At the end of the gothic vampire fantasy craze in 2008, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins kicked off the dystopian era of YA literature. An era that seems to be coming to a close as audiences begin to snub dystopian film adaptations. However, amid the apparent burn-out on the dystopian fiction genre, one dystopian novel managed to top the New York Times bestseller list in its first week, leading many to wonder if perhaps contemporary audiences aren’t tired of dystopian trilogies after all. I suggest though, that this new series offers something new to the genre, breathing new life into it.
It’s true that as I read the back of the cover of Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, wondering what this hype was all about, I began to feel a little excited. In this series there are two different types of people: those with silver blood, and those with red. Those with silver blood have super powers and those with red do not, creating a severe class distinction, and civil unrest. I was immediately intrigued by the steampunk mixture of super powers in a somewhat feudalistic and aristocratic society. I was excited at the prospect of a protagonist with superpowers who goes undercover in enemy territory. I was expecting a sort of political thriller.
Sadly, with all my expectations, this book had little hope of living up to all of them. However, despite my potentially unrealistic expectations, I do feel that this novel fell remarkably short of its potential.
The problems with this novel are with the plot and character development. While the premise of this novel was promising, the plot did little to pull me in, and the characters seemed to undermine plot points. Sadly, I struggled to maintain my suspension of disbelief as the text continually contradicted itself, showing one thing and telling another.
For example, throughout the novel the main character, Mare, struggles with her relationship with the two princes. One, Cal, she feels instantly attracted to. The other, Maven, she feels only supposed friendship. Mare meets Cal who is in disguise in her village. He gives her money, and then gets her a job at the castle thereby saving her from being conscripted into the military (and almost certain death). Later in the novel it is revealed that Cal goes into the village regularly, attempting to learn more about the neglected people he will someday rule. He regularly laments the injustices against her people, and even implements a plan to make the military a place of equality rather than subjugation for the red bloods. Despite this kind of evidence to the contrary, Mare continues to convince herself that he is a cold-blooded killer who will do no good on the throne.
This kind of contradiction instills a sense of mistrust with the narrator, making the reader feel that Mare is a bit of an idiot to be seeing all the same things that we are and yet twisting the information to an unbelievable degree, an effect compounded by the fact that it is written in first person. I can only assume that Aveyard was attempting to surprise the reader with a twist in the end about Cal’s goodness, while simultaneously dropping hints throughout the novel that Cal was a good man. Unfortunately, the execution fell short.
Another problem with this novel is related to the character development and portrayal, specifically that of Mare. Because this novel is written in first person, Mare is the character the reader should connect with. There must be points on which we can identify with her, and also trust her. For reasons stated above, the reader’s trust in Mare as a narrator is shaken very early on. Not only this, but I found it difficult to identify with Mare. She seemed, especially at the beginning, a paper copy of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Such similarities between Red Queen and The Hunger Games only grew, given the premise of a people who are suppressed by a rich and well-fed elite class, and who are looking to incite a revolution. While the similarities between Katniss and Mare slowly ebbed as the novel wore on, the similarities were replaced with lack of development.
Mare seemed to become a shell of a character by the end of the novel. She is racked with enormous guilt at the casualties resulting from revolutionary activities, but apart from that she does not seem to do much. She is pulled along by the choices of other characters, blithely awaiting her fate. Despite the book being in first person, we don’t actually get to hear many of her thoughts, the result being that Mare becomes a passive narrator, merely existing to tell us what happened rather than influencing the outcome.
Overall, these, and other such holes in the novel left me with a bad taste in my mouth after reading. While the premise was inspired, the execution left much to be desired.
I realize that I am harsh in my judgement of this novel, perhaps because I was so disappointed by its failure to live up to its potential. But I hope that if you enjoyed this book that you will continue to enjoy it.
However, if you have not read Red Queen, I cannot favorably recommend this book, but hope that you will judge for yourself whether it is worth the read.