(The original blog for this was here)
First off, let me say that I’ve put down Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen twice before because of its opening line: “I hate First Friday.” The italicization of the entire line irked me so much that I didn’t stick around to meet the protagonist. I had lots of questions, but none of the kind that writers aim for, i.e. the ‘ooh what’s going on? I must read more!’ types. No, my questions included ‘why the hell is this italicized’ and ‘hmm, this book looks interes – oh god it’s this book again why’ and ‘how do I keep coming across this book? Why do I never remember that its first four words cause a spike in my blood pressure?’
Anyway, since this book and I kept crossing paths, I thought I should give in to fate and do a Let’s Read of it.
So let’s go!
Although it’s an enormous block of text, I’ll start with the synopsis, so we’re all on the same page: “Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but when her best friend is conscripted into the army she gambles everything to win his freedom. A twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself, where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers a power of her own – an ability she didn’t know she had. Except…her blood is Red.
To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks her new position to aid the Scarlet Guard – the leaders of a Red rebellion. Her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince – and Mare against her own heart.”
So, Red Queen starts with the cursed line and then goes on to explain not what First Friday is but part of why the narrator hates it: it makes the village crowded and hot. We then learn that this opening line is stupid for reasons other than its italicization, because our protagonist, Mare Barrow, is a pickpocket – someone who thrives in crowds. I mean, it’s so busy that “[t]he merchants are distracted, careless, and it’s easy for [Mare] to take whatever [she] want[s] from their wares.” So why do you hate First Friday then, Mare? This is prime business time for you.
Mare demonstrates my point further by stealing some trinkets, then she tells us the origin of her town’s name, the Stilts, mocking its lack of originality: it is named for the stilts the houses stand on to prevent flooding. Then she explains how almost everyone loves First Friday because they get the day off, “[b]ut not me.” Again: why?
Apparently Mare’s going to be conscripted soon because she’s nearing eighteen. This first evidence of dystopia is elaborated on: if you aren’t apprenticed or working, it’s army time for you, and you’re off the fight the Lakelanders! Mare’s older brothers went, and two out of three have names just as stupid as hers (Tramy, for god’s sake, and Shade) and one has a relatively regular one, Bree. Despite the fact that presumably all the brothers had the same underprivileged education, “[o]nly Shade can write worth a lick[…]”, which seems highly inconsistent. But moving on.
The common result of this war with the Lakelanders (rating this book A-plus for names so far) is the death of the child, matched with an impersonal letter from the government. If you’re lucky, “Maybe you even get a few buttons from their torn, obliterated uniforms.”
1. to remove or destroy all traces of; do away with; destroy completely.
2. to blot out or render undecipherable (writing, marks, etc.); efface.”
“Simple definition of OBLITERATE: to destroy (something) completely so that nothing is left
Full Definition of OBLITERATE:
- a : to remove utterly from recognition or memory
- b : to remove from existence : destroy utterly all trace, indication, or significance of c : to cause to disappear (as a bodily part or a scar) or collapse (as a duct conveying body fluid) : remove 4 ”
This is a bit nitpicky – it’s not like every time word use differs from its denotation, it’s wrong – but that really jumped out at me, so there you go.
Carrying on. Bree, the eldest, left when Mare was thirteen. He gave Mare and the last child, Gisa, a pair of earrings to split to remember him by, and the other two brothers followed suit. That is a really cute tradition, and Mare says she plans to continue it with Gisa when Mare leaves in the fall. I’m warming to her.
Apparently her mother’s advice regarding the whole ‘war-conscription-obliteration’ thing is not to think about it, advice which Mare thinks is as useless as the italics in the line: “Great advice, Mom.” While ruminating on this, Mare sees some “little thieves in training” (there should be hyphens in that phrase) testing the waters and getting caught by capital-S Security officers. You know what they say: it ain’t YA if there’s no worthless capitalization! Anyway, because it’s First Friday, the Security officers are in a good mood and don’t mess with them too much. Mare is relieved and thinks, “Small mercies.” I assume it’s in italics to show that Mare’s thinking this, but since the book is being narrated in first-person, everything is her thoughts, so these italics are unnecessary.
Someone touches Mare’s waist and she thinks it’s a young pickpocket, so she “grab[s] at the hand foolish enough to pickpocket [her]”. Why is she using the word ‘foolish’? That seems out of tone for her. Anyway, the hand belongs not to a pickpocket but to a “smirking” boy named Kilorn Warren. He’s an apprentice to a fisherman and hence safe from the war, Mare’s only real friend, and tall. Kilorn and Mare banter and Mare calls him a “‘dumb fool’”, a redundant insult which is also incongruous in consideration of the fact that she’s supposed to be a streetwise, near-illiterate thief. But consistency of voice is for fools, I guess.
