Initial reaction: My thoughts are - if you go into this novel with any kind of expectations, you might end up disappointed. For me, it was an okay read and held my attention through the novel, but far more often than I wanted to be - I felt annoyed with certain aspects of the novel - from the focal points of the plot (frustrating and overfocused love triangle, Mare making really stupid decisions, etc.) to other aspects.
I honestly think "Red Queen" had potential to work with as far as being able to mold a distinct narrative that could hold its own. Problem is that this book is so painfully derivative that it took away any kind of potential distinction in its delivery. I'm mentally facepalming in the aftermath of reading this and asking "Why?" It's not that hard to be creative with this kind of plot and make it more immersive as well as distinct. It's far too easy to align yourself to a template and stick to that template so fast that you suck all the fun out of what your work could potentially become. Unfortunately, that's precisely what Victoria Aveyard ended up doing.
That's not to say that I thought this book didn't have its share of fun and harrowing moments. I just found that for every step this book took to pull me into its journey, it repelled me for really silly/bland/unremarkable things.
I can say with confidence after reading that this book followed far too closely in the footsteps Pierce Brown's "Red Rising" among other contemporary, popular YA dystopians. As well, this is the very definition of the highly criticized portrayal of a "dystoromance" - as the dystopian plot hinges very strongly on the central love....quadrangle. As much as I feel like Aveyard probably tried to turn the tables and make the romance angle falter on a significant scale, the revelation came far too late to save it from being a complete wreck.
Having missed all the hype about this book, aI was surprised that this book had a great deal of holds in my public library, figuring it must have been a highly publicized title. But here's an interesting observation: when I went to my (several) local bookstores, there were several copies of this book still on the shelves and put on discount. My first thought was "Uh oh...something's up. Maybe this book isn't selling as well as people thought it would."
Now I know why. "Red Queen" is the story of Mare Barrow, she's a part of the lower class of Reds who have to get drafted into the army by a certain age if they can't find apprenticeship work. The higher class of this purported society, though threadbare in its drawing, are Silvers with supposed unmatched powers that are god-like. (Okay, first of all - Darrow is the MC for Brown's "Red Rising" and Darrow's lower class citizens on Mars are Reds, with the higher class being Golds and the Golds are supposed to be god-like. Second, doesn't the scenario for war drafting as far as age sound remarkably similar to "The Hunger Games"? There are more YA dystopian series similarities, bear with me.)
So Mare pretty much gets in a situation where she's trying to keep a friend from going to war ("Hunger Games" similarity, though unlike "Hunger Games" it's not a sibling that's being drafted), and she ends up crossing paths with a resistance group that she wants to buy her friend out of the drafting and escape. That fails. Mare tries to get a connection from her sister to rob people in the Silver society - ends up failing massively on that scale too. It isn't until she gets the mercy of a stranger that she gets an "in" to the royal entourage, who just so happens to be a prince who's looking for a wife in terms of a kingdom-wide competition. (Similarities to Kiera Cass's "The Selection" - notably, I haven't read that series, but I know the jist of events.)
It just so happens that Mare - Mary Sue extraordinaire - finds that she's not quite like the other Reds because - by accident, she learns that she wields electricity and her touch can be deadly. (Maybe some people can enlighten me, but does this sound eerily similar to Tahereh Mafi's "Shatter Me" series? I haven't read that yet, but that was also compared to X-men and a dystopian type environment, right? And weren't those who had special abilities hunted down or some such?)
The royal government of Silvers are pissed at this revelation, and attempt to erase her identity and make her one of them! She gets touted as a long lost member of an important political family and auto-betrothed. She gets put in pretty gowns, educated in classes on etiquette and kingdom know-how, paraded around like a political pixie queen as a symbol for the Silver's link to Red society, gets torn between lust (because it is lust, not love - it's hard to palpate the affections she has in this novel because they're so threadbare) to the two princes of the court. Mare realizes she can manipulate her relationships and ties to get ahead and put Reds on the path to rebellion ('cause she's extra special), and then decides to hinge all her plans based on her romantic ties within this corrupt government because she's the only person who can give the Rebellion an edge with her connections.
You can probably guess that this plan of Mare's does not go over very well. Plus, this is like playing YA dystopian alphabet soup for the plot similarities. (For some reason, I was also reminded of Final Fantasy XII, but that may just be my random mind. No Balthier or Fran though. Darn.) I was like "Dude...I don't even know what to say. I consider myself a well-versed reader in this genre and even for the stuff I haven't read, I know this is too much in terms of similarity. This is borderline copy pasta."
That's not to say that there weren't times I was invested in this novel. I wanted to like this book more. I'll admit it kept me reading, but I felt like everything this book gave me was threadbare and too convenient. The setting details, the overarching conflict, the slavery, the ongoing war. Heck, even the Resistance movement felt too easily moved into - how is it that Mare had such an instantaneous recognition and tie to this movement if they were so well hidden?
I think Aveyard also tried to throw too much into the ending. I couldn't feel much investment into the overarching political game being played. That would've been brilliant if the execution were stronger, but it came too little, too late in the novel. Plus, Mare (especially Mare) and the other characters made too many stupid decisions to really make their positions have more power and potency. I can get behind characters making mistakes or missteps, but this was one too many for me to believe in and I ended up annoyed through most of the work at the characters and situations included. Pulling political strings and acting as a mask for your Empire is one thing, hinging all your decisions based on love or other misguided/inaccurate/presumptive assumptions is another.
In the end, "Red Queen", despite a beautiful cover, is very little more than just tying a pretty newish bow on stories already done (and better) by peers in the genre. I would say if this series wants to get a leg up and distinguish itself for its own merits, it's going to have to bring much more development, immersion, and establishment in the next book. Aveyard has her narrative work cut out for her to make it happen, I feel. I just hope it's not a "name that popular YA genre" hodgepodge.
Overall score: 2.5/5 stars.