Red Queen [Book Review]

The following book review is condensed from and elaborated on from an earlier post.

Red Queen

by Victoria Aveyard
HarperTeen, 2015

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard, is one of those dystopias that appears to take its high concept to the max. Mare, a teenage girl on the cusp of turning 18 and being drafted into the army, lives in a future world divided between Reds and Silvers. Reds are ordinary folk, while Silvers possess superhero-like powers over a single element like metal or water, and have silver blood. I’ll get to the implications of that later. The Silvers are the ruling class, with an anachronistic, European-style monarchy of Kings, Queens, and noble families. They lord their superiority over the commoners cackling with glee, and the heroine, a downtrodden Red, reminds us of how awful and evil they are. It’s a little like reading a Jackie Collins book: everything is placed before the reader through the characters, who in unsubtle terms tell the reader how they should feel about all of this. Which might be fun if the book was trashy, but it wasn’t. It was very carefully written and structured to engender sympathy for the protagonist and an interest in her eventual battle with this system.

Which was a shame, as the implications of such a world, unrealistic as it was (those superhuman powers are never explained, at least in the first book) would have made for some dynamite discussion on biology, social class, and exploitation. But it all was just a novel background. Nowhere is there an explanation how our present world became this odd, untenable future.

In fact, a lot of the book reads like a movie novelization — the author studied scriptwriting — in the way each scene is set and how events progress, with the present tense third person of the script replaced by an “I”  with a tacked-on emotional and reaction track. In other words, first person present voice. Which can work for YA if an author is skilled, but they usually aren’t, and it doesn’t. Especially for SF and fantasy, which demands worldbuilding and a suspension of disbelief.

The first third of the book, sets the background and the stakes, was overstuffed, with a stalemated war burdening the Reds, a lack of resources for them such as electricity, a simmering rebellion, and the heroine’s sucky home life. All of which were hammered over the reader’s head like Thor’s hammer Mjollner. But I did want to see where the real story began, so I persevered.

The plot takes off when Mare is given a job as a servant in the Silver’s summer palace by the Crown Prince, Cal, whom she had met in disguise at an inn. On her first day there she witnesses the Silver’s Queenstrial, a competition in which the marriageable young ladies of the court display their powers before the aforementioned Crown Prince to demonstrate their bloodlines and fitness to rule as his wife. This was actually a good section, as most of the action scenes were, although the arena certainly gets torn to pieces a lot — for example, the metal controller (called a magnetar for some reason) tears out pieces of the foundation and tosses them around like chopsticks. But it was a cool idea, and very movielike in a Michael Bay way.

The heroine then suffers an accident and falls into the arena, hitting the electric shield used to protect the audience from the combatants. She expects to be fried instantly, but it’s revealed she also has a superpower also… to control electricity (!!)…a thing never seen before by the Silvers who thought themselves unique. Much consternation occurs.

The girl whose power display Mare interrupted is also put out, so much so that she hates Mare for the rest of the book. (Some reviewers have had an issue with the girl-hate**  in the novel, but for me, her hate is justified in a way — Mare stole her moment of glory.)

And so we come to the book’s first major plot hole. How do the King and Queen come up with an excuse for an electricity-using Red? They tell everyone that Mare is really an orphaned Silver, born of war heroes but raised by Reds, who has only now discovered her true heritage and power! And, oh, she’s going to marry the younger brother of the Crown Prince, so the royal family can keep an eye on her.

All this was very silly.

As an adult I might have gotten into the soapy nature of the drama if it was written better, but it was just so… arbitrary and tedious. First of all, how could anyone be expected to believe a lie like that, or the liar to expect them to believe? Yes, it is a different society, but science and common sense still exist. In order for it to make sense, Mare must not have never,  ever, skinned her knee, had a nosebleed, bruised, or menstruated, displaying her Silver blood.

Let’s go further into what having Silver blood actually means.

Mammal blood, and in fact all vertebrate blood, is red because it carries hemoglobin for the transfer of oxygen to the tissues of the body. Hemoglobin contains iron, thus it appears red. Hemoglobin is very efficient at what it does. There are other types of blood, such as copper-based hemocyanin that mollusks and arthropods use, but none are as efficient as hemoglobin in transferring oxygen. Hemocyanin would never work efficiently for a creature of a human’s size.

