“Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard

Rating – 4/5 stars

Overall – a dark, convoluted tale about power and segregation, all set in a thrilling fantasy world.

Red Queen is set in the kingdom of Norta, a world where the color of your blood determines your future. Reds have red blood and are the working class; they are the peasants that toil all day and never know what it’s like to be full. Silvers are superior in every way: the nobles of Norta belong to different houses with each house boasting a special ability: you could be a whisper who can read minds, a magnetron with the ability to manipulate metal, or a singer whose voice can charm others into doing your bidding. Silvers are taught to value power and strength above all. Their oppressive regime ensures that the gap between the Silvers and Reds ever widens.

Mare Barrow is a Red living in this harsh reality. She hails from the Stilts, a small village of poorly made houses and destitute people. Her only living is made from pickpocketing, so when she’s caught lifting a coin from a Silver’s purse, she expects the worst that the law can bring down upon her: jail? Death? Instead, she finds herself with a new job at the palace, and within a few short hours turns her world on her head. When Mare suddenly reveals herself to have special powers—powers that she shouldn’t have—she becomes something different. Not Red, not Silver, but stronger than both. The king attempts to hide what she is by declaring her a long-lost Silver daughter of a respected house, and she is immediately betrothed to the younger son of the royal family, Prince Maven. While trying to convince the kingdom that she has what it takes to be a true Silver, Mare becomes involved in the work of a revolutionary group called the Scarlet Guard. Who will she choose: the people with her same color blood, or the people with the same special abilities? Will she submit to the will of the tyrannical Queen Elara forever or help orchestrate an overthrowing of the Silver regime? And in a world where anyone can betray anyone, who can she trust?

First of all, let’s talk about Mare. As a main character, her morals seemed fairly flimsy to me: she’s a criminal even before she’s crowned a princess-to-be and begins to scheme to overthrow the throne.The Scarlet Guard seem at first like a mere bunch of troublemakers who may be justified in wanting a change of government. The narrator shared the ideology of the Scarlet Guard and felt so deeply that they were doing the right thing—that’s the only thing that prevented me from immediately being suspicious. Part of the reason why I was so intrigued by this book is because I feel like I would never make the decisions Mare did, but I still speculated what I might have to do if I were in her circumstances—being shamed and forced into generational poverty and an early death in the military, simply because her blood was red and she didn’t have any power. For the most part, though, I liked her as a main character. She’s tough. If she isn’t given something she wants, she takes it. At times she can be indecisive and bitter, and at others surprisingly compassionate. I could best describe her as a cross between Ella of Frell from Ella Enchanted and America Singer from The Selection.

One of my favorite things about dystopian literature is the world building. I was interested to see how Silvers’ prejudices of the Reds manifest in their everyday lives. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, really: a set of strict, slightly biased laws that seem to punish Reds more often but equally severely as they do Silvers; quite a bit of hate-speech used to describe how Reds are inferior to Silvers; and a sharp contrast between the Reds’ low-paying manual labor and perpetually empty stomachs and the Silvers’ lifestyles of luxury, excess, and power. A few nice details jump out at the reader, though: the slight feud between noble houses to have the best ability; Mare having to paint herself so that she blushes silver instead red once becoming a princess-to-be; and Reds having to face conscription at age eighteen if they don’t have a job or apprenticeship by then.  Overall, the effect is a satisfyingly diverse and conflicted world. The author got creative with some of the Silver-Red differences that completely didn’t occur to me. I was pleasantly surprised.

Some of the other minor characters were fun to read about and watch Mare interact with. For example, Captain Farley, captain of the Scarlet Guard, reminds me of Mare: strong-willed, confident, and able to take care of herself. At first, she and Mare clash because of their different ideas on the same topic; however, they learn to respect each other. Kilorn Warren is Mare’s childhood best friend who barely avoids the conscription and soon joins the Scarlet Guard. They exchange a substantial amount of banter and argue just as much. Being a whisper, Queen Elara is used to having her way with everybody, but she isn’t as satisfied with Mare, who takes every opportunity to fight her will. The queen is established from the beginning to be rotten, but watching Mare squirm out from under her thumb is delightful. Various other minor characters add color to the backdrop of the story.

All in all, Red Queen was a well-paced, vivid read that was alternately heart-wrenching and triumphant. The ending was more bitter than I’d liked, but the suspense of the whole story was great and had me eagerly anticipating the sequel. All in all, 4 out 5 stars.

Note: this book is part of a four-book series. It’s followed by Glass Sword, King’s Cage, and War Storm.

Second Chance

When the strong winds of mistakes blows in,

it scoops up the tiny, feather-light seeds

of opportunity,

then blows out.

There is no looking back.

Only looking forward

running forward

two feet

one chance

double the effort

to catch up with the wind and

catch those seeds and

plant them.

The seeds–

they will grow into a

tall and mighty

tree,

with more seeds

of opportunity

to sow.

