Strap in folks, because we’re talking about tropes
I feel like it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of YA dystopian novels follow a predictable pattern, noticeable even from just reading the blurb. The recurring theme that I have been coming across generally goes something along the lines of:
“<<Protagonist>>, between the ages of 15-18, is set up to live a happy comfortable life, part of the elite society in which she was raised, however, on the eve of an important turning point she meets dark and mysterious <<male love interest>>, who was raised in the less privileged life she has been sheltered from, who shows her the bleak reality of life outside her privileged bubble, and together they uncover dark secrets about the Capitol/Society/Republic (etc.), and become entangled in a conflict that threatens to change everything. However, <<Protagonist>> also finds herself embroiled in another conflict – between the dark and mysterious <<male love interest 1>>, and loyal and dependable <<male love interest 2>>. (Who she’s probably been friends with since childhood) <<Protagonist>> must make a choice that will change her life and everything around her forever.”
or, <<Protagonist>> is part of the oppressed population, who is somehow exposed to the pageantry of the elite ruling class, joins a rebel group and plays a key role in the following the revolution. Also, while the childhood-friend-as-love-interest trope remains, the dark and mysterious love interest is often replace by a prince. As in an actual prince. The genre is very fond of princes.
Obviously, not every dystopia follows these two formulas, and not all of the ones that do, conform to them strictly, or are any less enjoyable, however, I would be lying if I said these themes aren’t incredibly prevalent throughout the genre.
After… that, let’s get into the actual book shall we?
Here’s the information the blurb gives you:
Mare Barrows is living in poverty in a society where those who bleed silver and have abilities walk in their mansions and palaces as living gods while their red-blooded brethren live in poverty suffering so the elite can live in luxury. Change and equality seem like an impossibility, until Mare, in the middle of the Silver elite, discovers that she has a power that scares the Silvers and could tip the balance of power for good, changing everything forever.
I had actually been on a quest to find and read more diverse novels, and in my trawling I came across Red Queen. The blurb I read made it sound like a fantasy book, and it was described as Graceling meets The Selection. My undying love for Graceling, enjoyment of The Selection and all the raving reviews convinced me to read it. I mean, at least it wasn’t another dystopia set in North America, right?
Funny story… I think it kinda was.
The talk of “the world before” coupled with some Boston accents thrown in for good measure makes me think maybe it wasn’t a straight-up fantasy novel.
So, my quest for a book that wasn’t set in post-apocalyptic America failed, but I won’t hold that against Red Queen; it doesn’t know how many books with a similar setting I’d read previously. (Or maybe it does… Have my books become sentient? That would explain so much) Despite the comparison to Graceling and The Selection, that originally drew me in I think Goodreads reviewer, Steph Sinclair, described it much better, saying “It’s like an X-Men dystopia stuck in a high fantasy world on crack.” That basically captures the tone of the world, and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. I’m personally glad that the blurb wasn’t entirely representative of the story, and that I had mostly forgotten what it was about by the time I got to reading it, because I prefer to have only a vague idea of the overall story, so I don’t know too much about where it’s going beforehand.
From my summary of the book, I think it’s pretty easy to see that Red Queen fits into the second type of dystopian narrative, and as I was listening to it that’s where I assumed it was going. Putting aside the plot, Red Queen is entirely engrossing, with imagery that almost physically grabs you and pulls you into the story. I became a little bit obsessed, trying to listen to it whenever I possibly could, even if just for five minutes. Because I was so invested in the world, I was willing to keep listening, – even if it was a little formulaic – and really curious to see if it would deviate from the standard course. And boy, was I not disappointed.
At the beginning it felt like it would be a predictable story; all the elements like the class divide, the rebel movement and the pageantry of the ruling class were there, but the further the story got, the more it started to branch off of the conventional path. If you read any of the reviews on Goodreads, you will be met with many exclamations of “THAT PLOT TWIST!!” followed by many dramatic, but apt gifs. I honestly did not see it coming, and I have to say, being blind-sided with a plot twist is not only surprising and entertaining, but also really exciting. Shouting “WOW I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING,” and then immediately afterwards “OH MY GOD WHY,” means the book is doing something right. I definitely wasn’t expecting the story to take so many turns in all the directions, but it made perfect sense after the fact, not just from a story arc point of view, but also because the characters had been so well realised, and it made so much sense from the way the main character portrayed the events.
Speaking of our <<Protagonist>>, I found Mare really interesting in the way that she subtly defied the traditional role of a female protagonist so frequently seen in cookie-cutter dystopias. All the events of the book are triggered by her efforts to protect her friend (childhood friend, but more on him later), something that she continues to do throughout the book. She also works to protect other male characters from various events and truths. What’s so nice about this is how it’s not some hugely emasculating offence to the guys in question.
One repeating line throughout the book is “anyone can betray anyone,” and betrayal is definitely a strong theme. It is made clear that Mare is willing to manipulate anyone necessary, and sacrifices of life are made for the greater good, often of sympathetic characters. Red Queen plays with morality and sacrifice in a very blunt, conflicted, and honest way.
Something else I really liked was that Mare’s super bad-ass powers are offensive abilities. So often, women are the healers, or the shields; they are given bows and arrows that remove them from the heat of the battle, or are left behind entirely. Susan and Lucy from the Narnia Chronicles are perfect examples; given a bow and healing tonic, respectively, while their brothers get swords and armor. Mare discovers the full extent of her abilities, and she uses them to their full potential. In fact, in the world of the Silver elite, everyone is trained to kill equally, and Queen’s Trial, the competition to choose a bride for the two Silver princes, is not a pageant of beauty or social graces, but of strength of abilities. The female antagonists in this book are not stereotypical characters. They are strong, they are forces to be reckoned with, and they are just as deadly as their male counterparts.
Another note-worthy deviation from the convention is the love triangles in the narrative. I’ve al-ready written (read: ranted) before about love triangles, but this triangle in question is quite differ-ent. I guess in the case of Red Queen it should be called a Love… Quadrangle? Maybe just a love square. The love polygon (?) is taken to the max with not only the childhood friend trope but also not one, but two princes. The triangle or quadrangle, or whatever, is almost present but doesn’t come to a big, climactic conflict moment, which works really well because it doesn’t make sense for Mare to be with any of the possible love interests, because of conflicting interests, or wrongs done. It would possibly make sense for conflict to arise in the second book (waiting for 2016… waiting…), but I’m glad that it didn’t happen in this one for the sake of contextual consistency and integrity.
While plot-wise, Red Queen is excellent, the one thing that annoyed me about the book was how often words and motifs were repeated. This works fine in the case of the aforementioned betrayal quote, but not necessarily for the other cases. A lot of characters do a lot of smirking. Also sneering and grimacing. Mare not understanding things, is another heavily repetitive theme, with her not un-derstanding technology, behaviour, or people in general. I couldn’t quite tell if it was intentional, building up to one big moment of clarity, or if it was an easy way to dismiss things the author didn’t want to go into detail on. I wanted the lack of understanding to represent a transition of Mare think-ing she was ordinary and selling herself short, to her realising her full potential. Ultimately there was a big moment of clarity, like I’d hoped, but it was difficult to know if it was on purpose, or a coin-cidence.
All in all, however, Red Queen is utterly enthralling; another book whose sequel goes on the “Eagerly Anticipated” list. It kept me listening, grabbing for it at any possible moment, and got me through many electricity-less nights.