Final Rating: Four cups of bright red tea
All right, friends. Let’s take a seat and put on our “complicated feelings” hats, because I have to get some things off of my chest about this book.
More than anything, I feel torn writing this review, because despite finding the book thoroughly enjoyable…there’s nothing here that surprised me. Not one single thing. I accurately foresaw the outcome of every relationship, introduction, plot hook and cliffhanger this book had to offer; all without even having to try. Normally? A book being this predictable would be grounds for a much lower rating. And here’s where the torn part comes in, because by giving it four cups I’m placing it in some very hallowed company alongside other books which were far more challenging. While “challenge” certainly isn’t synonymous with “good” by any stretch of the imagination, I had to have a very serious internal conversation with myself about my own feelings and the limitations of star ratings when it comes to books.
But the truth is, I loved reading this book. Giving it less than four stars just felt wrong, because it was fun for me, even if there weren’t any surprises. And I don’t mean this to imply that Red Queen isn’t well written–it has good flow, pacing, and characterization throughout. This is not a poor effort, or something that would have benefited from more rigorous editing. It’s just… stuff we’ve all seen before, from the haves-and-have-nots plotline to the climax of the book being an arena battle to the death where the protagonists are saved at the last minute by a highly improbable/loosely explained intervention by other characters.
One thing about this book which, in my opinion, truly does shine is the interactions between the protagonist, Mare, and her two love interests. There’s less of the whole “oh my stars! he’s so handsome but I just can’t love someone like him! what ever shall I do!?” thing and more gradual earnings (and losses) of trust, intimacy and shared perils. There are also some spots where the author very carefully (and in my mind, successfully) treads the line of making a boyfriend attractive but also a little scary? This is an incredibly fine line because as we’ve seen on this blog so often before, it can quickly devolve into romanticizing abusive bullshit that no one needs in their life. But Red Queen does well at keeping on the better side of this line, where Mare grapples less with this person is treating me horribly and yet I still want to smooch him and more with this person is very dangerous but has always been respectful of me and is important to me; how do I reconcile these conflicting feelings?
Speaking of whom, I liked Mare a lot too; I liked her taciturn nature and how she’s often sarcastic and antisocial for no other reason than because she feels like it. Of course she has her own internal struggles with the expression of her own nature, but we all do that from time to time. My only complaint here is that Mare really isn’t allowed to be herself for very long– she’s quickly hemmed in by Silver society and having to act a part so she can survive. Even in her private moments she really never quite gets back to how she is at the start of the book, which wouldn’t have bothered me if the book had acknowledged it? (Nothing quite like the tragedy of never being able to go back “home”, as it were, to who you were before your life changed) But instead it’s just sort of assumed that of course Mare would want to change who she is, because who wants to be around a grumpy girl who really doesn’t give a shit about your stupid boy-feelings? Meh.
It also bears mentioning that this book is extremely, extremely white. (Red Queen is absolutely not a story I’d recommend for folks who are trying to find genre fiction which de-centers whiteness.) In fact, most of the plot revolves around the high society of the Silverblooded, immediately bringing to mind the fetishization and worship of Eurocentric beauty standards in popular vampire lore. (The whole book practically shouts Look how pale and beautiful they all are! Like porcelain! PORCEEELAAAIIIN at you constantly) Even Mare herself, despite being just as white as the rest of them, has to undergo a daily makeup ritual to become extra white so she’ll fit in. Eventually I got the feeling that if a black person ever showed up, every single character would probably faint dead away until the next millennium. I think there are a few halfhearted attempts at adding in two or three “olive skinned” characters, but they are so minor and fleeting that they were clearly never meant to have any impact on the story.
All in all, I’d recommend Red Queen to folks who are looking for a lighthearted, fantasy-themed YA read that you could complete in a weekend or two. If I had to bust out a food metaphor, I’d say reading Red Queen was a lot like eating candy–it hit the spot for me because it’s what I needed, but there wasn’t a huge amount of substance there. Right now I’m unsure whether or not I’ll be reading the next two books in the series, but if I do I hope future books manage to achieve some of the depth their predecessor lacked.