“The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Rating – 3.5/5 stars

Overall – “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton as an intriguing read. The premise (and the vibrant, colorful cover) are what immediately drew me in.

Orleáns is a world where beauty is prized above all else. According to the people’s mythology, the Sky God became jealous of how his wife, the Goddess of Beauty, spent more time with their children—humans—than him. As revenge, he turned all humans red-eyed, gray-skinned, and doomed to one day go crazy. These “ugly” humans, called the Gris people, had no hope until the Goddess of Beauty bestowed upon them a gift: the Belles. The Belles are young women born beautiful and with the power to turn others beautiful (albeit temporarily). When all Belles turn sixteen, they are presented at the palace, where the queen will assign different places to live and work for each of them. Camellia Beauregard and her five sisters are the only Belles in her generation, and each one wants to be chosen as favorite—the most powerful Belle, who lives at court and advises the queen and princess on beauty and fashion decisions. Camille loves her sister, but harbors a fierce desire to become the favorite. After navigating through disappointment, anger, and confusing secrets, she becomes the favorite—only to find out that life is not as rosy as she thinks. The princess slowly demands that she do more and more horrifying things. The queen begs Camille to use her powers in unintended ways to heal her other, comatose, daughter. And through all of this, Camille fights to figure out the mysteries of court—and of the Belles, where they come from, and what their real use is.

Let’s first talk about the premise for this book. The author encloses a letter to the reader at the back of the book talking about why she wrote the book. It’s obvious from the cover and the blurb on the inner jacket flap that the book is going to be focusing a lot on beauty. I think that the questions the author tried to explore in this book were “What is beauty?” and “Who defines what is beautiful?” These elements do come through in her writing; the societal and cultural background of the story clearly reveals to the reader that that the people of Orleans believe that beauty is the opposite of what they are born as. The whole premise of the book revolves around people who are born thinking of themselves as ugly, and are practically addicted to constantly undergoing plastic surgery to be accepted as beautiful by others. When put like that, the whole idea seems absurd and unnecessary. I feel like in this book, the author intended to mirror and exaggerate the faith people in our modern-day world have in the fact that if they try just a little bit harder—or spend a little more money paying for another surgery—they will be just as beautiful as the celebrities they see in the media.

It’s a theme that’s being talked about in real life as well; I think the author hoped that by exaggerating our reality just a bit more until it seemed crazy, readers would realize how flawed our perception of beauty is, and how each person has a different way of being beautiful. I feel like the main theme, while powerful and relevant to readers today, doesn’t really successfully come through in the book. The book describes the twists and turns of Camille’s court life and her relationships with her sisters after being split up. Later, her main problems include whether to help cure the unconscious princess, how to obey the awake princess’s demands to make those she is jealous of less beautiful, and her troubling feelings for a boy. The idea of beauty’s excessively important role in Orleans—and even our own society—comes through well when describing the setting. It’s all in the small things, such as how women completely change their body types and physiques every few months to keep up with the trends, or how beauty tokens to pay for treatments are extremely hard to procure, or even how the Belles have had to formulate a tea to serve as a painkiller for patients during surgery (yes, beauty IS pain, and a lot of pain at that). The details are subtle. The plot subtly suggests this theme, but readers have to be astute to pick up on this hidden message. I suppose this might be for the better; after all, there is some pride that comes with figuring out the theme of a complex story. Overall, I wasn’t quite satisfied with how well the message came through. While the main ideas are well conveyed in the backdrop, the actual story doesn’t seem to completely revolve around the idea of how beauty is given too much importance.

I may have ranted about the message of the story, but my other problem with this book is how passive the narrator is. She witnesses and is forced to perform many of horrible events—changing a woman’s face to make her look like a pig, for example—in this story. Camellia understandably tries to protect herself from the full force of the princess’s wrath; still, it’s hard not to judge her for letting other people make her do things and try to make amends later, even if she knows the demands aren’t ethical or the right thing to do. When her best friend is selected as the original favorite, Camellia wanted the position so badly that she can’t feel any happiness for Amber; instead, she’s angry and jealous. Thankfully, she moves past this phase. The ending is satisfying mainly because Camellia realizes the error in her ways and seeks to fix her mistake. It provides a hint of a promise that she’s changed, as most good protagonists are supposed to do. Although the plot arch is well constructed and the conclusion is intriguing but fulfilling, I still feel a little annoyed that Camellia was an indecisive narrator for so much of the book.

