Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

©HarperTeen

The genre: Fantasy, dystopian, YA

The gist: A teen girl copes with her unexpected role in a world where people are divided into classes by the color of their blood, red or silver.

The background: I saw this pop up on Goodreads about a year ago and was taken in by the bold, minimal cover, high rating, and dystopian/fantasy setting. I love detailed worldbuilding, and the premise of this one—where people have either red or silver blood and the Silvers have supernatural powers—sounded cool. I was ready to jump into this four-book series.

The tea: This book read like an extremely watered-down Hunger Games. It’s Diet Hunger Games. Or, as one reviewer put it on Goodreads, the Walmart version of Hunger Games. I know tropes and formulas in genre fiction exist for a reason—because they’re tried and true and they work—but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes every time I came across yet another structural element or plot point of HG in Red Queen, without Aveyard having done the work of infusing the heart and soul.

Like HG, Red Queen is set in a dystopian-like (albeit fantasy, which HG is not) world with a tyrannical government, and each opens with a fear-mongering, government-held event meant to scare the masses into submission (the Reaping in HG, First Friday in Red Queen). Also like HG, Red Queen has a sixteen-year-old heroine who has a special skill that makes her resourceful and scrappy (Katniss’ in HG is archery/hunting, Mare’s in RQ is pickpocketing), has a gentler and younger sister she worries about, lives an impoverished life in an impoverished region, becomes an unwilling mascot for the revolution, and gets a catchy nickname (Katniss is the Girl on Fire, Mare is “the little lightning girl”). Finally, RQ features a love triangle in which the heroine struggles to choose between a sweet boy and more headstrong boy (coughcough Peeta and Gale…).

I think I’m accidentally making this book sound better than it is.

Because the fact is, the best elements of The Hunger Games—a fleshed-out world, a flawed but strong heroine who has solid motives you can empathize with—weren’t there at all. If anything, Red Queen is a cheap version of this. Maybe I’m being unfair; HG is exceptionally good. But even without comparing the two, Red Queen falls flat. It’s light and inconsequential. I didn’t feel anything when reading it. I couldn’t buy into it.

That said, I do give Aveyard some credit for the somewhat unique world she created with the Silver superpowers and blood color determining one’s station in life. But it’s almost like she didn’t know her own creation enough to dig deeper and, disappointingly, barely scratched the surface.

The wrap-up: Don’t waste your time. The YA, fantasy, and dystopia genres have so many better books to offer.

The rating: 1.5/5

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

©Razorbill

The genre: Horror, YA

The gist: Four-book series. Various high school girls deal with a demon possession.

The background: If it’s not clear already, I’m a horror fan. So the first book in this series, with its simple, bold cover design of a pentagram on a hot pink background, caught my eye on Goodreads in 2017. And after I read the description—that Vega’s story is Stephen King meets Mean Girls—I was instantly on board.

The tea: These books are like candy: what they lack in substance they make up for in fun.

Vega doles out sharply written, suspenseful, and scary scenes straight out of a horror film, even if she might not fully deliver on the backstory for the evil present in her series’ world. And if a book merely describing a character suddenly standing in a doorway makes me compulsively flick my eyes to my own doorway—just to make sure—I know picked the right book. That’s what I signed up for.

Deeper, psychological horror, this series is not. And while, at the end of the day, I prefer the kind of horror that sticks with me when I go to bed at night, I also appreciate a good, truly creepy moment, one that might be forgotten hours later but puts you a little on edge in the moment. (Though a grotesque scene from the series with a spoon comes to mind that I actually wish I could forget.) And the Merciless books deliver in spades on that front.

Another thing I like about this series is that it places horror in a contemporary, suburban world. Vega is far from the first to do this, but I love stories that plop the extraordinary right into the middle of the ordinary. In the Merciless series, it’s a demon hiding in Anytown, USA—in the local high school, the local church group, even in an empty model suburban tract home.

I devoured this series pretty quickly and didn’t end up much wiser for it, but I had a damn good time. Like I said: horror candy.

The wrap-up: Does what it says on the tin; no more, no less. If you’re a horror fan and go into it without too many expectations, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the series as much as I did.

