Book Title: Red Queen (Red Queen, #01)
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Number of pages: 383
To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change.
Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of
those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control.
But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?
(re: Goodreads @ Red Queen – Victoria Aveyard)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
— Takes the memorable of other [dystopian] worlds and mashes it all up into a new story
— World building is superficially superb but lacks context to really bring the grit of caste societies full circle and feel urgency toward
— Though it is High Fantasy, it feels as though Romance eclipses all other genres. Fundamentally a love-triangle/V but can be seen as a love-pyramid (there are that many suitors…)
— Blends engaging action sequences with morally ambiguous conflicts seen through characters who stand taller by themselves. Developmental-wise, it’s a solid showing for a first installment
— Rating: 2/5
After months of promising that I would read this…you have all been gifted with a stream of vomit under the cut.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
When everything first started, I really thought I could roll with the happenings. I was all “fuck yeah—pacing! action! shitty governments! friendzone! excitement!” but no, it just seems all too familiar. Is it unfair to say that Red Queen gives off vibes of other franchises? Yeah. But what am I to do when I read x and think of y? (That was rhetorical.) I have no problem with books that reach into the SF-F trope grab bag and loot whatever needs to be used to tell a story—it’s inherently the starting point—however when it comes time to stand on its own…I hope it does just that. (It didn’t.)
This seems to be the issue with how “polarizing” so many reviews have been. It is Hunger Games (a la arena combat). It is Game of Thrones (a la Wedding and family nobility). It is The Selection with the pandering of Disney true-love-Cinderella-bullshit. It is Avatar: The Last Airbender with weaving elemental prowess. It is Divergent with the specialness of The Little Lightning Girl—oh wait—we just stepped back into the other franchise! I have also seen it being credited to Red Rising but I haven’t read that so I can’t say. But I have seen a similar concept of rags-to-riches employment through Sunset Rising, where the MC is sent to work in the work upstairs and becomes involved with the prince etcetera. But I digress.
It is all these things [and more] permeating throughout this first installment that inhibit my reasoning to distinguish this story in a sea of others that are similar.
Let’s break it down.
Red Queen follows Mare Barrow (distant cousin of House Wheel—get it?), a thieving townie living life by the day in the caste system placed on her Red-blooded community. Follow the rules, contribute to society, and when you’re of age, enter conscription. It is the only life she has known; and her entry into conscription is upon the horizon. When she learns of the cost to escape, Mare ventures into Silver territory and does what she knows best: steal. Only she gets caught by a hooded man—and worse—finds herself called to work in a Silver palace; the home of the king himself.
The world of Red Queen is visually sound. The barren wasteland of Mare’s home manages to stay provocatively bleak while the lifestyle of Silvers paints a pristine version of claustrophobia. I felt the suffocation in being monitored and the perilous danger in living in a home away from home. The writing evokes a sense of descriptive restraint that I felt gave enough without being overbearing. It is solid from that standpoint.
But then we get into the actual grit of expositive world-building; the meat and potatoes substance separating the contents of one book with another. This is where Red Queen starts to become a bit of a doozy. In many cases, I can be forgiving when there are future books to support the holes in earlier instalments. However, I feel as though there’s this knowledge gap that would have really propped up the story and separated itself from the pack. Why/how are there different [coloured] bloods? What is the history between both tiers of lifestyle? What is this war they fought? What of the exploration of genetics as it influences latent (physiological) ability?
The bottom line is this: Reds continue to suffer the antics of Silvers—but why? Because Reds are pro-life? Because they have families to take care of? I’m sorry but if you know your world is shit, where is the brilliance in raising a family of 5 children? I know it’s rather cynical but there has to be some sort of expectation that the next-gen will lead better lives than what you have experienced as a parent. This isn’t just about info-dumps and history; it’s about building context.
Creating any culture of fear is fine so long as it is rooted in back story. Readers can blindly assume that there’s a historical divide; an us versus them mentality reinforced using arena battles to showcase power and superiority. But fear mongering for the sake of itself does not paint a story anymore than the values and preconceived biases readers automatically bring into the book. Case in point: we’d believe their situations are terrible without fail, and so there has to be distinguishing features to make Red Queen…”Red Queen”.