Kilorn strides off, forcing Mare to play catch-up. His hips don’t lie He has a swaggering gait. “Sea legs, he calls them, though he’s never been to the far-off sea.” Mare supposes his gait is like this because he works on a fishing boat on a river. But he doesn’t spend all his time there – shouldn’t this wear off?
We get some backstory on Kilorn interweaved with some of Mare’s: Kilorn’s dad died in the war, Kilorn’s mom went crazy from grief and ran off, Mare’s dad lost a lung and a leg to the war. backstory!Kilorn, despite “almost starv[ing] to death”, apparently picked fights with backstory!Mare frequently. This makes no sense at all. Unless Mare was keeping him from getting to food somehow, he shouldn’t have been concerned with fighting her, because he was starving and would:
a) be mostly concerned with, you know, not-starving??? Since he was, in fact, starving?
b) have no energy to start fights because he was, you know, starving??? To death? I.e. his body would be deteriorating as it began to consume his muscle mass to allow him to survive?
Mare fed him so she could continue beating up a dying child without guilt so that she “wouldn’t have to kick around a bag of bones.” Okay, but consider this: you didn’t have to kick around an emaciated, stunted, semi-orphaned wretch, backstory!Mare – you weren’t starving and so your muscles were A-OK, so you could’ve just walked away. Beating up a malnourished waif is not some kind of obligation your dystopian government put you up to. This isn’t The Hunger Games. (Hopefully.)
We learn that attending First Friday is mandatory unless you’re an “essential laborer” like Mare’s sister, Gisa, who embroiders. Mare sneers at this concept – “As if embroidering silk is essential” – but then mentions that she bribes Security officers with the things Gisa creates, presumably to improve the quality of the Barrows’ lives. Okay then.
Kilorn and Mare head up the stairs to the arena, then Kilorn smirks again, “tosses a lock of faded, tawny hair out of his green eyes”, and teasingly insults her, saying she has “‘the legs of a child’”. Mare retorts that that’s better than having “‘the brain of one.’” I don’t care what the summary said – Kilorn is probably the love interest, isn’t he? Anyway, Mare says aloud that she hates Reaping Day First Friday, and this time alludes to having another reason for hating it, hopefully one that’s more sensible. Then she describes the arena where whatever happens on First Friday happens. I presume there’s going to be cage-fighting.
The action stops for some worldbuilding, complete with capitalization that no one needs. Most of the people in charge are the capital-S Silvers, while Mare and her downtrodden allies are Reds. Silvers are special on the inside but look human and stand tall and proud. The Reds’ backs are “bent by work and unanswered hope and the inevitable disappointment with our lot in life” except when have you shown us this, book? Mare talks about the war and her brothers’ involvement fairly optimistically, and doesn’t seem to want to escape her fate, instead “saving – and stealing” to buy Gisa earrings when she’s conscripted. You’ve shown us Kilorn and Mare bantering, with Mare openly admitting, with no fear, that she hates the thing that everyone’s allegedly forced to attend. Has she worked? Nope – we don’t get to see her clumsy pickpocketing beginnings, only her present as an old pro on a day where the pickings are easier than normal. Has she hoped for anything? Nope! Has she been disappointed? Nah.
After that telling-without-showing, they go into the arena and Mare complains about the fact that the Silvers are complaining about their luxuries, like “electric lights”. Kilorn thinks the fight’s going to feature a “strongarm” and offers a bet for a day’s wages (what could you win from this, Kilorn, granted that Mare has no job and hence no earnings? Her paltry bounty from theft, which she shares with you anyway?). Mare is unlike most Reds in that she doesn’t bet because she thinks there are easier ways to get money.
Since this is the second time this has come up in five pages, I’m going to set up a count for all the times Mare is just so special and unique. The first was how almost everyone but her loves First Friday; the second is this. Interestingly, both instances so far tell us using a ‘most people do thing. But not me.’ format. So, the Mare, the Super Rare count commences.
Mare, the Super Rare: 2
Kilorn is all, ‘I wanted to make this bet because I’m gonna win it’, which again begs the question: what does he think he’s going to win from her, exactly? Then some ugly/tacky terms for non-strongarm fighter possibilities are thrown at us: “telkies, swifts, nymphs, greenys, stoneskins” because the bad names in this book couldn’t be limited to just the people. Also, if the plural form of ‘telky’ is ‘telkies’, why would the plural form of ‘greeny’ be ‘greenys’?
