I haven’t read any young adult novels in a while. This isn’t for any reason in particular but I’ve been on a kick of literary novels recently and as much as I enjoy subtlety and pointedly difficult prose to parse out , I needed a break. So let me introduce you to The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. It’s a bit Hunger Games meets The Avengers meets a bit of The Gate Thief by Orson Scott Card. It’s a pretty light read by ways of the fantasy, if not a little “been there, done that” by ways of premise. However, I have to say the execution and world building was pretty unique.
The story is based upon a world divided by the color of blood. “Reds” are the working class. The soldiers. The ones to die on the front lines and constantly serve the elite class of “Silvers.” The “Silvers” are not merely in control because of the color of their blood; their blood bestows upon them certain superpowers and fighting abilities beyond the scope of those who are Reds. The Silvers then can be seen as a class of almost demigods, using their powers to oppress and manipulate an entire legion of people below them. We follow the narrative of Mare, a girl of red blood born into poverty and known for being an expert pickpocket. Or at least until she gets both her sister and herself caught.
Her family has few means to make income and Mare is conscripted to work in the palace by a prince named Cal in disguise. During her visit, while she is serving the upper class during an “engagement ball”, she falls through a window and suddenly, her super powers manifest. She becomes the “little lightning girl”. The Silvers in power are worried about word getting out that a Red blood has super powers which would completely undermine their hold over all Reds in the land. So instead, they strike a deal with Mare: we will pretend you are a long lost Silver princess and take care of your family. She wears silver cover up to cover up the red-tinged tone of her skin and taught the ways of the elite classes. In the process, she is engaged to the ruling family’s youngest son, Maven.
As fate would have it, a group of Reds led by a masked woman decide to stage a coup/rebellion. They are able to recruit Mare into their ranks, seeing her as the perfect way to overthrow the Silvers from the inside. Mare has to navigate her new responsibilities as Silver royalty while also helping her family and anyone she has ever cared for from behind enemy lines.
That being said, the characters are relatively complex, especially the pair of princes: Maven and Cal. Maven demonstrates an aptitude for extreme empathy with Mare’s situation. Cal plays the part of risk-taking and self-indulgent (but smexy) love-interest for Mare (though I have to say, Cal trying to steal Maven’s wife-to-be is a bit strange even for YA). Mare is sassy and naive and makes more reckless mistakes than she does improvements all while trying to figure out her budding powers and deal with her own sense of place in a divided world. The queen (Maven and Cal’s mother) is reminiscent of Cersei from Game of Thrones: manipulative, all-seeing, and vindictive but her thirst for power and control is relatively compelling. The interplay between the Reds and Silvers is quite intriguing as well, providing a dystopian world in which the color of blood can separate human beings into entirely different classes (which, if you think about it, can also be applied to historical race relations as well as oppressive dictatorships in reality).
Yes, this is young adult. It has a love triangle. A lot of people have said that with the plot they’d “seen it before” but I have to say it had the opposite effect on me. It was like watching the new Star Wars and feeling that tinge of nostalgia when a favorite old character steps on the screen. Of course there are tropes and cliches, awkward dialogue. But despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, it was an enjoyable opening to the series.