Initial reaction: *shakes head* One of the few times I'm speechless as one of the authors I hold in high regard wrote one of the most ethnocentric and bigoted pieces of fiction I've read in this genre to date. I'm honestly stunned. Native populations deserve a lot better than this. (As does the GLBT community).
I mean, I know that this book is stand-alone and told from the perspective of different girls in each of the three books, but if your first book starts out with something like this, it's incredibly hard to want to read anything else it has to offer. Not even Mira or Tamsin saved this book for me, and I liked their characters quite a bit.
All right, I've had a night to sleep on my thoughts on this, and even now, it still fills me with dread having to write this review because I really like Richelle Mead's works. I loved Vampire Academy (though it took me a while to warm up to it). I even liked what little I've read of the Bloodlines series, and some of her adult urban fantasy works as well. The "Age of X" series had its problems, but I still found it worth following to some extent as well. Which makes me wonder "What the hell happened here?"
To put this into context: I haven't read Kiera Cass's "The Selection" series - and I have no desire to do so for my own reasons. However, when I heard Richelle Mead would explore similar themes in this new series, I thought "Okay, if there's anybody I trust who could make that sort of thing interesting, it would be her. Let's do this!"
Before I get into the ethnocentrism and bigotry in this novel (because it's a long discussion and once I get started on that, I'm going to try to streamline the discussion to make it easier to swallow), I'm going to highlight some of the base problems with this book on a collective note. This really didn't feel like a book written by Richelle Mead to me. I've read a good number of her works and many of them seem to have these respective strengths: strong worldbuilding, well-developed and identifiable characters, palpable tension and conflict, and a strong sense of immersion into the story she's crafted. Usually when I pick up a book by her, I'll expect to settle into the journey and want to be drawn into it and the voice of the character perspective Mead takes on.
This book had little to none of these things.
A restricted young woman from a family of power and high privilege decides she wants more freedom in her life - base description of where this story begins. Elizabeth is a very pampered girl, used to flowing gowns and making replications of art among other things in high society life. Feeling like she's too restricted and wanting the freedom (of all things) to choose the man she wants to marry, she decides to take the place of her maid for an opportunity to go to an elite institution called "The Glittering Court" - special opportunity for housekeepers and common people to be taught manners and given the chance to be sold to the highest bidder of a suitor of their choice. (I don't see how this scenario is much better than the situation she was facing with her grandmother, but I followed it, nonetheless.)
Think of it sort of as a "Prince and the Pauper" scenario, only nowhere near as interesting because the Pauper disappears just as quickly as she comes. So Adelaide (Elizabeth's new identity) assumes her new role with a little help from the Glittering Court recruiter (Cedric Thorn) who decides to keep her identity secret. From there, Adelaide makes "friends" (there's a reason why I put this in quotes) with Tamsin and Mira during her time at the Glittering Court, as they participate in training to prepare them to move into the New World for their respective matchings. Then, once in the New World, Adelaide has to figure how to survive as a frontierswoman and overcome a corrupt scheme that threatens to tear apart her and the one she ends up choosing to be with.
So, what's the problem with this, you may ask? Where do I begin?
1. Wrong genre classification. This is not a fantasy. This is not a fantasy. THIS IS NOT A FANTASY. It may have fictionalized names of tribes and places, but it's really a thinly veiled attempt at expressing a world/scenario similar to English settlers colonizing Native American lands. It feels like it could've been an attempt at historical fiction, only if it had been, I think fans would've been railing at the factual inaccuracies and practical erasure of tribal histories and palpable conflicts in order to further the love story here. There are no magic wielders, and it's not even a dystopian universe. There's really little to no struggle for the Osfridians because they're the dominant culture, and the tribes that are barely in the book rarely present any conflicts (and when they are, it's usually the people from Osfrid who are presenting the problematic scenarios and taking jabs to knock them down and make them seem like "savages" or "uncivilized").
So, I don't understand what Mead was going for here. The worldbuilding was scant at best for differentiating between the actual history and this so-called fantasy world. I sat on my hands hoping it would immerse me more and come across as a very different realm with something substantial to it, but it's really blatant and problematic.
2. Very long and tedious story that feels like it has pieces missing from it. Granted, I know this respective series - in each book - is told from the perspective of a single character in a self-contained insert of a larger story, but it feels like characters appear and disappear for no rhyme or reason. In this book, you're only left with Adelaide's candid (oftentimes infuriating) assumptions as to where or what other people are doing at a given time. I think this book might've had better balance if it'd had the POV switches focusing on the heart of the ongoing conflicts, thus making the narrative feel a bit more full and complete for conflict and character development.
I don't mind reading about governesses or beautiful balls or displays of lavish wealth and sophistication - as long as you can make me care about it. That the experience is novel, relevant, immersive to the story one's telling. For me, that's just one of the few problems with Adelaide's POV taking the reins of this particular tale, and I hated the lot of it for that.
