Review: “Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard

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Ambition in a book is something to be lauded and admired, but it doesn’t automatically mean one gives said book an easier time because of it. Great ideas don’t always make up for other weaknesses, however they are an indication that the writer possesses as yet untapped talents, and Red Queen is a strong example of that phenomenon.

Coming with another whirlwind of publisher hype (and a mixed bag of blogger opinions), Aveyard’s debut, set to be the first in a trilogy, has the kind of high concept story that makes most people roll their eyes – a society where its citizens are divided by the colour of their blood. Those with red blood are the downtrodden exploited underclass while silvers, who also possess a variety of powers, are the obscenely privileged nobles who send the reds out to right all their increasingly pointless wars. Most of this is explained in the first half of the book, where the majority of the faults lie. While Aveyard builds an intriguing political mystery that refuses to divide too easily between good and bad, the story feels rested on an uneasy foundation, a mish-mash of genres and ideas that never gel. The driving force of the conflict – the blood colours and the divisions within – never feels anything less than silly, which is disappointing because by the time the second half of the book rolls into action, the flabby and ill-defined story turns into something genuinely gripping.

Over the course of 400 pages (of which at least 50 could easily be trimmed away to tighten up the plotting), protagonist Mare becomes a player in the political game between reds and silvers, and it is her personal journey where Aveyard’s skill shines through, carefully avoiding a descent into Special Snowflake Syndrome. Mare may be special in the development of her powers but she is by no means untouchable or adored for it (although several of her relationships with other women felt more catty than necessary, especially when compared to the way she interacts with male antagonists). Her narration is a touch repetitive at times, but her arc is clearly defined and, thankfully, driven by a desire bigger than romantic interest. There is a romantic element within the story, and a love triangle at that, but it never feels organic to the story. While on an abstract level, the emotional punch the reader is supposed to feel with the development of the love triangle is understandable, it fails in execution. There’s just no chemistry between Mare and Cal or Maven. The addition almost feels publisher mandated, shoe-horned in at the last moment. Cal and Maven fare far better independently of any romantic entanglements, keeping the reader on their toes.

Plot-wise, Red Queen treads on well-worn territory but the execution is fresh enough to keep the reader going. I hesitate to call this book a dystopian YA, although it does hint at familiar elements with that genre, because the book itself doesn’t seem to know what genre it is. The magical element suggests something fantasy driven and there are moments of sci-fi and mystery-adventure, but they seldom work in conjunction with one another. Aveyard’s strengths come through when her focus is robust and singular. Once she sticks to the driving force of the story – the political struggle and rebellion – the plotting tightens up, the character interactions flow more naturally and genuine surprises are offered.

Overall, it’s easy to see why publishers are betting on Red Queen to succeed in an oversaturated market, and it very well could be a big hit when it’s released next month, although I struggle to see it reaching the heights of the two books it’s most often compared to – Graceling and The Selection. A flabby first half with a tightly constructed and more confident second half suggest Aveyard has great imagination and a wider world many readers will latch onto, although we’ll have to wait to see if that potential comes to fruition.

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