Hemoglobin has the property of creating the pink or ruddy look to human skin where blood flows closely against the surface. Sure, some veins look blue, but that is an effect of the light through the layers of skin. They aren’t really blue. Prick them and they’ll gush red. In addition, its relative myoglobin, which is also iron-based, makes vertebrate internal organs look pinkish or red. The two thus work in conjunction to keep the body oxygenated.

The story did a lip service to that idea by stating the Silvers are pale, and that when they blush, they turn even paler. But really, it would be a LOT more than that. Take away the redness of hemoglobin-based blood and replace it with a silver protein that does the same thing, and you will have a very odd-looking human being.

To begin with, the Silvers themselves would look like drained corpses. The pigments in the skin would still be there, but without the red cast, complexions would have a gray tone. Parts on a normal person that are pinkish, even for those with dark skin, would be grayish — this includes lips, the tongue, the inside of the mouth, nipples, and genitals. The area beneath the fingernails and toenails, and the palms of the hands and feet, would be gray as well. I don’t think a regular human would find such coloration attractive, unless they had a death fetish.

Yet the story acts as if Mare can pass herself as Silver with only a bit of makeup, and the Crown Prince pass as commoner also, with the help of some makeup. Nope! All either one of them would have to do is open their mouths, and people would know. In Mare’s case, one could also look at her eyes and see the red veins there. Much drama is made of her problem of not cutting herself to reveal her red blood, but, really, she’d never have a chance of concealing herself in the first place. This is sloppy science, and young readers deserve better.

The author — or the editor — could have done some research, and made some changes. Perhaps the Silver’s blood only turns silver when it is exposed to air. Or the blood is red, but has silver flecks in it. This would account nicely for the Silver’s appearance and tie in to their powers. A book, even a soapy teen novel, is different medium than a comic or anime that relies on cool visuals like Silver blood to engage interest. It engages the mind, and needs internal logic to buttress its creations.

In comics Wolverine’s claws magically suck up into his forearms when they are not needed without damaging the muscles in his wrists. But it’s in a superhero comic, where departures from reality are a given. In a science fiction book, though (which Red Queen is) it’s a requirement of the genre that radical departures from reality be explained, or at least hinted at. Even handwaved if it comes down to it.

And why the Kings and Queens and royal balls? Why haven’t these superpeople evolved a different political system, a different way of social interaction?

Moving into the middle third of the book, commoner Mare is taken under the wing of the aforementioned Silver royal family and tutored to become a proper Silver Lady (lessons in dressing, eating, etiquette, etc… there’s a trope for it somewhere) while the wicked Queen, whose power is reading minds, keeps an eye on her. This section has been described as A Game of Thrones for teens but it’s more like I, Claudius, an adult book I read at age 13 and had been very impressed by. I would not have been impressed by this take on it. There’s a few well-written scenes of psionic combat in these chapters, and things get interesting when Mare is recruited by her husband-to-be into a rebel group intent on making life more fair for the Reds. By “interesting” here I mean the story became less of a chore to read, not that it was stimulating my intellect.

Part of that interest, I am ashamed to say, came from the girl-hate. Many female readers detest this trope, and it is a trite way to create drama and conflict for the heroine. But all the same, it acts like porn, striking both girls and former girls on some deep, primal level. There’s a desire on the part of the reader to see it played out, to see the victim striking back at her rival and humiliating her. Girl-hate that fails to be played out to this end is frustrating. It’s a cop-out; the writer has manipulated us but not given us the reward we expect. On the other hand, if there is a turnabout and reward for the victim, it must be realistic and in tone with the book. If it isn’t, the reader is equally frustrated. For an author, balancing these expectations is no easy task.

The problem with Red Queen is that the girl-hate is unbalanced. It comes at Mare from everywhere: her Silver peers at court; the evil Silver Queen; her etiquette tutor, whom she girl-hates back; and even the rebellion’s leader, who looks down on Mare for being useless, because really she is. The author explains that the Silvers pretty much hate everyone, which I can buy, but on the other hand, the four male Silvers who are close to Mare (the Princes, a history tutor, and her man-at-arms) don’t hate her. They like her and are willing to give her a chance, while the other male Silvers, if not as welcoming, are neutral. There’s no catty hate coming from them. This stark division exposing the trope as antifeminist instead of having fun with it.

By this point, many other things had begun to annoy me about the characters, plot and background as well.

