This post is a looooong time coming, I know. If you can believe it, I was actually ready to do it within the second week of October, but what with my birthday trip to Vegas, then my birthday, Halloween, and NaNo prep, visiting Britain, and then…*sigh* most of December and January, it didn’t get done.
Excuses over. Onward!
I was going to start with characters first, but this book is so heavily dependent of worldbuilding that I kind of have to start here. In this world, there are Reds and there are Silvers.
Reds are like us, they have red blood, and they have no superhuman gifts. Or, at least, they shouldn’t. They never have before. Silvers are literally a different species of human. They have silver blood, like mercury, which gives them a white pallor to their skin; they have a variety of different superhuman gifts which run in families and are inherited through the male line; and they use these gifts to keep Reds basically as slaves. They perform in gladiatorial games, but less as entertainment for the Reds, and more to remind them what Silvers can do. There’s also a class of Silver which can heal, so their concept of life and death is a bit skewed, since they can be healed so easily. They don’t really fear death the same way the rest of us do.
That’s the important part, but there’s still quite a bit more worldbuilding to discuss. This world is really reminiscent of Killjoys and Firefly to me because in a lot of ways it’s got a high medieval Game-of-Thrones-esque social hierarchy, while at the same time being extremely high tech. The Silvers live in these palaces of windows that frost themselves for privacy, training rooms where the architecture fights you, Prince Cal has a motorcycle; while in contrast, the Reds live in the slums in shantytowns and ramshackle huts, being conscripted at the age of 18 to go fight a war that’s been raging for a hundred years and neither side really seems to be making any progress. And everywhere, there are cameras. There’s a constant hum and crackle of electricity, which is super important.
Plot *spoilers ahead*
Mare. *sigh* what do we say about Mare? Mare Barrow is a Red, so she’s not supposed to have powers. But she does, obviously, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. Also, RED QUEEN– you see where this is going. Mare is from a long line of Reds, broken down and squashed underfoot like all the other Reds. She’s angry and bitter, especially since her favourite brother died at the front and her best friend loses his job and gets conscripted. She attempts to join a terrorist organization in exchange for smuggling him out of the city, which doesn’t work so she tries to steal from Silvers to buy his freedom. This unfortunately happens on the same day the terrorists lead a major coup, and that leads to a bit of violence, during which, Mare’s sister’s hand is broken, effectively ending their families only legitimate stream of income. Pretty shitty, right?
So Mare is angrier than usual and is out and about, fuming, when she comes across a particularly well-dressed and savvy man outside a bar and basically unloads her troubles on him. The next day, she’s carted off to work as a servant at the palace. Turns out, Mr Wet Shoulder is the Crown Prince, Cal, and her first day is the Queenstrial, where all the eligible ladies from the big Silver houses compete to be chosen as his queen. But of course it’s rigged and they all know who’s going to win before it even starts. Mare is struggling all day, she’s just not feeling too hot, and suddenly she collapses into the pit where the girls have been competing, right on top of the electrical grid that is protecting the spectators from whatever is going on below. She’d shot through with like a thousand volts and not only lives, she manages to fend off the girl who is in the middle of her demonstration, who freaked out and attacked her.
Naturally, the royal families see all of this and Mare is whisked off to the palace for some damage control. She’s an honest-to-goodness anomaly, since Reds simply don’t have powers. But it’ll be hard to sweep her under the rug since all the big houses definitely saw a Red servant fall into an electrical grid, survive, and then shoot lightning bolts at the clear winner. So, how do we deal with that? The answer: say she’s a long-lost descendant of a dead house who had been taken in by Reds and raised as one of their own. That deals neatly with her not knowing Thing One about how to be a Silver, and also stops people asking too many difficult questions. To sweeten the deal, they engage her to the second son of the king, Maven, grant pardon to her friend, and send her remaining brothers home from the front. But the deal doesn’t really need sweetening, because there’s always the threat of, if you screw up, you and everyone you love dies. So, there’s that.
So, after that, there’s a lot of plot that happens. She and her fiance get close, she gets close with Cal, she trains with all of them, and always in the background there’s this threat about the terrorist group. Plot-wise, there are a lot of interesting things that happen. I don’t want to go too into detail because I think there’s a lot that’s valuable and surprising. There are some pretty cliche bits that frustrated me because so much of it is innovative, at least for me. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, I have to say, but I did have a lot of fun with this one and I found it very evenly paced and easy to read and get into, which a lot of sci-fi isn’t for me. Maybe because it does have that High Fantasy feel in a lot of ways. It’s not all neon lights and ray guns and stuff, it’s a lot more intrigue-y.
HOWEVER, being YA, there are a lot of tropes that I find exhausting and I kind of wish she’d innovated more. I’m sure she’s Going Somewhere with a lot of it, but where it stands, I was frustrated because I saw these things coming miles away and hoped I’d be wrong…and I wasn’t.
#1 Poor Girl Meets Perfect Rich Boy, He Chooses Someone Else Who Is a Bitch.
