So, about three weeks before starting Red Queen, I finished a book called Morning Star, the final book of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy. That series was about a class of humans called Reds who had been born into slavery, in a society that coded humans by color and where each color was assigned a particular role in Society, with Golds on top. The protagonist, Darrow, infiltrated the Golds with the aim of initiating a revolution that would hopefully lead to a more equal society. It was a very good series. I didn’t write a review because I’ve been pretty bad at doing that this year. But I get a second chance, in a way, because THIS series, Red Queen, is extremely similar in its opening premise, and I unintentionally read it practically back to back after Red Rising. This one has a protagonist, Mare, who is a poor Red in a kingdom ruled by Silvers. Once again, Reds are the working class and servants, and Mare finds herself in a position to infiltrate the Silver court and lend assistance to a revolution that would hopefully lead to a more equal society.
The reason why I’m choosing to review this series rather than Red Rising is because it’s easier to review books that you hate, so you know what that means! I’m not going to be careful about if there are spoilers, because
3) you’ve read something like this and you know what’s going to happen, so you don’t need to or want to read these books
I’ll start off by saying that Red Queen was at least entertaining, even though it wasn’t anything that didn’t deeply borrow from the most common YA tropes, including all of the most annoying ones. Mare is a paint-by-numbers YA heroine whose primary humor mechanism is sarcasm and whose charisma seems to be fairly non-existent, but who manages nonetheless to gather a coterie of love interests. Compared to Red Rising — which is unfair to keep doing but is hard to avoid given the proximity — Red Queen was painfully simplistic in how much teenage melodrama drove all of the action. Gone was the sophisticated development of alliances and the emotional intelligence that it takes to keep them. Instead, Mare is in love with both princes, and both princes are in love with Mare, so of course they both want to help her (separately from the other, of course, since it’s a competition for her affection.) Gone was the honing of natural instinct by deep, immersive training and battle experience, because after a few conversations with a mentor and a handful of sparring matches, Mare has enough control of her completely unique power to be a real threat to people who have participated in generations of eugenics to build the strength of their powers and spend their whole lives learning to use them.
All of that said, though, the promise of revolution and the curiosity of Mare’s unusual powers have enough appeal to justify reading, at least initially. None of it would be likely to tread new ground, but it would be a reasonably entertaining diversion. But then the next two books happened, and now I can’t understand how this made it all the way through publication with no one stopping to ask if there was any actual story here or if these books were just words cobbled together by an AI that was trained on every YA dystopian book published from 2008 forward. Like, first of all, the major “twist” at the end of book one was so embarrassingly obvious that it was lazy. Back to comparison time: at the end of Golden Son, the second Red Rising book, there is a major betrayal that was shocking, but it was shocking in more of a “the tension had been building to this” kind of way than it was a “BAM! PLOT TWIST!” way. By the time it happened, there had been practically two full books of groundwork laid between Darrow and the person who betrayed him, spanning from the development and strength of their friendship through no small number of instances where Darrow tested that friendship, sometimes quite brutally. By the time that character made the choice to switch sides, it was a betrayal, but he did it because he no longer trusted Darrow, his loyalty, or his vision, and the evidence had been there all along. By contrast, in Red Queen, Maven, the younger prince, betrays Mare at the end by revealing that gaining her trust was all part of a plan to use her as a scapegoat in an assassination of the King that circumvents the lineage and puts him on the throne. It’s written to take the reader completely by surprise, because up until that point, Maven had been totally sweet, vulnerable, and in love with Mare. But it only works as a surprise if you believe in the first place that those two actually fell so deeply in love over a matter of weeks, and I get that they are teenagers, but, like, come on. Mare herself barely loves Maven that much, so why should he feel any more strongly for her? It’s certainly not because of her irresistible personality.
The second book, Glass Sword, starts as Mare and Cal, the older prince, are on the run and in exile from Maven’s rule. It is that classic middle book that seems purposefully aimless because the series is contracted to be longer than two books so it needs a lot of filler. This is what I imagine the outline for Glass Sword looked like:
- Rebellion underground
- Find New Bloods [ed.note: other Reds with abilities]
There is exactly one plot point to this entire book and the rest is Mare’s dreadful inner monologue about how she has been betraaaaayed and she has to blacken her very soul so that she can never be fooled again. But maybe not too black of a soul, because rebels are dying all around her and if she is immune to the pain of their deaths she becomes a MONSTER and that’s exactly what she’s trying to fight against. Guys, I feel like Victoria Aveyard listened to A LOT of MCR in middle school.
And as if there isn’t enough of that in that book, <i>King’s Cage</i> rolls in after to continue being utterly pointless for an astonishingly large percentage of this unforgivably long book (it’s about 500 pages and feels like 5000). It starts with Mare as a prisoner (surprise! she was captured and tortured!) and how she has to appear to submit and do whatever Maven says to stay alive. And, like, sure? But also why? Before Mare was captured, we see no fewer than two resistance operatives commit suicide rather than be captured, and I know that you can’t exactly have a protagonist commit seppuku before the end of your story, but she has a lot of intel that, naturally, the mind readers who torture her are able to extract, and she has no conviction other than self preservation so in almost any instance where she could have done something that might have been beneficial for the rebellion, she opted to just take the path of least resistance and not fight back at all. But somehow, when she eventually escapes and makes it back into the rebel fold, no one cares at all that her capture upended their entire plan and that the propaganda campaign that she participated in, seemingly willingly, is working and turning fellow Reds against the organized rebellion? Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of the thing where seemingly the protagonist needs to be captured and tortured at least once. I feel like it’s just a gratuitous box to check, unless something momentous happens or there was a major revelation as a result of the torture that couldn’t have been learned any other way. That is not the case here. Mare enters captivity knowing that Maven is ruthless and calculating, and exits it knowing that Maven is ruthless and calculating. Any seemingly new information she learns while being there is already in play, so that Mare hypothetically being able to deliver that information with any useful lead time is impossible.
Guys, Mare sucks, honestly. It sucks being in her head. She never learns from her mistakes until they are too costly to ignore, and then that kicks off another dramatic woe-is-me cycle about closing her heart to pain. I’m usually pretty forgiving to protagonists because I know it’s the author’s fault if they suck, but I feel like Aveyard shot for Mare to be “complex and morally ambiguous” but ended up with a character who only functions in extremes and is predictable precisely because you can count on her to have the most over-the-top and foolhardy reaction to any moment where there aren’t any actual stakes, but become a spineless automaton as soon as the alternative would be her having to actually stick her own neck out. I was going to write something about how there’s a redeeming factor in adding a POV character who doesn’t like Mare that much in the third book, but I don’t want to encourage Aveyard to get creative with more characters because there’s enough ridiculous padding going on as it is.
This is long enough now, but seriously: these books were terrible. I don’t think I stressed enough how pointless Glass Sword is, and how most of King’s Cage should have been scrapped as well, because HOLY CRAP, there is a fourth one? Fucking why? (I’m not going to read it, I’ve punished myself enough.) EVEN IF the story itself was actually anything good, and it’s not, it’s annihilated and buried under eighty layers of melodramatic nonsense.