The contextual world building just isn’t up to snuff to really drive the urgency of the state. Otherwise, we ought to have learned about the Reds raising the middle finger and hollering a big fuck you to these Silvers for their livelihood. (By that logic, the Silvers would have to turn to their own lesser individuals to do their bidding after all the Reds are eradicated.) We would have felt their empty deaths linger, seen the oppression as more than just a farce, and walked a careful warpath toward a better future. Only we don’t get any of that. There is nothing but a giant hole filled by this young-adult’s conquest for [selfish] survival. And instalust-y romance.
This is the problem that trickles down to every other developmental arc in Red Queen.
When the MC is in the dark, so are the readers. There is so much room from politics to magic systems to history to be explored. It had the opportunity but Mare is so self-absorbed in her own teenage drama that she doesn’t ask questions. Dude, what? You’re in a new environment with deathtraps left-right-and-centre and you’re barely skeptical to consider asking “why XYZ?” for your own safety? This isn’t a concern about the character not acting the way “I would” but rather the idea that if your life teeters on the blade of a sword, I would hope that you’d be more involved in staying afloat.
Also, does no one ever wear their skeptical hats when reading? The “plot twist” I’ve seen claimed as shocking is pretty meh. I was simply not surprised. Not only that, the entire concept and repetitive notion of “anyone can betray anyone” only puts a fucking timestamp that shit will implode—meaning, the “twist” is NOT out of left field. All the clues were presented before the halfway mark: the nuanced shift in characterization, the ambition and skill-sets of those around Mare, the fact that Game of Thrones teaches you that unless you see death on the page…it does not exist. So no, I’m not sorry that this twist didn’t punch me in the face like it did with so many others because you could see it happen.
Of all the questionable content I can lay waste to this book, the narrative is actually well-paced for my tastes and if not for the holes in world-building or the fact that romance basically hijacked most of the plot, this could have been okay experience. In terms of the beauty and style of writing itself, it’s not bad by any means. I think I have more of a problem with the choice of plotting and leaving certain things open.
If I’m being honest, the romance is like another The Giving Tree situation. In TGT, the kid keeps taking and taking and we’re supposed to be like “awe, shucks, unconditional love and shit” and there are people like this, so I don’t necessarily fault this behaviour. The kid doesn’t necessarily “realize” his demands are taxing until the tree becomes a fucking stump; he just continues, on and on. But unlike the kid, Mare has changed her actions on numerous accounts based on her situation and continues to act in favour of the “utilitarian” good for those around her; which is her way of saying that it has to suit her needs.
What does this amount to? Mare teaching a Master class on achieving a love-pyramid. Seriously: a love fucking pyramid. I thought having two candidates of interest would be a blessing, but no, there were glimpses of possible relationships that I’m sure she isn’t even aware of.
And you know the worst part of this instalust-y romance? It’s the fact that Mare—who comes from literal rags—has the audacity to be like “oh, look, I’m fucking cute and shit stealing glances from someone else” WHEN YOU HAVE SOMETHING/SOMEONE LEGIT NEXT TO YOU TO BEGIN WITH. This is why I loathe step-brother influenced romance—because the heroine either tries to balance both or wants what she doesn’t have. I’d [like to] think most people [realistically] would be satisfied with either option. Is Cal kind and nice and does everything for Mare? Absolutely. Does Maven act in the same way? Absolutely. But this Little Lightning Girl doesn’t truly give either the time of day unless she has something to gain from it; which is where all of her wishy-washy antics come into fruition.
Because honestly, at this point, I’m hoping she doesn’t end up with anyone. What is the teaching lesson in all of this when the choice has already been made [by the heart]? Why pander to any alternatives if you’ve basically made your mind. It’s selfish to string along other parties like that. Relationship goals aren’t founded solely on one-sided compromise; that everyone will cater to your needs. This falsehood just reopens that Disney door of unparalleled faux realism, and we have enough of that. If I’m being honest: I think the story would have been much more interesting had she taken the other path.
This is what I struggle with time and time again: fantasy books can be so much more than their romance but this book is another example that “love” has eclipsed the hope of a baseline commentary regarding the construct of caste societies; especially when you have the most migraine-inducing indecisiveness that fucks everyone over.
