Book Review: "Red Queen" by Victoria Aveyard
In the fairy tales, the girl smiles when she becomes a princess. Right now, I don't know if I'll ever smile again.— Red Queen, p. 114
Red Queen has a lot of familiar, even nearly cliche, plot elements. It takes place in a country geographically similar to the north-eastern United States, but socially it is very different. People are divided into "reds" and "silvers". Silvers are elites, they have impressive supernatural powers and silver blood. Some can control plants or animals, some can manipulate fire, metal, or water, some are superhuman in strength, speed or toughness, others can even read and control minds. Their fantastical abilities are showcased in arena fights, to remind the peasant-class "reds", who lack these abilities, of their lowliness. Reds, with red blood and no powers, are seen as inferior, insignificant, and not special.
Until Mare Barrow. Mare was originally a teenage girl living in a village called the Stilts (so named because the houses are all on stilts to prevent flooding damage from the nearby river) who makes a living by pick-pocketing merchants. She envies her sister, who can make beautiful embroidery, and as such will be valued by the silvers and able to afford a better life than the one Mare has had to live so far.
But a few events leading Mare to the capital lead her to learning something unexpected about herself: she has the ability to control and produce electricity. But her blood is red. The king and queen force her to hide, to go along with their story that she is actually a silver raised by reds when her parents died in the country's ongoing war. But over time, with the help of some new silver friends she makes, Mare decides to help a group of rebels fighting for the equality of reds. But she's playing a dangerous game.
"I know you have your own reasons for - for sympathizing, but their methods cannot be--"
"Their methods are your own fault. You make us work, you make us bleed, you make us die for your wars and factories and the little comforts you don't even notice, because we are different. How can you expect us to let that stand?"— Red Queen, p. 298
In the beginning, I thought this was going to be a barrel of young-adult fantasy cliches. I mean, the protagonist is special, rebellious, daring, has trouble "fitting in" with upper class society, and doesn't care for traditional femininity. What a shocker. (Pun intended.) Oh, and get this, she has a sister she envies because the sister is more feminine, traditional, and better at sewing and manners. Never seen that before! And there's no major YA stories I can think of that have oppressive governments where one special teenage girl rebelling is all it takes to bring them down. Or where the underclass' oppression consists of "entertainment" designed to reinforce their powerlessness. Where the protagonist has to dress the part of an elite and is forced to act as though she favors the status quo to protect people she loves. Hm. Wonder where I've seen that before?
But obvious similarities to The Hunger Games aside, Red Queen was still a great book. I enjoyed reading it, and I wasn't able to put it down at the end. Yes, Mare is a typical teenage girl's fiction protagonist, and this is a typical teenage girl's fiction plot. But there is beauty in what makes this book unique. There is a charged emotional energy to this. Like the Uglies trilogy, there is always more and more depth to be uncovered in this rich fictional world. The interesting thing is that the characters are so well-written that even when some of them do bad things, their reasoning is understandable. Even Evangeline, a character who seems intentionally despicable (sort of this world's Draco Malfoy), is somewhat sympathetic. That takes a special kind of writing skill.
Red Queen does what I want a novel to do: get me to care. In the beginning, I was skeptical, in the middle, I was dazzled, and by the end, I couldn't put it down, and now, I'm eager to read the rest of the series. I consider it similar to other YA fantasy I like.