The Red Queen

There is a tipping point with books that combine many different elements. While I lean toward a book that has one genre and does it well, there are exceptions and The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard is one of them.

I didn’t even pick this book up thinking of it for this blog as I didn’t think it was a dystopian or apocalyptic novel, so I just going to read it for myself. Considering how hard I am finding it to read and review one book a week, it didn’t seem like that was a wise choice. However, a book I thought was faintly fantasy or sci fi, turned out to be something very different.

So how would I characterize this book? That’s the sticky part as it defies characterization with its elements of fantasy, dystopian, sci fi, apocalyptic and something more. I did find some similar elements to Red Rising, a book I previously reviewed and esteem. No, not just because they both have ‘Red’ in the title! Although they do share the concept of class warfare, with the Reds oppressed by a stronger, wealthier race, in The Red Queen that’s the Silvers and in Red Rising, that’s the Golds funnily enough. Both protagonists are living a lie, pretending to be one of the upper caste, for reasons of both survival and ultimately revenge. However, both Mare and Darrow quickly realize that the class they both hate is full of exceptions, people whom they come to care for that don’t fit the stereotype, and within those exceptions also comes the possibility of soul destroying betrayal.

As my review of Red Rising and Golden Son is already on this blog, I will focus the rest of this review on The Red Queen. Mare Barrow doesn’t amount to much on paper, she isn’t heroic like her father damaged in the long war, she isn’t big and strong like her three brothers, and she is not talented like her little sister Gisa whose embroidery skills keep the family from starvation. Reds have a hard life in the kingdom of Norte which is ruled by the Silvers, who conscript teens to fight their never ending war against other Silver kingdoms, it’s this thread that develops the dystopian story. Mare’s three brothers are off fighting and she dreads the idea that they will die as so many have. She herself may soon join them as anyone with a trade apprenticeship or job is conscripted when they turn seventeen and it would kill her mother to lose another. In the meantime, she risks her families’ disapproval by stealing to supplement the family’s income, accompanied by her best friend since childhood, Kilorn who is fortunate to be an apprentice. However, when Kilorn loses his apprenticeship Mare risks all to find a way to smuggle him somewhere safe before the military can come for him. It is this task that puts her in the path of both freedom fighters and a prince of her ruling family.

Mare Barrow who didn’t amount to much on paper may be the most special of all as a harrowing circumstance reveals she belongs to neither the Red or Silver Society; she is something different. Hiding in plain sight, her time with the Silvers also has some elements of stories like The Selection and the Chemical Garden series. However, the powers of the Silvers bring in a fantasy element as the have otherworldly abilities. I didn’t even realize that this book would actually fit my blog until deep into the book, when talks of maps of the ‘old world’ and tunnels with a train, which is really a subway, hinted that maybe this world of Reds and Silvers is actually our own and this book takes place well into our future. I even wonder if the abilities of the Silvers came from chemical warfare or something as there is mention in the story of a Dead Zone where no one goes, and nothing grows. Well, I will have to wait a bit to see if I am right as the sequel is not out yet.

The Shade of the Moon

I wish I had never read the Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I loved her first book, Life As We Knew It. In fact, I would argue it is one of the most terrifying apocalyptic novels I have ever read. People who are familiar with it might not get that. After all, unlike many other apocalyptic novels I have read, there aren’t any starving people going cannibal, any escaped criminals raping and pillaging, and there isn’t any rise of some freaky weird new religious cult in reaction to the event. It was simply a book about a normal family trying to survive. What’s so scary about that? Well it was incredibly believable and the characters and lives were so relatable, it was something that made you go, “crap, this could happen.” So while there wasn’t a lot of action, I found the slow torture of their struggle to survive each day excruciatingly painful, in that, ‘hurts so good’ way.

So my first issue with Shade of the Moon was that Miranda, Matt, and Mom were not the central characters. I had so much respect for these three and instead the story was focused on Jon, the spoiled little brother whom they all sacrificed everything to save. How this little butthead could even come from the same gene pool boggles my mind. His big sis was willing to sacrifice her life for him, and his biggest sacrifice is making his own breakfast. You see little Jonny now lives as a slip in an enclave, while the rest of his family lives in cold, roach infested dwellings in the slums doing manual labor while Jon attends school and plays soccer, more on the latter in a bit.

When the food shipments stop coming, Miranda, Matt, Laura, Lisa, Gabe, Alex, Julie, etc. hit the road to find an enclave. Along the way, both Julie and Miranda’s Dad died. The former’s death resulted in Jon being able to use her pass to get a place in the enclave, while the rest had to live in the ghetto of White Birch.

This ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ in the story setup was so ridiculous. Yes, the people in the enclave have more food and air purifying machines, so they are healthier, but the people in the ghetto outnumber them and have passion of rage on their side, they could just overthrow this one-sided society, so I never got why they didn’t. The people in the ghetto were tough enough to survive the initial days of the meteor; it’s not a stretch that they would be tough enough to rebel….

Another thing that drove me crazy about this book is that when no one drives cars anymore, and many people don’t have enough to eat, that Jon’s soccer team drives all around the state to compete against other communities. Would gas be rationed for emergencies? I don’t see a bus full of soccer kids as an emergency. It seemed to me that Susan Beth Pfeffer inserted this ridiculous detail just to have a way for Jon to be mobile in the action of the story and to set up the big showdown scene. This book was like Pretty in Pink melded with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What a clash! Actually the rich enclave kids versus the ‘grubs’ of the ghetto were also reminiscent of The Outsiders, with Sarah in the Diane Lane role of the girl from the right side of the tracks sympathizing with the greasers/grubs. The contrast of normal teen drama against the backdrop of survival just made me queasy. I don’t think even the most fatuous teen in these circumstances would be so immature, petty, and unaware, not when four short years ago they all watched family, friends, or neighbors day.

Even when Jon ‘sees the light’, he is still such a punk, that I wished he had died back in the Pennsylvania house. It’s really hard to like a book when you loathe the main character.

Salt & Stone

I never thought I would find a book that could give The Hunger Games some real competition, but now I have. The bar was set high, after all The Hunger Games was my gateway book into the world of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction and what led to this very blog.   It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the books of this genre, I have, but it’s hard when you start realizing that maybe you started with the best and everything else is well, settling. There have been some books that seemed like they might give Suzanne Collins a run for her money such as Divergent and The Testing, though after the initial high of the first book in those series, the next books couldn’t sustain quality and passion of the first. There was the Ashfall series by Mike Mullin and the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Blick which did manage to stay consistent across the series, but even at the outset they weren’t quite as epic that The Hunger Games was from the first chapter. Recently, I found an unexpected contender in Red Rising, though the last book is not out, so hopefully the series finishes on a high. The other likely contender is Victoria Scott’s Salt & Stone which continues the narrative of Fire & Flood.

In Fire & Flood instead of hunger games the competition is called The Brimstone Bleed. Yes, in both games the participants strive to survive them, but there is an extra twist, people don’t want to just survive the competition, they want to save a loved one close to them. Each participant has a grandparent, parent, sibling, etc. who is dying and if the race participant wins the last leg they will receive the cure for their loved one. The race itself has four stages covering different terrains and weather to contend with along with dangers that the creators of the game add to the environments.

In the first book, Fire & Flood, Tella survived by following Guy, who she finds out was put through harsh training by his father to prepare for the race. Tella and the rest of the participants didn’t know about the race until they individually received a mysterious package and invite. In Tella’s case it’s her older brother who is dying and her reason for joining. This second book, Salt & Stone shows Tella’s development from a follower to a leader. She not only wants to win the race for her brother, she wants to work with Guy to take down the sadistic organizers of the race so no one will ever have to experience the horror again. Although they are all competitors, Tella formed bonds with some of the competition in the first leg that survives into the next including Harper, Jaxon, Braun and Olivia and introduces additional racers such as Willow and Cotton. In fact, that’s one of Tella’s dilemmas, how does she balance the compassion and feelings she has for others with the competitive nature of the race. If she wins, her brother lives, but her friends’ loved ones die. There are also the Pandoras, genetically engineered animals designed to serve as protectors and assets for each competitor, but Tella bonds with her own, a fox named Madox, as well as the animals of other challengers who dropped out or died during the race. Tella can’t abide any abuse of these animals, which leads to situations that dramatically affect the storyline. She herself wonders aloud whether one must become an animal in order to survive let alone win, or can the participants retain their humanity?

Lest anyone reading this think that the book is all about these philosophical questions, let me reassure you that while these are the overarching themes of the book, they are layered over constant action and danger. Also, while there is a budding relationship between Tella and Guy, it doesn’t take away from the storyline; in fact it often serves as much needed comic relief that is needed during the dark deeds that happen in the book. I found the relationship more realistic than in many books of this genre that make me want to scream “seriously, how do you have time to worry about your hair when you are constantly on the verge of being killed?” Yes, Tella is a teenage girl, but she is in on the joke and pokes fun of the shallowness and angst of teen life in her inner monologues scattered throughout the book. In fact, if I were to make any constructive criticism of this second book, it’s that I would have appreciated reading more of Tella’s snarky comments; she has a bit of a Veronica Mars voice in my opinion.