Margot McGovern reviews Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard.
The vampire is dead and the word of YA fiction is under dystopian rule. Since Katniss Everdeen volunteered as Tribute, there’s been a glut of seventeen-year-old heroines finding themselves appointed poster girls of bloody revolutions, when all they really want is to figure out which boy to do the dirty with. Victoria Aveyard’s debut novel, Red Queen, is the latest of these heart-thudding page turners to join the best seller list and I was eager to see if she could offer more than just The Hunger Games re-skinned.
The story is narrated by seventeen-year-old
Katniss Mare, the Girl On Fire Little Lightning Girl. She’s a Red, and like her brothers before her and all the other Reds who aren’t apprenticed, she’s facing conscription come her eighteenth birthday. The war has been raging for years, with the Silvers using the Reds as cannon fodder against their enemies at the distant front. To make matters worse, Mare’s best friend, Gale Kilorn, loses his apprenticeship when his master, a fisherman, dies and her younger sister, Prim Gisa, (who’s apprenticed as a silk embroiderer) has the bones in her sewing hand broken after she’s caught helping Mare pickpocket a Silver. However, Mare’s luck changes when she catches the eye of Peeta Cal, a Silver prince in disguise (who, despite having buckets of power, manages to do sweet FA and is basically there to look pretty and give off overprotective Edward Cullen vibes). He wrangles her a job at his father’s palace where it’s discovered that while Mare’s blood runs red, she possesses power like the Silvers, specifically the power to control electricity. After her ability is revealed at the ancient rite of Queenstrial (Remember when Tributes perform for the judges prior to entering the Hunger Games arena? That’s Queenstrial.), the royal Silvers can’t kill Mare and instead announce her engagement to Cal’s younger brother, Maven, and use her as a political puppet (because: The Hunger Games).
From within the palace, Mare is in a position to help the Scarlet Guard bring an end to the Silver’s oppressive rule over the Reds. But who can she really trust, and how can she keep her family safe?
Clearly Aveyard hasn’t set out to revolutionise teen dystopian fiction. However, her dystopia is an intriguing one that draws inspiration from Greaco-Roman mythology. The Silvers with their power to control the elements are gods among men, their silver blood akin to the golden ichor of ancient deities. Surely by tapping into that mighty source upon which the western world is founded Aveyard couldn’t help but make her oppressors a lively bunch as opposed to faceless, power-hungry overlords whose raison d’être is to see the oppressed (and thus inherently ‘good’) Reds suffer? Not so. With the exception of Prince Charming and a few token supporters of Team Mare, Silver = bad, Red = good.
Indeed, when it comes to the Silver/Red conflict, Aveyard could use a little more showing rather than telling. Mare’s repeated explanations of the master/slave dichotomy soon grow tiresome: ‘Their blood is a threat, a warning a promise. We are not the same and never will be.’ And then: ‘This is the true division between Silvers and Reds: the colour of our blood. This simple difference somehow makes them stronger, smarter, better, than us.’ And then: ‘Long ago he [Mare’s dad] called us ants, Red ants burning in the light of a Silver sun [silver sun? How does tha—nevermind]. Destroyed by the greatness of others, losing the battle for our right to exist because we are not special. We did not evolve like them, with powers and strengths beyond our limited imaginations. We stayed the same, stagnant in our own bodies. The world changed around us and we stayed the same.’ Etc, etc. The reader gets it: the Reds are oppressed, let’s move along with Mare doing something about that.
This exposition isn’t just limited to s.p.e.l.l.i.n.g. o.u.t. the story’s thin politics. Mare over explains pretty well everything, to the point where it affects the story’s pace and the reader feels patronised. Yes, it’s a world different from our own that requires some scene setting, but it’s not an overly complex world. In fact, the world building leaves much to be desired. The Silvers’ powers are almost tokenistic, coming into play only when Aveyard has use for them, and this causes some logic problems. For example, the (oh-so-evil) Queen Elara has the ability to read and take over people’s minds, and yet fails to detect who among her staff and court are members of the Scarlet Guard. As a general rule, the Silvers have mastery over natural elements: water, plants, metal, and yet their palaces and cities are largely artificial and removed from nature. And Mare has the greatest power of all—the power of Zeus, king of the gods—but she mostly uses it to take out security cameras and ceiling lights. She’s supposed to be quick-witted and Aveyard’s world is technologically advanced—it relies on electricity—and it’s frustrating that Mare never thinks to take advantage of this. But then, there wouldn’t be scope for a series.
That Silvers only use their powers at convenient moments feeds into the larger problem that Red Queen is peopled with flat characters. Sure they have driving desires, but it’s not clear what motivates these desires. Why does Cal, a Silver prince, fall hopelessly in love with Mare, a Red pick pocket, after just one brief conversation? Why is Queen Elara so power-hungry? Why is Kilorn desperate to join the Scarlet Guard? Why did the Silvers ‘come down from the stars’ in the first place? How did this dystopia come to be? Even Mare falls short in this department. She’s crafty, with a wonderfully dry wit, but her self pity and woe-is-me-I-have-to-save-the-world attitude soon wears thin. As does the love quadrangle. At least in The Hunger Games Katniss is all like ‘I will deal with this shit later. When people aren’t trying to kill me.’ Mare, on the other hand, is prone to Bella Swan moments and leaves the reader wanting to dunk her head in a bucket of ice water and remind her that EVERYONE WILL DIE if she doesn’t focus. Also, it’s not really clear why Mare, who is all about championing Team Red, is so quick to forget that Cal and Maven are members of the royal family that have oppressed her family and millions of others for generations, and probably should remain on her ‘not to be trusted, even if they are super cute’ list.
I arrived at the end of Red Queen disheartened. It’s not terrible, it’s just very vanilla. Colour-by-numbers. And given how closely it parallels The Hunger Games, et al, and the hints about a possible upcoming film adaptation in Aveyard’s acknowledgements, it felt like Fifty Shades of Grey riding the wave of Twilight’s success all over again. As a reader, I want more than that. Give me a story that’s been influenced by other stories, that fits snuggly into a sub genre—that’s fine—but do something different with it. Build on what’s gone before. Make it new and exciting. Or don’t bother.
If Red Queen wasn’t all you hoped it would be (or it’s been bumped from your TBR list), these titles might tickle your fancy:
|The Last Girl by Michael Adams, available:||The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, available:||Divergent by Veronica Roth, available:|
|Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, available:||The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, available:||A Corner of White (The Colours of Madeline, Book One) by Jaclyn Moriarty, available:|
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