Book Review: The Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard

This weekend I took myself off to D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. I did it for my papaw, lying right now in a hospital bed in Eastern Ky, succumbing to black lung and life-long poverty. I did it for my mamaws, too, who have worked like mules their whole lives and never had anything to show for it but bent backs, empty pockets and stomachs, dead children, husbands and brothers lost to the mines and war. I did it for my father and brother who are miners still, with deep hearts and kind eyes and lungs hardening with rock dust. I did it for my sisters, busting their asses in Ohio factories making washing machines. I did it for my mama, who was the first person in my family to get a college degree; it’s because of her that I love books and I’m on here talking about them with ya’ll.

I did it for myself, too. I grew up in a single wide trailer that was three trailer pieces stuck together, and I remember how rich I felt when my dad got a better job and we got a brand new double-wide trailer. It felt like a palace to us, and it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized everyone else looked at homes like ours as if they were just…trash. Like me. White trash. Hillbilly, redneck, white trash. So I marched this weekend for myself and my kin and every woman who’s ever been poor and felt alone, ignored, neglected, judged; women of color, Muslim women, Appalachian women, trans women.

So coming from that march this weekend, all this swirling in my mind and my heart, I started Red Queen. I love reading about real and fictional peoples’ revolts, some of my recent favorites including The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Ancillary Justice, Matter, the Grisha trilogy, and The Winner’s Curse series. Whether characters are rising up as the colonized, the pawns of immortal despots, the disillusioned agents of galactic empire, or the enslaved, there’s nothing more inspiring to me than their struggle against the powers that be, whether or not they’re ultimately successful. It’s the fight that counts.

I don’t think I’ll be adding Red Queen to the above list of favorites, for one major reason. Spoilers below.


Synopsis

In Mare Barrow’s world there is one division that counts for more than all others – the one between Red and Silver. It’s all about blood – its color and its origins. Reds are commoners, laborers, cannon fodder. Silvers rule society and are born with special powers and silver colored blood. Mare, like all Reds, has to either find productive work or be shipped off to fight her country’s perpetual war. The story begins when she tries to use her only real talents of stealing and sneaking to buy herself and her recently jobless best friend out of conscription. A series of mistakes later, she encounters a benevolent and wealthy Silver who gets her a job at the palace. It’s there, during the Queenstrials tournament to find the crown prince’s bride, that her own impossible power manifests. Mare is Red, but it turns out she’s also Silver. And stronger than both.

To buy time to figure out what Mare is, and because her public display means they can’t quietly kill her, the royal family turn her into a Silver and betroth her to one of the king’s sons. What follows is Mare’s gradual movement toward joining a real cause, finding and losing love, and learning some hard lessons about friendship and betrayal.

It’s a story about class, caste, and rebellion, and that’s my favorite kind.


Strengths

1. The love triangle. I know! No one ever says this about YA. But truly, I enjoyed the tension between Mare and the princes. I think it was an excellent vehicle for exploring Mare’s prejudices, personality, blind spots, etc. Her reaction to Maven’s betrayal showed just how cynical she wasn’t, and if she hadn’t had this level of betrayal to experience from the same man who betrayed Cal, maybe she couldn’thave empathized in the same way. I feel like she’s going to be stronger for it. I think it’s also important to see how Aveyard shows us that the real, genuine brother is the conflicted one who screws up, doesn’t always do the right thing. Perfect people do not exist – if someone seems perfect, they’re up to something.

2. The writing. I really liked Aveyard’s writing style.

3. The twist and ending. You could see it coming from a country mile out, but I loved the Maven twist because it teaches Mare about herself. Not only is she capable of more trust and love than she thought, she’s also shown just how blind she’s been to Cal’s genuine if conflicted soul than the too-perfect one Maven uses to fool her. There is a hard reckoning for Mare’s prejudices and hasty conclusions regarding Cal, and I liked that by the end the teen attraction they felt for most of the book had transformed into common suffering and a shared quest for vengeance. I’m holding out that love will grow between them, but I wouldn’t be if their blossoming romance had come out of all this – their social differences, their mutual betrayals – unscathed.


Weaknesses

1. Plot. I saw a lot of similarities between Red Queen and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and truly it didn’t improve on it. Mare Barrow, like Red Rising’s Darrow, is a Red. Where she infiltrates the Silvers, he becomes a Gold. Golds, like Silvers, are god-like in prowess, power and beauty, and Reds in both books are the working class, the laborers, the unwashed masses. Mare’s ascension is less believable than Darrow’s though, because he’s surgically changed into a Gold and she just wears makeup. All it would take to reveal Mare’s heritage is a single drop of red blood, so it’s baffling that things would progress the way they do with so much depending on her fooling pretty much everyone around her.

2. Characterizations. When Maven is revealed, he’s just too bad, too sudden. Mare and Cal are likeable and I care about them, just not that much. Cal sort of gave me whiplash, and how Mare approaches him nearing the end, when she decides she hates him, had me gritting my teeth. I just didn’t feel it. Plus, there was something hollow and rushed about the world-building, particularly when it came to Red society and Mare’s family’s struggles. I also have no real sense of what kind of world it is – there are cameras and motorcycle type things, but I couldn’t visualize this world if I tried.

But for me the biggest problem is the plot. I enjoyed Red Queen, and I’ll be reading the sequel, but I don’t feel the usual urgency about it. I didn’t feel like I had to immediately buy the second in the series and I didn’t feel much worry or pain over where we’re leaving Cal and Mare, and for me that’s the most telling thing of all. Normally I can’t stand leaving characters in those situations, but this time I just said to myself, “Well. I’ll get around to it.”

3.5 stars.


Did any of you attend the march, or a sister march? Why did you march?

Here’re some of the signs I made 🙂

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