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Book Review: The Red Queen

By (March 13, 2015) One Comment

The Red Queenred_queen_book_cover_a_p

by Victoria Aveyard

HarperTeen, 2015

Graceling” meets “The Selection” goes the publicity line for Victoria Aveyard’s much-hyped debut novel The Red Queen, referring to two popular entrants in the booming Young Adult sub-genre, but you needn’t have read those two books in order to feel right at home in The Red Queen. In fact, you needn’t have read a single YA novel in your life. All you need in order to recognize every single pertinent detail in Aveyard’s novel is a bored hour spent idling on Netflix, just long enough to catch the overdone movie of Suzanne Collins’ underdone book The Hunger Games.

Its legion of lazy twentysomething fans refer to this stuff as “YA dystopia” not so much because it depicts societies in advance states of decay but because none of the characters in these books seems to own a cellphone, and the derivativeness of the sub-genre was an open scandal long before The Red Queen – certainly the most scandalous example – came along. Ripoffs proliferate; parodies abound; there’s a sarcastic Twitter feed – “YA dystopia” is the new glittery vampire.

The pattern is straightforward and brutally misogynistic. Downtrodden young woman is rescued from the locked-in pattern of her poor village life by being co-opted into a corrupt societal structure she will then be manipulated (by men – the superstructures are almost always run by pompous women in tight hair-buns, because a) dads are divorced and therefore both absent and indulgent and b) moms are so mean) into overthrowing. She will largely ignore her Spartacus role in order to moon over two boys – the beautiful bestie from the village and the cool hottie from the superstructure. She will be surrounded by charismatic male characters, but she herself will have no interests, no personality, no drives, and no dreams. She will complain a lot, until male characters clue her in to how un-cool that is. And all of the special qualities that allow her to step up and change the superstructure will be either accidental or unexplained or both.

Hence seventeen-year-old scapegrace and tomboy Mare Barrow, the main character and lead cipher in The Red Queen. She lives in Norta (the standard dystopian-future version of North America), and both she and all her fellow villagers (including her little sister Gisa and her longtime friend/flirting partner Kilorn) have been downtrodden for centuries because they’re Reds: ordinary humans with ordinary red blood. They’re ruled over from the capital city of Archeon by Silvers: pale-skinned white-blooded humans who possess a variety of superpowers (“Telkies, swifts, nymphs, greenies, stoneskins” Mare reflects, “all of them terrible to watch”). The action of the book opens on a “First Friday,” regularly scheduled events at which visiting Silvers hold deadly exhibition-fights for Red spectators – a ritual whose razzle-dazzle exterior doesn’t fool Mare the way it seems to fool her fellow villagers:

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 in 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.

These spectacles reinforce Mare’s hopeless hatred of the Silvers and their tyranny:

In school, we learn about the world before ours, about the angels and gods who lived in the sky, ruling the earth with kind and loving hands. Some say those are just stories, but I don’t believe that.

The gods still rule us. They have come down from the stars. And they are no longer kind.

Reds are sent off to fight in endless wars against the Lakelanders, and Mare seems to have no hope of avoiding this cannon-fodder existence; she’s heard rumors of distant cities where clever Reds compensate for their lack of superpowers by building fantastic machines, but since she hasn’t read The Hunger Games, she has no idea she’ll ever visit those cities or be witlessly conscripted by those “greatly skilled Reds” into leading a rebellion against the Silvers. Instead, she lives her life not only without hope but distrustful of hope: “It’s cruel to give hope where none should be,” she thinks. “It only turns into disappointment, resentment, rage – all the things that make this life more difficult than it already is.”

Everything changes when she stumbles into meeting a cool hottie from the superstructure and very belatedly realizes that she herself, accidentally and inexplicably, possesses Silver-style superpowers. She’s quickly co-opted by the ruling Silver elite and presented to the populace as the descendant of a long-lost fugitive line of Silvers. She’s suddenly thrust into a glitzy Cinderella world that’s brittle and fake, a world presided over by a pompous, evil queen in a hair-bun, and she’s torn between the superstructure hottie and the beautiful boy back home, and there are “training” sequences and heavy-handed hints about society can be so unfair, and as mentioned, anyone even cursorily familiar with the cross-platform juggernaut that is The Hunger Games will feel right at home. Even in a sub-genre rightly mocked for its derivativeness, this is remarkably complacent stuff.

There are scattered bright spots. Aveyard writes action-sequences quite well (a rare enough skill even in adult science fiction/fantasy and all but unknown in YA), and her prose itself is often a good deal smarter than its setting. But these strengths are surrounded by weaknesses: the book’s characters are algorithm-fed outlines; the book’s premise is almost totally unexplored (to put it mildly, you will not feel like you’re in a world that’s been practicing racist oppression for centuries); and, as noted, if the whole damn thing were any more “reminiscent” of The Hunger Games, Aveyard would be getting testy emails from Collins’ lawyers.

And as for the hundreds of young readers on Goodreads and YouTube endlessly enthusing over how their minds were blown by The Red Queen, well: library cards are free. Go exploring.