Red Queen was first published in 2015 and was written by Victoria Aveyard. It is a dystopian high fantasy novel and is the first part of a planned series. The novel recently won the Goodreads Award for best debut novel. Its sequel, Glass Sword, and a collection of two short prequel stories titled Cruel Crown are due for release in early 2016.
Mare Barrow was born a Red and is therefore destined to live in poverty. Her people are seen as nothing more than slaves for the Silvers – aristocrats who possess God-like powers. The Reds are given no choice to work for them, doing the tasks that the Silvers feel are beneath them and fighting on the front lines of their wars. Refusal would mean instant death.
Naturally, Mare hates the Silvers but still finds herself working in the royal palace as an alternative to conscription. After surviving a terrible accident, she discovers the unthinkable. She too possesses powers – the ability to control electricity – something that no Red has ever done before.
Realising that they must cover this up, the King poses Mare as a lost Silver Princess and betroths her to his youngest son, Maven. Thrust into a world that she barely understands, Mare is forced to learn how to act like a Silver and play their games of betrayal. One false step could mean her death but that’s not the only danger. The Scarlet Guard – a band of Red rebels – have begun a systematic assault on the Silvers and now Mare is in the perfect position to help them oust the King…
Firstly, I think I should probably note that I am reading from an advanced copy I received from the publisher and so appreciate that it may be slightly different from the published version. Yet, even with that in mind, Red Queen was a compelling read. Aveyard’s world building is breathtaking and she maintains an incredible level of tension throughout the entire novel. I found it to be an exhausting read but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s the kind of novel that keeps you firmly on the edge of your seat. Betrayal follows betrayal, no one reveals every card in their hand and even tiny actions have serious and far reaching consequences.
The fact that the novel kept me guessing throughout was by far my favourite thing about it. Mare was a very unreliable narrator for the large part. Her hatred of the Silvers coloured her world view, presuming them to be lazy, arrogant and self-important. While this isn’t far from the truth, it also caused her to greatly misjudge her enemy. She was completely unaware of their cut-throat lifestyle, unaware that living as a Silver was equally as dangerous as living as a Red. And this mistake costs her dearly. The story is full of twists and turns and the reader, blinkered by Mare’s narrative voice, is also left in a position where they’re unsure who (if anyone) can be trusted.
The story’s moral ambiguity is also really interesting. While at a glance it would seem that the Silvers are the baddies and the Reds are good, it quickly comes apparent that only shades of grey exist in Mare’s world. The Silvers oppress the Reds but the Scarlet Guards’ militant actions are not making the situation better. Although they view their cause as being just, they are still terrorists and their increasingly violent attacks serve little other than to enrage the Silvers, who in turn punish innocent Reds. While Mare is quickly indoctrinated by the Scarlet Guard, her resolve falters the first time she sees them at work and realises that they only see people as a means to an end, ignoring the fact that the Silvers that they are targeting are not necessarily evil.
My only real problem with the setting was that it was all rather derivative. The novel treads ground that will already seem very familiar to teen readers. I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as an original novel – that the best an author can really do in this day and age is to combine existing ideas in a way that makes them their own – but unfortunately it didn’t quite work here. While I did love Red Queen, I spent a lot of time comparing it to other things that I’d read and watched and I did feel as though it suffered because of this.
The most obvious source of inspiration was The Hunger Games, as both stories focus on the social divide between the wealthy and tyrannical ruling class and their downtrodden slaves. The similarities didn’t end here. From the morally dubious actions of the resistance to the irradiated ruins on the edge of civilisation, there were just so many little things that made me think of Collins’ endlessly popular series. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. A Game of Thrones, Graceling, Seraphina, even Avatar: The Last Airbender. There were so many pieces of this story that just seemed a little too close to other existing works.
However, I wouldn’t let this put you off. The biggest strength of the story lies in its characters. I really loved Mare. She felt far more human than the likes of Katsa or Katniss but still shared their fire. Everything about her screamed realism. Although she always acted with the best of intentions, things still frequently went wrong for her. As her involvement with the Guard got deeper, she was frequently forced to question if she was doing the right thing and nothing seemed to go exactly as she’d planned it. Yet she never gave up hope. Mare was a master of making difficult choices because of her firm belief that doing nothing was as good as accepting that the Silvers were her superiors. It’s difficult not to root for her.
The two princes – Cal and Maven – were also really interesting characters. While there were hints of insta-love with Cal, it’s entirely one sided. While he seems to fancy Mare at first sight, it takes her a long time to warm to him. The princes both offer Mare different things. Cal is fiery and passionate while Maven is kind and thoughtful. Her relationship with both builds in a very slow and realistic way, constantly evolving as she finds out things about the natures of her two Silver friends (not all of them good). While it does technically create a love triangle, I didn’t find it to be overly offensive and it certainly doesn’t get in the way of the plot. It just serves to emphasise how naïve Mare can be and how she really doesn’t understand what it means to be Silver.
I think that’s probably a good place to leave off this review because if I talked about this story any more, I’d run the risk of spoiling some of its brilliant twists and turns. Red Queen is a compelling read and an impressive debut. Despite the fact that some aspects of the story seemed a little too familiar, it offered a complex plot, a strong heroine and ethical dilemmas that offered some real food for thought. I really can wait to see where Aveyard takes the story next in Glass Sword.
Red Queen can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk