Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Red Queen

There's something interesting about book recommendations. There's no way of exactly telling what another person might enjoy...  

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard, chronicles the caste clashes between the lower Reds, menial laborers and crafters of the poverty-stricken Stilts, and the higher Silvers, gifted with lavish upbringings and special powers, who reside in the Silver Palace. Following 17-year-old Mare Barrow, whose Red lifestyle is left behind after the revelation of her own spectacular abilities -  in a very public fashion - it seems that the Silvers might not be as in control as they'd like... and they're willing to use Mare to remedy that.

So, about the book lending: my new friend/boss Callie lent me her copy, and immediately struck terror into my heart with a couple of comparisons, "I mean, it's okay. It's very much like The Selection, or The Hunger Games..."

Here's the problem: I've got unpopular bookish opinions when it comes to most popular YA, including not a very high estimation of either of those franchises. So, while I was incredibly grateful to be lent Red Queen, it also came wrapped up in quite a bit of leery red tape. 

That's why, at first, comparisons were all that I could focus on. The beginning of my reading notes are littered  with lots of sighs of "Ugh, this is so The Selection," and berating our lead, Mave, for the fact that she supports her family through stealing, as "very Katniss-worthy." However, it wasn't too long before those comparisons started branching out significantly: "getting a definite Queen Levana vibe from this one... do all evil YA queens attend the same evil YA finishing school?" and, inevitably, I brought Throne of Glass into it (like I need an excuse).

So, there's a competition to be crowned Princess. There's a very evil Queen. There's intense training practice sessions where teens try to kill each other. There's hunky princes who only want what's best for their kingdom, and there's a scrubby outsider girl who's managed to capture their attention. In other words, yes, Red Queen includes a lot of familiar elements for fans of YA fantasy and dystopian genres. But when you mix all of these delicious formats and familiarities into one narrative together, it makes a happy fruit salad of awesome.

At the same time as I was chopping the story piecemeal into portions I could easily sort, I felt overconfident in pigeonholing some of the characters. To save a little face, I will come straight out with this: every single one of the things I had predicted in my notes at the early part of the novel ended up being wrong. It was like being lulled into a false sense of security... I thought that because I was so familiar with the conventions of the genre, I knew what would be tied up in the narrative... which made a couple of disconcerting, surprise plot twists all the more spectacular.

And then, of course, there's this beauty among all the rebellion dialogue: "You want me to pin my entire operation, the entire revolution, on some teenaged love story?" In case you want to look it up, it's on page 316. Aveyard obviously knew what she was doing in bringing into play so many familiar elements... that's practically commentary on the entire YA fantasy-action-dystopian genre drama in one line.

On the flip side of characterization and plot elements, let's talk about how, once again, Aveyard surprises with comprehensive and complete world-building. It would be easy to rely on the narrative itself, or, like I said, previously conceived notions of the genre, but instead, Aveyard forms a fantasy realm that makes the multitude of story elements feel right at home.

I think the mark of truly effective fantasy construction, is that you are still left with questions at the end, not because you felt like they weren't answered, but because you're genuinely curious to learn more about what goes into the foundation of such a compelling narrative. For instance, what's the deal with dominant-recessive traits in this world? How can two princes both have similar powers when having separate moms, but others are accepting of the idea that two parents' powers can combine into something wholly different in another character?

Additionally, you wouldn't think that the intermixing of fantasy and urban and dystopian elements wouldn't mesh so well, but the world-building is, for the most part, pretty damn solid.

Final Verdict: My own new darling of the YA fantasy genre whose strength comes from how it plays on the familiarities of its readers, Red Queen excels with complete world-building and active self-awareness, which leads to some pretty tremendous plot twists. You under-sold it, Callie!

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