Know that Mare is fairly self-aware in her actions. There was a phrase in the book, “Cal will not let me die, and neither will Maven. They are my shields.” This not only reiterates the forever question of why this palace of Silvers decided to continue living under propaganda (considering the ultimate fates of all the other “specials”) but it suggests that Mare willingly toys with feelings to get what she thinks she wants. (I’m unsure if I enjoy this kind of commentary.) Not only that, there’s also shit like: “Cal is a cliff, and I throw myself over the edge, not bothering to think of what it could do to us both.” I know she means well…but please value your life.
Moreover, her internal struggles surrounding decision-making aren’t always the easiest to digest. Yeah she’s learning how to keep up with the beasts in the palace but her righteousness is the most tedious parts to read. It’s as though Mare doesn’t want her choices to reflect negatively on her. The struggles of rationalizing any action in the air of conflict humanize and forces characters to feel pliable; to be real. It’s like Mare takes two steps forward and one step back; resulting to a protagonist whom is difficult to root for because her conviction feels half-baked. At this point, I feel as though she hopes for radical change while everyone holds hands.
But I don’t want to keep harking on Mare for all of her poor judgments.
Let’s talk about the Princes; the brothers, the ones vying for sweet, special Mare. Why is it that love interests are mostly written to suddenly bend the rules of their world without consequence or care so that they can be with the one their hearts desire?
Maven…oh Maven! I just feel so bad for him because there’s this girl, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her before. Her name’s Mare Barrow. Set to wed him and she only sees your brother. How shitty, right? I think he’s a lot more nuanced than I can give credit for because he too remains in Mare’s shadows throughout the narrative.
Cal exhibits more hope in this book for me than Mare has in nearly 400-pages. His character is surprisingly aware but it isn’t necessarily seen because readers are following Mare. Let me explain: Cal has his Prince-hood down to a T and wears the invisible burden on his sleeve. He has visions—an optimistic one at that—but it becomes so easily shrouded in the frilly drama that is instalove. He acts on a calculated logic best fit for the situation before him. He isn’t the guns-blazin’-will-ponder-repercussions-afterwards kind of guy. Simply put: Cal is [probably] the most realistic character in Red Queen (aside from Julian who exudes old people feels because old people either want to steal your eternal youth or they’re genuine enough to want to help you).
Evangeline: the one character owning her mean girl cameos for the sole purpose of reminding readers that “Mare is of a lower class”. I think I would have appreciated her development as more-than-just her archetype if the story looked deeper at the Queenstrial (the competition to seek a wifey for Prince Calzone). But no, she’s there to be mean, and laugh, and be the opposing side of the tug-o-war. C’mon now…
The most striking thing is that these characters, on their own, might be able to hold weight for being complex individuals. It’s when you mash them together that the story feels flimsy and reverts back to leaning on the romance to carry the conflict along. Like all those times that Mare acted and grew on her own accord–superb. Obviously since it is in her POV, I can’t claim the same thing to the others but surely the same merits could apply.
Can I also just say that I actually wanted Mare to be with Lucas—the only kid who didn’t annoy the shit out of me? That is all. I will go wallow in my kiddy pool of tears.
But like I said: I did not hate this book initially. There were moments of genuine intrigue. The storytelling just didn’t capitalize on distinguishing itself from the wealth of other dystopian-romances out there. There’s as much need for go-go-go pacing as there is time required to slather concrete on the building blocks of the story. I don’t even know what to say. The only thing truly stopping Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen from flourishing is in the nuances; the finesse that could encourage greater depth.
Will I continue with Glass Sword? Hype will probably force my hand to do so but I will be extremely wary the next time around.
The worst part is that I insta-bought this book when it was released and waited about half a year to read this…only to be disappointed. There’s surely more to vomit but I think I’ve discussed everything I needed to mention.
I will just leave you with some ridiculous quotes from the narrative:
“Words can lie, see beyond them.”
Mare, I see you flailing. Stop it.
“What I need and what I want are two very different things.”
Yes, you should supersize your fries.
“There is nothing but our beating hearts to fill the silence”
I too let out a breathe I knew I was holding.