Kilorn and Mare don’t see “eye to eye” on the “Feats of First Friday” (the fights that take place in the arena). Kilorn thinks it’s great that their oppressors are nearly killing each other, while Mare doesn’t. This is because “this is calculated, cold, a message. Only Silvers can fight in the arena because only a Silver can survive the arena. They fight to show use their strength and power. You are no match for us. We are your betters. We are gods.”
A paragraph later, Mare informs us that the overseers end matches before death can happen, rendering that above first paragraph void. If the match is called off just before death, the disparity in the death-threshold has no bearing on survival, right?
Then worldbuilding! The Feats started as executions of prisoners and took place exclusively in the capital, Archeon, then changed into countrywide fights to the not-death. Mare reiterates that this is how the Silvers keep the Reds in check: WWE matches. We’re introduced to one of two competitors: Cantos Carros, a strongarm from the semi-redundantly named Harbor Bay. “He has arms like tree trunks, corded and veined and straining against his own skin” and okay what exactly is doing the straining here? The veins? The arms? Isn’t the skin of his arms…part of his arms???
Mare makes a crack about Cantos’ broken teeth, then tells us that in exchange for going to the Feats, the Reds may get loaves of bread or “’Lec papers – extra electricity rations. All of it to make us cheer, to make us scream, to force us to watch, even if we don’t want to.” This is bribery, not force. We’ve seen no threat of force making them cheer, or come here. Plus this statement means that saying the Silvers’ possession of “electric lights, and other comforts I’ll never enjoy” is a little silly (though I’m just assuming here that the ’lec papers are used for lightbulbs). Also: Mare, aren’t you supposed to be poor? Scream and cheer so you can get rations to barter with. You don’t have to mean it.
The announcer introduces Cantos’ opponent, Samson Merandus. Finally, a name with some semblance of reasonability. I wonder if author’s going to actually take the whole Biblical meaning behind it into account? Anyway, Samson is slim and his appearance prompts some worldbuilding: Silvers belong to families called houses; the governors of Mare’s region are of House Welle; the head of House Welle is a greeny can make plants grow. One time Mare saw this in effect when the Welles’ riverboat was passing through town. Some kid threw rocks at the boat for some reason and was put in the stocks because dystopia.
This time, Mare says she’s certain the strongarm’s going to win, and Kilorn is unsure. The crowd starts to cheer, and “[m]any rise to their feet, eager to watch, but I stay seated in silent protest.”
Mare, the Super Rare: 3
The Silvers allegedly force them to come here and cheer, yet no one minds that she just sits and scowls to herself?
“We are gods” echoes in Mare’s head, but as far as she’s told us, she’s never heard it, so it’s not an echo but her thoughts repeating themselves.
Guns, Mare tells us, aren’t allowed in fights. Yet telekinetics who presumably could make things fly the speed of bullets are? Mmkay.
Then the official call for the match rings out, “[a] low, humming electric tone runs through the arena. I hate this part.[…]It ends abruptly with a chirping chime. It begins.”
These italics are pissing me off, so they get a counter, hooray!
Italic Abuse: 5
Two in this section: “I hate this part” and “It begins”, and three retroactively: “Small mercies”, “Great advice, Mom.” and “I hate First Friday”, the one that started it all.
Moving on. The fight begins, and Samson’s not doing so well. Kilorn cheers on Cantos, then Mare explains to us that “Kilorn doesn’t care about an extra loaf of bread or a few more minutes of electricity” annnnnd this is so stupid. At some point he was starving to death! This is not something you just brush off with no repercussions! Even if he did, he’s still not well-fed nowadays, so why wouldn’t he care about bread? As for electricity, he doesn’t have to use it personally – he could trade it for food! Because he’s impoverished! And if he’s not despite all evidence to the contrary, then he could get the rations for the other impoverished children in the area! Why wouldn’t he care?
Kilorn “[h]onestly wants to see blood, Silver blood – silverblood – stain the arena.” Was it really necessary to write ‘blood’ thrice in that sentence?
Italic Abuse: 6
“[…]He just needs to see it and trick himself into thinking they are truly human, that they can be hurt and defeated.” This is literally what the Silvers are broadcasting with this. They’re showing off their abilities and limitations, making it easier to defeat or at least last against them for a little longer – and yes, I know they have supernatural powers so the knowledge won’t do much for the Reds, but now it’s out there. Knowledge is power. They should show off enough to frighten the Reds, but not enough to inform them.
Kilorn’s bloodlust is understandable, since the Silvers are the Reds’ oppressors. Mare, however, says she knows better: “Their blood is a threat, a warning, a promise. We are not the same and never will be.”
