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.