What I truly have to commend Dhonielle Clayton for is her world-building. Lately, I’ve been interested mostly in dystopian fiction, and setting is SO important there: is there a corrupt government? Is there a geographical reason why things are so bad? Is the world about to end? Although I wouldn’t quite classify this book as dystopian—the premise is a little less blatant and a little more magical than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, for instance—the world that this book is set in really affects how and why each character acts the way they do. I feel like one of the most important questions in a dystopian novel is whether there are cultural and social obligations driving each character’s actions. Ms. Clayton effectively presents Orleans as a vibrant society of people who are motivated by the attainment of their society’s idea of beauty, and how everyone—even the young Grises who haven’t had their first beautifying surgery yet—is affected by the compulsive need to be on trend and possess beauty. Without all of the subtle details I mentioned before that the author tucks in here and there, it would be much harder to understand the characters, and the plot arch of the story would be much less logical. Although I wish the plot had been more centered on Ms. Clayton’s beliefs, the way she paints the backdrop of a sparkling yet greedy Orleáns is well done. She doesn’t force the idea of beauty’s idea on us too much because she knows that most readers were raised that way, surrounded by icons and media that encouraged going through any length to look perfect. I think that she balances how much detail to add and how much to leave to imagination really well.

All in all, an intriguing story. I have some minor issues with how the book was constructed, but it was on the most part a satisfying read with a surprising ending. And who doesn’t like a surprise?

Where is Dua Lipa From?

I love world history. I especially love world politics. I have loved it ever since I took a Model United Nations camp last summer, and had the opportunity to represent a country’s problems in front of a mock General Assembly. This truly gave me the chance to deeply examine where a country’s problems may stem from, be it a certain ideology, geographical issues, or the threat of an enemy. For such a complex subject, world history should frankly have a larger textbook that can contain all the different mishaps/conflicts/victories that have occurred ever since mankind realized that certain people wielding power over others was called politics.

I’d like to share with you a conflict that has occurred fairly recently. Please keep in mind that my aim is to inform, not slander. If I seem to skip over parts of history, it’s simply because I don’t know that part of the story. I will also try my best to give the most objective account of the story and do my best not to incorporate my own political biases.

Whew! Okay. Disclaimers are over. Let’s talk about Kosovo. In truth, I only first became interested in Kosovo because my favorite singer, Dua Lipa, is from there. But that’s beside the point. Kosovo has a fascinating history that I’m very excited to share with you!

Do you know where Kosovo is? You can find it on a map of Europe. But you may have to do a little searching—Europe is fairly big and Kosovo is fairly small. It’s no Vatican City or Andorra, but it could easily fit inside of, say, Austria or even Macedonia. It’s located a ways north of Greece and is surrounded by Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Montenegro.

A fairly reasonable conclusion to draw about Kosovo from this information is that it’s a country—albeit a fairly small country, but then again, aren’t most European countries? Surprise! It’s not a country. Wikipedia classifies it as a state of disputed status—a fancy term for when people can’t decide if a parcel of land is a country or not. Some countries, like the United States, argue that it is. India, among others, argues that Kosovo is not a country. Well, if it isn’t, you might be wondering, what is it then?

Close your eyes. I’m taking you back to the end of World War 1. It’s 1918 and the world is reeling in the aftermath of a brutally bloody war. Austria-Hungary has just split up, and one of the countries formed from the remnants is christened Yugoslavia. This country encompasses modern-day Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. As you can imagine, it’s a mishmash of a few different ethnicities, such as Croats (from Croatia) and Serbs (from Serbia). However, it’s important to note that Serbs weren’t the majority in Serbia but in fact the minority; most of the country was ethnic Albanian.

A country with a mishmash of different ethnicities is usually fine, but not in Yugoslavia, which eventually fractured along its ethnic lines into various countries that I’ve already mentioned before. This happened in part because of Serbia.

In the rough 1980s or 90s, a Serbian man named Slobodan Milosevic became president. For the ethnic Albanians, he was bad news. Milosevic focused on increasing Serbian nationalism and ethnic pride. Everything was fine until this nationalism turned somehow into a persecution of the majority ethnicity, the Albanians.

The Albanians pulled a Mahatma Gandhi and tried a non-violent separation, which formed the Republic of Kosova. Unfortunately, Kosova was only recognized as a country by Albania. Some of the Albanians formed the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla group whose friction with the Serbian police escalated into the Kosovo War.

The bloody war has, thankfully, since ended, but the discussion continues today. Kosovo officially stated its independence from Serbia in 2008. The argument over this statement’s legitimacy is fairly cut-and-dry: Kosovo’s and NATO’s (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies recognize Kosovo as a country, while Serbia’s allies don’t and argue it is still part of Serbia. European countries that do not recognize Kosovo include Cyprus, Romania, Spain, and Slovakia. However, Albania, Turkey, France, Denmark, and many more do. As long as a few powerful countries protest Kosovo’s independence, it can never be accepted as a Member State of the UN. But that was nearly twenty years ago; maybe a new, more peaceful generation will extend friendship on both sides.

Either way, an American map will show Kosovo as a tiny smudge on the European map. It looks so tiny that the country’s label has to be abbreviated ‘KOS’. But I think that for some Kosovars, that may be enough.