still have a negligible opinion on his character.
The plot helps nothing. It’s slow. It meanders in such a way that you don’t really know where the story is. Whenever you think the inciting incident is going to be that one, it isn’t. It takes so long for her to even be in the vicinity of the place in which she can accidentally reveal her powers, and then next thing you know she’s dolled up as a princess and set to marry one of the princes and be under observation by the silvers etc. The scenario is just so contrived given all the pages of (non)action that took place before it. The predictability is astonishing. It is highly possible to take well-trodden tropes and turn them on their heads rather than resorting to pulpy retellings of the same melodrama. It’s just not done here.
My eyes betray me, flying to Cal. A princess must marry a prince.
I always make a note of what line made me DNF a book, and this was what had me shutting off my Kindle at 22%. Romance can be done wonderfully. Romance can be perfectly woven into a story that by rights seems like it wants to focus on rebellion and war and social injustice. With that one line though, I could already see cloying romance and manufactured angst on the horizon, if I hadn’t suspected it before. The interaction between the characters was already unwieldy and unpleasant to read. I can’t imagine a romance.
In actual fact I did limp on a few hours later, skimming for the sake of ending of the chapter, but it was so blah I can hardly consider it as ‘read’. Even the brief description of Maven which lifted a tiny little hair of interest was very quickly snipped away by Mare’s untimely (as usual) interjections of ‘spunk’. I think part of what kept me going as far as I did was a strangely addicting quality in Aveyard’s writing, despite how poor it is. It’s like Dan Brown (except, in my view, he tells far more intriguing and exciting stories that make up for the less-than-lovely prose). Apparently, I stopped short of an impending betrayal in Red Queen, but I’m so little invested in the characters that I likely wouldn’t have batted an eye when it happened.
I can’t say who I’d recommend this book to. Perhaps people less familiar with YA Fantasy who would not be so belaboured by the unoriginal story and substandard worldbuilding. Still, what did me in was the characters and specifically the protagonist, the plot following shortly after. As those make up the core of any story, and were hugely disappointing to myself, I can only recommend borrowing from a library or a friend before you make the mistake of spending money on this like I did.