Italic Abuse: 7
Samson is getting roughed up and Mare’s positive he has some broken bones. Then Samson begins bleeding, letting us know that having Technicolor blood is why the Silvers have superpowers. Alrighty. So then “Samson spits, sending a sunburst of silverblood across the arena” wow, do they have super-spitting skills too? Also, why is something that is silver in colour being compared to a sunburst, i.e. something that contains sunlight, i.e. something that isn’t silver? This metaphor’s off the rails.
Mare thinks that Samson’s gonna lose, and says, “‘Poor fool.’” STOP SAYING THAT WHY IS ‘FOOL’ IN YOUR VERNACULAR. She adds that Samson is “Nothing but a punching bag.”
Italic Abuse: 8
Then suddenly Samson makes a comeback by becoming a people-puppeteer, stopping Cantos in his tracks via finger movements. Cool! Cantos’ mouth falls open, “[l]ike his mind is gone.”
Italic Abuse: 9
The crowd’s all, ‘sacre bleu!’, and then “‘A whisper,’ I breathe aloud.” We already knew it was said aloud! That’s why it was in quotation marks! Ugh.
Apparently whispers are Silvers who “control your mind”. Why did Samson let his bones get broken, then? Did that not hurt?
Italic Abuse: 10
Cantos raises his sword weakly, but Samson makes him stab himself in the stomach. Yikes. Mare, despite her normal-coloured blood, can “hear the sickening squelch of metal cutting through meat” all the way up in the nosebleed seats.
Then blue lights flash, signalling the match’s end, while Silver healers go to help Cantos. “Silvers aren’t supposed to die here[,]” says Mare. “Silvers are supposed to fight bravely, to flaunt their skills” you are giving the Reds material for EVASIVE MANEUVERS AND BATTLE STRATEGIES oh my god.
Samson goes over to Cantos (…broken bones??? Does he not have them?) and Mare expects him to be apologetic as he looks over the bleeding body of the guy he controlled and made stab himself in the stomach. Shockingly, Samson is not apologetic at all. Somehow Mare manages to turn Samson’s lack of concern over Cantos into a ‘wow Silvers are so disregarding of Reds’ thing: “The match was nothing to him. We are nothing to him.” How does that have to do with you guys even remotely, Mare?
Mare tells us that she learned about gods and mythology and presumably religion in school, yet only one of her three brothers can write, and not well at that. Why do they learn about gods but not letters? Ostensibly, they’re oppressed – but if so, why doesn’t the government use education to indoctrinate them (for which literacy is quite helpful)? Why are they teaching them about gods? Why aren’t they teaching them how to read, if they’re going to be soldiers, for whom reading must be important at some point? Why keep the Red kids in school if you’re going to tell them stories all day, when instead, by using your position as oppressive government, you could have them aiding the war effort? Alternatively, if the government is purposefully trying to keep the Reds illiterate so it’s easy to oppress them, why are they going to school at all when they could be working? And another alternative: if the schools are a ‘by Reds, for Reds’ thing, then why is the government allowing them to do this, and if the government doesn’t care, why would the teachers give lessons on gods they could teach basic ABCs, i.e. something practical that might give their struggling countrymen a leg-up in life?
Anyway, Mare tells us about what the lessons boiled down to: angels and gods lived in the sky, they were so nice, the nicest, they ruled the world with sweetness and sunbeams and killed only with kindness.
Red Queen has given me no reason to believe that it’s anything but generic, so I’m going to assume that the author is talking about the well-known Greek gods, who were notoriously petty, self-indulgent, and cruel. Zeus’ inability to keep it in his pants, and Hera’s hatred of all that came of that, is ultimately why Heracles ended up with his name and his terrible, terrible life (not to mention other stories like his); Artemis turned a hunter into a stag, then used his own dogs to hunt him down, because he happened upon her bathing. And so on and so on.
That’s just the Greeks, but gods from other mythoi are often animalistic and mischievous (Raven, not to mention numerous Egyptian gods) or devious (Loki), not kind. Even if we go by the Abrahamic God (which I do because of Samson’s name), He wasn’t all that nice in the Old Testament – think of the entire story of Job – and in the New Testament, He was hands-off, not necessarily soft-hearted.
Sure, sometimes individual gods/godlike entities were good to people (Prometheus), but often said goodness was punished. In general, gods weren’t kind in aggregate.
Anyway, the chapter then ends on this line: “The gods rule us still. They have come down from the stars. And they are no longer kind.”
…Are you saying that the Silvers are alien gods? Also, basically anything is kinder than inciting a god’s jealousy and getting turned into a spider for it.
ITALIC ABUSE: 10
MARE, THE SUPER RARE: 3