Every silver female in this book is a raging bitch. I get that they’re rich and they’re entitled and Mare threatens their worldview and position, but honest to god, can we put this not-like-other-girls thing to rest, please? Listen, I come from a financially stable household, I’m entitled, I’ve met girls who guys I like were more into than me–I didn’t dig my fingernails into their arms. Sometimes, you’re in competition with other girls, it’s fine. That’s life. They’re not literally all bitches just because they’re rich an entitled. Especially since they knew going in that Cal was going to choose Evangeline because he had no choice. So then their beef wasn’t with Mare. And yes, she’s was given to Maven, which also wasn’t her choice. So there wasn’t ONE SINGLE rich girl who was like, ‘hey, so you’re new, lemme show you around’? No, they all hate her because she landed the spare that no one was interested in because they’re rich and pretty and catty.
#2 He’s Not Like Other Boys.
Listen, again, he’s literally the crown prince. So sometimes he pulls a Princess Jasmine and walks among the little people, but he’s still the prince, and a Silver. He doesn’t Understand, how could he? Even with all the time he spends there, he doesn’t really feel what they feel because he doesn’t have the same soul-deep subjugation and desperation. And this business about the kiss–these people have no self-control in these books, it drives me nuts. He’s going to be king, right? He’s picked his queen, right? Who btw, is basically Magneto. And there are cameras eevveerryywhere. Would he honestly risk it? And her. Her literal life and the lives of everyone she loves is on the line if she doesn’t stick to the script. But Goddamn, Cal is so noble and hot!
#3 Conniving Queen is Conniving.
So the queen is actually the second queen. Cal’s mum died of a mysterious sickness, and then the second one swooped in and Mare’s fiance is her son. And boy, is she awful. And controlling, and probably behind the death of the first queen. And totally groomed her son to overthrow the kingdom and kill Perfect Prince Cal so he can be king. Cool.
#4 He’s Too Good to Be True.
Ok, this one cut me deep. Prince Maven, Mare’s fiance, was an absolute doll the whole time. He’s shocked by his engagement, but takes it like a champ. He shows her around the palace, is chaste and attentive, he defends her from those harpies, he listens to her like a person, they discuss politics. He resents his brother’s shadow, but the boys get a long very well indeed. He even joins the terrorist group because he had worked out what Mare was doing and well, he was all in.
Plot twist! He was doing all of that to keep her complacent because no one would suspect meek, quiet, milquetost Maven to be a mastermind! Haha, look how I manipulated you all into taking out my enemies and leaving me a clear path to kill my brother and take my father’s crown! Oh, but Mare you still have to marry me because I do actually love you and I’m willing to overlook that kiss if you’ll choose me 😄
Wait, no? OK THEN YOU DIE TOO
*sigh* Man, I really wanted him to be the one that broke the mould. It would have been so cool.
But, I guess her point is that all Silvers suck and they must be wiped out. Which is also fun.
So, just to round out the characters bit: Mare is kind of annoying. She fluctuates wildly between MY FAMILY IS ALL THAT MATTERS and BUT CAL’S SO DREAMY. She has serious rage issues, which I get, but I also kind of get tired of hothead protagonists. When do us diplomatic peacemakers get representation? Lol. Also, it’s like the only way to have a strong female lead is to either make her a badass fighter or a sack of angry bees crammed into a human body. Let’s have some soft-but-strong negotiators who like dresses.
Although, in fairness, I wrote one of those, and boy does she polarise people, LOL. So maybe the people aren’t ready for that kind of character.
So I’m sure all of this is very negative and makes it sound like I didn’t like the book. That actually is far from true. I very much enjoyed this book, I’m just not a fan of sci-fi generally, and many specific tropes A WHOLE LOT.
I hate those tropes, stop writing them.
But apart from that, I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit and am seriously considering getting the next one. The best thing about it, for me, is Aveyard’s style. She has an easy, casual readabillity that lends itself to reading chapter after chapter in quick succession, which isn’t something I do. I used to be a great reader, I could get through a book every couple of days, but that was when I was in college and had 4 hours between classes and had nothing to do but sit in front of the reference desk at the library and read. Nowadays, I find it difficult to get enough free time together to actually just sit down and read at all. So I appreciate a book that flows as well as this one does. It has what my sister calls a cinematic quality, which is to say that it reads like watching a movie. It has that kind of feel.
And some of the plot twists did genuinely surprise me, for good and ill.
So my sister recommended this book to me because I was writing Golden at the time and was worried about the Dreaded Infodump. Her point was that this book makes florid use of the infodump and is still a best seller, and she’s not wrong. It does also have quite a few fairy tale references and themes. Mare herself makes references to Cinderella, among others, so from that standpoint, it was also pretty good.
All right, so my review for Sense and Sensibility and Gulliver’s Travels are probably not going to happen. Everyone and their sister as read Jane Austen, and there are thousands of academics who have analysed the satire of Jonathan Swift. I don’t think there’s much I can add to the conversation, and I’m already behind on them anyway, so…meh.
But I will be shortly posting my review of Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb, so keep an eye out for that.