3. Adelaide. Yes, Adelaide is a problem. She is, by far, the weakest and most abhorrent heroine that I've read from Mead to date. I found it incredibly hard to care about her. It wasn't just for her fatal flaws. True, she's selfish, pampered, sheltered from her privileged upbringing. That would be one thing, because there's something to seeing a heroine like that grow from her experiences and interactions, learning from them. Yet, she showed very little to no growth of character through this entire narrative, which made it boring to follow her respective story. I mean, what problems did she have for a good portion of this narrative? She left her home of her own willful deceit, she decides to keep her governess upbringing a secret as she tries to further her own means to an end in the Glittering Court and win the opportunity to choose the one she wanted to be with (only to end up not going that route at all). She's a *special snowflake* who ended up getting courted by one of the biggest people of privilege from the get-go (and from one who willingly - and conveniently - bends all the rules of the court just to get it done). Really, the only problems she really had were more towards the end, and that was problematic in and of itself.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD:
So how do they get out of that scenario? By the aide of a character who never once made an appearance until the last possible second. Convenient, no?
But Adelaide's character feels like she does so much only for Cedric's sake or just to try to prove she's not as pampered as people think she is. (Which she proves otherwise through certain attitudes and actions). *sighs*
4. Side character plights are far more interesting than the MC's, but they're deferred. This saddens me because Mira and Tamsin's characters actually have really solid foundations for story. I think they were what kept me reading through this narrative even when I wanted to throw the book down in disgust. They were the characters who had the most to lose if they didn't gain the status they were looking for in the Glittering Court. But yet when they disappear from Adelaide's viewpoint, they're gone. They come in and out, and you have no idea what became of them, so the story feels incomplete and their characters feel shortchanged where they could've been much stronger.
Now I get into the discussions of how horribly prejudiced this entire narrative is:
1. Pro-colonization: This book could be seen as a very glamorized portrayal of colonization. In the overarching perspective of this book - these girls aren't just getting primped and prepped to be married off to handsome suitors, they're being married off to people colonizing the "New World" in order to be governesses of men who basically took lands from the Native tribes already living there. Never mind exploring what Osfridians did to get that land, but hey - it's all about the pretty dresses and being married off to the highest bidder! Not to mention rewriting history for what it actually entailed!
2. Casual racism and anti-LGBT: I cannot tell you how many times I flinched at hearing the word "savages" in this book by the majority of the cast of characters here, like it's a normal thing and not considered a slur or insult. Reading that made me feel like I was getting my fingernails forcefully torn off). Even Adelaide seems comfortable (and doesn't seem the least bit informed) about referring to the New World's land as unkempt, wild, "uncivilized." This isn't just language referring to being a frontierswoman and surviving the elements, but rather it's directed to the people living there in an attempt to supposedly make it more "civilized" on the part of Osfridians. It's incredibly insulting.
Adelaide also barely bats an eye at the racism that's directed towards Mira considering Mira's a refugee "with a funny accent". It even shows her position of unabashed privilege when she takes it upon herself to help Mira get her accent closer to being proper Osfridian. She only cares because Mira is "her friend" while making rampantly ignorant comments about such ethnicity in just about every conversation Mira comes across. When there's a rumor about Mira's supposed promiscuity - on one hand Adelaide defends Mira's honor by slut shaming another girl (saying she looks "like a whore"), but upon Mira's sudden, frequent disappearances, Adelaide wonders if the rumors were true.
I'm sitting in my chair listening to the audiobook of this with my hand covering my mouth in horror as it plays out.
The one instance of LGBT mention came from a minority businesswoman Adelaide comes across (whom Adelaide points out doesn't look Native for her features. Which I raged enough about as I read it. What does being a minority "look" like anyway, and how is it not prejudicial to judge someone based on their looks? Like why was that even a thing here?). The woman talks about her relationship with another woman and how it didn't work out. Adelaide had the audacity to question whether the woman was even attracted to women in the first place and if it was the reason why she "dressed in men's clothes" because she didn't feel like a woman.
I...just have no words to that. I really don't. Didn't help that Adelaide felt embarrassed after the fact for the questioning because there was no takeaway from Adelaide's part in that conversation. I wish I could do more direct quoting but since I had the audiobook version of it, I can't paste more direct citations of all the problematic things that were said here.
It was enough to cause me to put the book down more than once, questioning if I really would DNF this book. I don't think many people would have blamed me for DNFing this one - not just in my identification as a POC, but also just feeling incensed at how prejudice is shown in this book and the context in which it was put. It was at least somewhat palpable with the religious persecution, but yet when it came to racial and poverty distinctions? Nope, didn't treat it with the same respect at all, and you would think if the book took the time to show these horrible forms of discrimination that the heroine would have a single clue or care aside from the person her affections turned toward. *sighs*
Honestly, I would recommend people avoid the heck out of this book. It's really insulting to many minority groups and historically (and genre-notably) inaccurate. I don't know if I'll be looking into the rest of the series yet. I did like Mira and Tamsin (Tamsin had only a few moments in the book to shine - particularly where she called out Adelaide on her B.S., but it was sadly shortlived). But even their characters weren't enough to save this from being an offensive, lacking mess.
Overall score: 0.5/5 stars.