Book Review: Red Queen

AKA: I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

There is often much handwringing regarding adults reading YA novels. As someone who reads YA for kicks but who mostly reads classics and literary fiction, I can understand both sides.

There is interesting, clever and fairly well done YA. There’s also a lot of terrible YA. I do think, in general that people ought to read what they like as there’s far too little reading going on in general. YA is fun and can serve as a pretty nice getaway from some heavier adult literature. But I also don’t think that it’s best to just limit yourself to YA as an adult. There’s a lot of nuance in adult literature (in general) that is absent in YA (in general). But mostly, I fall back to “Read what you want, guys!”

Admittedly, YA isn’t a large part of my reading life. It’s there, I don’t knock it as a whole and if something looks interesting, I’m gonna read it. I’ve finished reading 56 books this year and 7 (or 8, depending on if you classify The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night as YA (some do, some don’t) are YA. That’s not exactly a large percentage. It’s simply easier for me to find more adult literature that makes me excited to read. But obviously, I’m not against reading YA. If it looks good and intrigues me, I’m gonna read it.

Based on the hype machine that is the internet, I decided to follow up Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh with a current YA favorite, Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen.

This was a gigantic mistake on my part.

Red Queen is a thoroughly unremarkable novel where the only thing of note about it is how it came to be and the fact that it’s a fantastic illustration of why people think YA novels are beneath adult reading.

The novel is absolutely unoriginal. There is nothing – nothing – in the narrative that is original. The novel and its plot exists of a series of tropes from other (better) YA novels. There are, of course, no actual original stories so this should not be a problem. In this case, however, Suzanne Collins should probably be looking into how she can collect royalties from this series. Additionally, the problem is that there’s nothing particular interesting about how the plot or the novel plays out. The prose is a bit less than workman in quality and the characterization (including that of the protagonist) is non-existent, which is more than a little problematic.

For the, the pacing is also kind of awful. The book is quick and easy to get through at a quick clip but the events move a bit too fast. It’s not realistic, conceivable or sensible. Mare’s becoming the face of the revolution doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense; not in the way Katinss becoming the face of the revolution worked in The Hunger Games. She doesn’t actually become the rebel’s Mockingjay until the second of the series while Mare is declared to be the face nowhere close to the end of the first book. It’s too fast and it’s unearned and it just doesn’t work for me. The worldbuilding, honestly, is even worse.

To make matters worse for me, there’s insta-love combined with a love triangle and neither are handled particularly well. It’s like my own special brand of hell. Cal and Mare fall for each other far, far, far too quickly for it even to make a lick of sense. There’s too much feeling, far too soon. And none of these characters have any real weight behind them – every single one of them, from the main character best friend, to the love object, to the villain, to the leader of the resistance, to the older, wiser mentor, is simply designed to fill a role. Not one piece of them feels hardy and whole. I also can’t feel the characters motivations – they just don’t seem to have been considered. It’s like they just do things for the sake of those things needing to be done. While reading Red Queen, I kept thinking, “This was in The Hunger Games and it was done so much better there.”

And honestly, if you didn’t see that plot twist coming, you haven’t read enough books. That so called twist was telegraphed from the moment Mare met the royals.

So much of Red Queen feels like a points checked off a list – like someone just looked at the trends of whatever YA was selling like hotcakes, made a list of what features it had and then just treated these things like bullet points to hit, rather than specific story beats/character arcs that needed to be nuanced into being.  I think is where the history of this book plays a large part of it’s problems.

The publishing history of Red Queen novel has become at this point, the stuff of legend. The writer essentially pitched it, declaring that she wanted to write the next big YA novel and got representation. There are some who’ve declared that she doesn’t deserve to have been published, and I am SO not going to wade into that river. I will say, however, that I think this serves a very, very clear example as to why traditional publishing, with all its numerous faults, is something that ought to be persevered. This novel reads like a first draft that’s been spellchecked, had a cover slapped on it and sent directly to the printers. There’s something in quereing, sending your novel out and getting rejections that, I think, helps you to craft a better novel in the end. You query, it gets ignored and you tweek your query letter and you’re forced to look at your novel (your baby!) with more critical eyes. You re-read, re-edit and re-sent, wash and repeat. This often makes what you eventually publish at least more suitable, if not fantastic. This didn’t happen here and it’s pretty darn easy to tell. There’s actually an interesting story here – as I often say, the bones are sturdy. But what’s around the bones is essentially a house of cards and falls apart once you poke it a little.

Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray fall into this hole as well – Stephanie Myer essentially had a friend in publishing who took her thing and ran for her and EJ James got a book deal after she’d self-published Fifty Shades and it had already sold a fair amount of copies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with connections or doing it for yourself and reaping the rewards later, but I do think it means that there wasn’t enough time spent polishing this work to make it actually good. Both Twilight and Fifty Shades are good ideas with terrible, terrible, horrible writing to back it up. For me, Red Queen also shares this fate – though I do think it’s less terrible than those two.  But to me, it also highlights one of the reasons people tend to look askance at adults who like YA: it’s just so damn juvenile and underdeveloped and yet, so very, very popular that it makes YA in general look bad. And that’s incredibly unfair to lots of truly wonderful books and very talented authors.

It’s rare that I don’t continue with a book series. I’m one of those freaks that usually has to continue til the bitter end. Divergent, another YA series I disliked, is probably the most recent series I didn’t finish. At least there, though, I made it to the end of book 2. Red Queen? I’m not even gonna crack open the sequel. I just don’t have the time to waste when there’s so many books out there, waiting to be read.