Mare’s family and childhood friend who were introduced in the beginning of the book. They were dull and unnecessary, and, frankly, in a high concept novel no one wants to hear a ton of backstory before the action starts.  In a Fish Out of Water plot, which this book is, it’s better to get the fish on land ASAP; you don’t need a ton of backstory to feel for the main character. This doesn’t mean the main character shouldn’t have a family or friends, only that their time in the book should be limited.  There were a ton of characters in the book anyway so it’s better to dwell only to those immediately affecting the narrative.

Mare did not come across as a bona fide dweller in this fantastic world. She was more like an amateur actress thrust into it, playing a role prescribed by the author. She didn’t have to emote all the time; what she said and how she said it, or what she didn’t say… and how she acted… tells the reader as much as or more than her continuously shouting her state of being to us. Readers like to draw their own conclusions, not have them force-fed.

Mares continuing hatred of and disdain for all things Silver. Logically, if she’d been raised in a serf situation from birth, she wouldn’t even have an opinion about them. They’d be Just the Way Things Are in her world, as the two classes barely interact. Plus, it’s more likely than not Silvers would use propaganda to keep the commoners in line, as in North Korea. Or they would keep Reds in walled ghettoes, as apartheid South Africa or Nazi-dominated Poland.

Mare did not do things. Plot events happened to her by accident or coincidence. By happenstance she meets a rebel leader, a prince who gets her a new job, and discovers she has a superpower. By the same tokens, she makes an enemy and gains a fiancé. All without decisions or actions on her part.

Mare joins the rebels too easily. An they accept her too easily, and they get in the royal palace too easily, despite the Silvers having superhuman powers, a heightened sense of vigilance, and spy cameras.

All this made the book feel both much longer and much shorter than it should have been. The book was long and short on themes as well, some of which raised interesting questions that should have been given more exploration.

What makes the human, inhuman? That’s one, and it’s a humdinger. Is it a matter of easy, unlimited power, as the Silver’s cruelty suggests… and what does it mean for the heroine that she also has this power? A line or two indicates that she enjoys it, but this is not gone into, nor does she censure or celebrate herself for having that thought.

War is bad. We’re hit over the head with this so obviously, it doesn’t carry a lot of weight. It also makes no sense. The Silver nation in the book is engaged in a drawn-out war with another Silver nation, and both sides, in spite of their awesome psionic powers and modern technology, draft useless Reds to serve as cannon fodder. Not only that, they arm the very people they are oppressing and go into combat beside them! Not very bright. Furthermore, the Reds don’t get anything special from serving. The war is explained as being over natural resources, but honestly, a race of people with near-omnipotent superpowers don’t need a lot of resources. Those with nature powers can farm and fertilize, and those with water powers, irrigate; those with telekinetic and metal powers can mine. In fact, it would be easier for the Silvers to do this themselves instead of maintaining a large population of regular humans to do it.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power corrupts and makes its users selfish, which the Silvers certainly are. But what is not shown (and what the author may not have been capable of showing) is that it also divides them and prevents them from working effectively together, so visible cracks would be found in their so-called perfect society.

In the end, nothing in this book holds up under logic. It really should have been a single-season anime; it had all the hallmarks of that genre.

The only part that surprised me, in a good way, is when a rebel bomb goes off at a Silver social event, and Silvers are hurt and killed. That was a laudable effort at being even-handed by the author, showing us that there are sympathetic Silvers, as well as unsympathetic Reds.

But  by the time the rebels infiltrate the palace, and the heroine is betrayed, imprisoned, and later rescued… I just didn’t care. I was skimming, taking note of more silliness. An evil Queen with mind-control powers. A functioning subway line under the capital city that everyone on the surface has somehow forgotten about. The discovery that some Reds have been manifesting psionic powers too. If this is so, why aren’t they radically different from the Silver powers? That certain Reds can control electricity, while Silvers cannot – that electricity is the Silvers’ Achilles Heel — should have been logical. But instead Reds seem to be choosing from a list the Silvers had already gotten first crack at.  I could go on and on about each wrong turn and failure, about what I’ve already gone on and on about.

In sum, two stars, because the idea of it was interesting but the execution infuriating.

** Girl(s) that try bring a girl, or other girls, down by sneering and mocking them for no valid reason. Used as a plot device.

 

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