Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series is one I’ve had recommended to me several times but having read some young adult targeted series that were only okay or completely disappointing, I had put it off. Having crawled out of that disappointing streak, I finally put the first book on my library request list and then had to wait forever for it to become available but I’m happy to find that my search for compelling young adult fantasy-ish series is over for a while as I have a few books to catch up on in this series (and from everything I’ve heard, the second and third novels are just as engaging as the first but I’m looking forward to finding out first hand). Aveyard’s fantasy world wherein social and political strata have long been established and maintained based on blood and ability as well as the best means for bringing about change to such a system all speak to the political and social turmoil in the world today—in some chilling ways.
Mare Barrow is a Red pickpocket doing everything she can to help her family get by while her conscripted brothers are away fighting their Silver king’s war but her days are numbered as she reaches the age of conscription herself and her prospects for exemption remain nonexistent. When an unusual encounter lands Mare with a job at the palace and exemption from conscription, she thinks she might finally have found a way to protect at least some of her family. But an accident on her first day reveals Mare to be something neither Reds nor Silvers knew existed—a Red with the abilities of a Silver. Eager to protect the established hierarchy and perhaps appease disgruntled Reds and the growing threat posed by the radical Scarlet Guard, the royal family covers up the truth and presents Mare as a lost Silver restored to her kind and keeps her close. But Mare still bleeds Red and she doesn’t plan to let the royal family rewrite her truth so easily.
Though Red Queen does bend towards some of the more conventional twists by the end of the novel, it subverts some of them—or appears to subvert, in a few cases—long enough so that the twist, when it comes, is executed with enough skill as to be genuinely surprising. Aveyard is also not shy about the moral ambiguities of her heroine or the characters around her. She doesn’t shy away from using secondary characters with devastating effect and in a way that elevates the core emotional conflicts for Mare as well as the overarching series conflicts that are only just beginning by the novel’s conclusion. Most of the relationships between the characters are incredibly nuanced with layers of understanding, misunderstanding, wishful thinking, and judgment so that there’s still so much room for exploration and development as the series progresses.
The most resonant themes for me were present throughout the novel but were shoved into the foreground during the book’s final chapters: truth, fear, and the relationship between the two. The way that the truth is bent, twisted, and overwritten becomes inextricably linked to fear and the impact fear has on one’s willingness to believe and recognize the truth versus lies. Mare isn’t alone in her struggle to evaluate the role she played in her own betrayal and how her personal feelings left her vulnerable to lies even as she wielded them left and right for her own purposes. I look forward to seeing how these develop in the series moving forward now that such deep betrayal has occurred and Mare (and the others) must deal with its consequences and the accompanying guilt.
I also anticipate further world building that will hopefully answer some of my lingering questions about the diversity of Norta and the surrounding nations of Aveyard’s fictional world; the Silvers are frequently described as pale because of their silver blood, but it’s unclear whether there is greater diversity among the subjugated Reds. Color and division play a clear part in the novel but it mostly boils down to the color of people’s blood or, in the case of the Silvers, the colors of the High Houses. It feels like a way to skirt the issue of race and diversity within the novel itself, coming at analogous issues from the side so they can be said to be included but without actively addressing them; and I can understand if that’s not a part of the story Aveyard wants to tell—or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself and there will be more in books two and three now that the groundwork has been so skillfully laid. It’s just something I’m trying to pay more attention to in my reading (especially in books aimed at young adults and other younger audiences).