‘Red Queen’: a member of post-renaissance dystopian royalty (review)

I must’ve come across about Victoria Aveyard’s novel Red Queen at least once or twice since it was published back in 2015. But I never bothered giving it proper attention until around a year ago when it was briefly mentioned in a media law lecture about film rights.

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I finally read the novel, and I’m pleasantly surprised how impressed I was by it towards the end.

Red Queen follows the story of Mare Barrow, a girl who lives in the Kingdom of Norta, where society is divided by the color of their blood. The Silver-blooded possess a superhuman ability, while the subservient Reds (of which Mare is one) do not and are assigned the worst of jobs, including conscription to fight against opposing nations

But when a series of events leads Mare to discover that she is capable of creating and manipulating electricity, the royal family of Norta intervene and disguise her as a long-lost child of a Silver war hero. As she tries to play along and keep her blood color a secret within the palace, she crosses paths with the Scarlet Guard, an rebel organization of Reds that intend to ignite an uprising.

The novel borrows heavily from elements from popular literary sources: Hunger Games‘ oppressive and authoritarian regime, Divergent‘s non-conformity to social classes, the plot of rebellion from both, and the X-Men‘s social segregation by possession of superpowers, except this time, the powered ones are in power. Red Queen is not the most original of tales, but its premise remains inviting.

The book’s characters are a wide bunch. Princes Cal and Maven, Silver half-brothers of the reigning King Tiberias, are fire-wielders couldn’t be more different. The former is the radiant and confident heir to the throne, while the latter is the approachable, neglected second-in-line. A love triangle develops in this book, although mostly in Mare’s head. Thankfully, the romance does not overtake the story and the protagonist’s motivations like many young adult stories do.

The book is not without both lovable and loathsome characters either. One of the most menacing is Evangeline Samos, a magnetokinetic bethrothed to Cal who has bad blood with Mare. I didn’t really get it, but I guess some people just don’t get along. Lucas, Evangeline’s cousin who is assigned as Mare’s bodyguard, is a friendly, likeable chap who makes the tense atmosphere more breathable, and Julian, Cal’s uncle, is the endearing royal librarian who trains and studies Mare’s unexpected electrokinesis. He’s almost a Cinna to the book’s Katniss.

The book starts out ordinarily, but its pace quickens as the story progresses and really heightens when Mare unleashes her power (referred to specifically as an “ability”) for the first time. There are few boring scenes (thanks to Aveyard’s background as a screenwriting major), and the action sequences are well-written and generally easy to visualize.

By the story’s third act, the twists and unexpected turns of events are a fascinating whirlwind that makes Red Queen impossible to put down. Although my wild guess of the twist turned out to be true, the storytelling is done bitingly, almost cinematically. While reading the earlier parts of the book, I had taken down notes of unrealistic or illogical aspects of the story. The twist resolved them, so it was pretty good foreshadowing.

My only difficulty with this book is its rich universe, which although seemingly detailed, is not well-baked for reader consumption. Superhuman abilities are sorted into a multitude houses with each their own denoting colors, leaders and backstory: imagine Hogwarts houses or Divergent factions multiplied by two or three. Multiple nations or kingdoms exist with varied social structures outside of Norta, making the entire universe already overwhelming for a first instalment.

The era of young adult dystopian fiction in pop culture has long been phased out (The Hunger Games books were the leaders and that series’ second film adaptation in 2013 marked the peak of the era’s boom.) Since Aveyard’s novel arrived late to the party, I consider it a retroactive, post-renaissance member.

Although optioned for a feature film back in 2015 when it was released, there hasn’t been any updates about its development. I am pessimistic that Red Queen will ever become a feature film, since dystopian movies are long past its prime (Divergent’s third film was a severe box office failure), and tales about superpowers are a tremendously saturated trope in both TV and cinema. But the book remains a wonderfully stellar read and an impressive debut novel by an author in her mid-20s.

Rating: 4½/5

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