Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

A review by Nalini Haynes

Once upon a time in a far distant post-nuclear-war Earth, some people have evolved into humans with silver blood and fae-like abilities; they’re the silvers. Those who continue to have red blood and no special abilities are the down-trodden masses used as slave labor and cannon fodder in a 100-year war with a neighboring country. Imaginatively, they’re called reds.

Mare Barrow is a red living in poverty in a village where electricity comes and goes but conscription at age 18 is inevitable if you don’t have an alternative job or apprenticeship. Her best friend and possible future partner, Kilorn, is apprenticed to a fisherman until the fisherman dies, leaving Kilorn to be conscripted. Strangely, Kilorn can’t step up to be a fisherman alone.

Mare contacts a smuggler, seeking passage to safety although she has no idea where she wants to go. The smuggler is in cahoots with the resistance, an organization that has achieves a ‘terrorist’ label after bombing some buildings in the capitol. They agree to take Mare and Kilorn to safety if Mare pays them 2000 in 2 days, an impossible sum to collect within a year.

Mare goes to the nearby town to steal the money then the bombings occur. Mare’s younger sister, gainfully employed and, up until now, a model citizen, attempts to steal something on the way out the gate only to be caught and have her hand smashed beyond repair, leaving her unemployed too. Their family will now starve.

So Mare goes stealing somewhere else and meets Cal who arranges for her to get a job in the summer palace where she happens to be in the right place at the right time to be thrown onto a force field by accident — revealing that she has a silver-like ability, lightning, only she’s more powerful than all the silvers. Naturally.

The royal family decides to masquerade Mare as a silver and to betroth her to the second in line for the throne, Maven, who promptly joins the resistance alongside Mare. Adventure ensues.

Early on Mare says something quote-worthy about how destructive hope is; I’d quote it but I can’t find it. The pathos of the underclass is well-envisioned if a little black-and-white and over-the-top; there are no shades of grey nor any reds living comfortably, not even Mare’s sister who is a skilled dressmaker in high demand.

Red Queen passes the Bechdel Test because Mare has conversations with women without men around. However, Red Queen has a patriarchal society where children’s magical abilities are inherited solely from their fathers, never from their mothers. Most female characters are two-dimensional: the wicked queen, the passive mother, the model sister, the resistance leader. Even Mare lacks sufficient depth and personality to make me really care.

The only confounding elements in Red Queen are the visuals: privileged silvers battle in an arena but, due to lack of readily available resources, they magically pull up the floor on which they stand to find the tools they need to kill their victims: concrete, metal, water. Apparently no one thought to provide the elements for the combatants, not even when they’re executioners at the end of the novel. No one seems perturbed at them pulling up the floor on which they stand, either. And the Magnito-girl doesn’t just throw metal around, she makes it into spiders (à la Toy Story and Lost in Space; see Spider Tank and Spider Swarm on TV Tropes) and, later, she seems to make these pieces of metal into liquid metal because it mutates like Terminator units into an axe and a sword.

Spoiler alert. Serious spoilers.

Stop reading now if you don’t want to read spoilers.

You have been warned.

Throughout Red Queen I was frustrated with the resistance. Any competent resistance movement separates cells of people, only sharing information on a needs-to-know basis in order to protect itself from betrayal within and repercussions when information is extracted under torture. In Red Queen, some silvers have the ability to get inside others’ minds, to read minds, manipulate perceptions and even behaviors. So you’d think the resistance in Red Queen would be even more paranoid than real-world resistance movements.

Not so.

Maven, the beloved second son of the king, joins the resistance so they take him from his bedroom to their secret meeting place, revealing their faces and names en masse. Later, during a theatre performance, the resistance extract Maven and Mare from a private theatre box, walk them through secret passages in a theatre down to the subway train called Undertrain to take him to their secret hideout, a city that the silvers believe is still too radioactive to be inhabited.

As soon as this city is mentioned in Red Queen, neon signs pointed to it as the resistance’s base; see Forbidden Zone on TV Tropes and related pages. Be warned: TV tropes is a black hole whose gravity may suck you in never to be seen again.

All the way through Red Queen, from the first time Mare meets a resistance leader right up until Maven is taken to the Radioactive City of Doomed Headquarters, I felt like yelling at the characters. After the city, I just wanted to get to the end of the tunnel — the light was visible in the distance, so I plodded onwards.

People repeatedly warn Mare about Maven but she’s decided — on no real evidence — that he’s the good boy, the noble hero who is fighting for the reds [clutch hand to heart in melodramatic pose]. After all, Maven named the best silvers for execution, one of whom Mare knows could be an asset to the resistance because this colonel argues against royal decrees and royal deceptions. So Maven must be a hero fighting for the cause and not undermining the reds and the resistance from within, right?

Red Queen, as the title implies, is a romance set in a fantasy world. The first Red Queen of fantasy was Lewis Carroll’s queen in Alice in Wonderland who ran on the spot to stay still but a quick search on Amazon reveals several current titles by that name from various authors. Possibly the most intriguing title is Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, a non-fiction book exploring human sexuality. Apparently “sex is humanity’s best strategy for outwitting its constantly mutating internal predators” (a quote from Booktopia).

Not to be out-done, this Red Queen provides Mare with not one or two but three potential suitors: Kilorn, her childhood friend; Cal, the prince who rescues her from poverty but whom she’s decided is evil; and Maven, the prince who joins the resistance so he has to be the good guy. Three suitors is clunky, especially when Mare is attracted to all the guys who show an interest in her. It’s obvious who will be ‘Mr Right’ at the end of the story unless Aveyard tries for a Hunger Games ending, risking the ire of fans. This would make Red Queen into Snow White and the Huntsman, losing all aspirations for a Pride and Prejudice fan base.

Red Queen provides a satisfying ending if you enjoy predictable romances set in a fantasy world. My personal satisfaction came from realizing every prediction I made — who was the hero, who was the traitor, where the resistance base was located, roughly how the novel ended — every prediction I made was accurate. Recommended if you want comfort food, the literary equivalent of chocolate.

Red Queen is in development for a TV series (IMDB listing here). It’ll be a soapie in a fantasy setting like the axed Under the Dome is a soapie in a science fiction setting. (If you saw my twitter rant after suffering through a steadily declining half-season of Under the Dome, you’ll know soapie classification is not a good thing.) I doubt Red Queen will achieve the popularity of Game of Thrones but it might be as popular as Dark Matter, a TV series that’s a mash-up of elements of Stargate and Firefly in a B-grade space-opera format. Red Queen is most likely to succeed if producers follow the Japanese tradition of making an entire self-contained story or one book in one short season.

Rating: 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5
ISBN: 9781409150725
Format: paperback, 383 pages to the end of the story, 388 to the end of the acknowledgements
Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
Red Queen — an upside down silver crown drips blood