The rating: 3.5/5

I’m allowed to be afraid, I remind myself, taking a deep breath of the hot, stale hallway air. I’m just not allowed to run away.

—Danielle Vega, The Merciless
Video

Dear Stephenie Meyer,

Like a lot of girls circa 2005-2008, I read the Twilight series. I wasn’t quite part of the demographic of pre-teens to fifteen-year-olds the series was marketed to, as a late teen/twenty-year-old at the time, but I got aboard the hype train.

And eventually, the hate train.

With its sparkly vampires, do-nothing protagonist, and predictable plot lines, Twilight was and is an easy target for criticism.

But so are a lot of things. So, why did Twilight and its author Stephenie Meyer get SO. MUCH. HATE. (like, a lot of hate. Like, an unbelievable amount of hate) when other, equally mindless entertainment with equally problematic role models got a pass?

In short, society loves to hate on teen girls.

This video essay by YouTuber and author Lindsay Ellis (okay, I know I’ve posted frequently about Ellis but idc, great content is great content) exploring the topic and offering an apology to author Stephenie Meyer kind of blew my mind when I first watched it, and it opened my eyes to some of my own internalized misogyny.

Not that Twilight hate is super trendy anymore, but I can safely say I have jumped off that bandwagon, and I hope this helps me be more aware of jumping on any similar bandwagons in the future. (I mean, I’ll still enjoy a parody now and again, I’m not a saint.)

Let’s let teenage girls like things, without the heaps of shame.

TL;DW:After a while, the ‘it’s problematic’ argument starts to feel like a lazy excuse to hate on a popular thing teenage girls liked rather than good faith criticism. … Why was Stephanie Meyer so loathed? She didn’t do anything! She wrote a wish-fulfillment book. It’s not great, but it’s far from the worst of its genre.

Yes, Twilight is silly. A lot of pop culture is silly. Imagine the same level of vitriol being leveled at the equally silly Fast and the Furious franchise. Both are dumb cheese, but they are dumb cheese targeting different markets. So why is one dumb cheese the object of so much pearl-clutching over who’s a good role model, and the other [is just fine]?”

For similar content on why we should collectively ease up on teenage girls, check out my post on poet Olivia Gatwood’s piece “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls.”

Literary cat shout-out: Buttercup

Literary cat shout-out: Buttercup

©Lionsgate Entertainment

This scrappy fuzzball from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins belongs to heroine Katniss Everdeen’ sister Prim. He appears in all three novels (and four films) as a comforting companion to Prim and an annoyance to Katniss, with whom he’s not on the friendliest of terms due to her (expositional) attempt to drown him in a bucket—bad Katniss! Eventually, though, she accepts Prim’s attachment to him.

Buttercup is said to be a good mouser and even catches the occasional rat. He’s described in the novels as looking a little worse-for-wear with a mashed-in nose and half of one ear missing—which tracks, considering his rough life in the impoverished District 12. His name comes from Prim insisting that his muddy yellow coat matches the bright buttercup flower.

In fact, the makers of the Hunger Games films tried to pull a fast one by casting a black-and-white cat as Buttercup in the first movie. Collins and fans (rightfully) demanded he be changed to a yellow-haired cat for the rest of the films to stay true to the novels and his namesake.

©Lionsgate Entertainment

When the Everdeen family moves into a new, much larger house in Catching Fire, Buttercup and Katniss slowly bond over their shared dislike of their new home. Katniss even starts sharing scraps from her hunting kills with him and deigns to give him the occasional behind-the-ear rub.

In Mockingjay, when the resistance moves into what’s essentially a massive underground bunker in District 13, Katniss finds Buttercup while on a venture to the now-destroyed District 12 and brings him back for her sister, even though pets aren’t allowed.

At one point when 13 is on lockdown during a bombing from the Capitol, Buttercup helps ease the tension by entertaining the troops, so to speak, chasing a flashlight beam and giving Katniss an epiphany about how her enemy is taunting her. And making everyone LOL. (Even in wartime, people can still laugh at cat antics—call it a testament to the human spirit.)

©Lionsgate Entertainment

We don’t get to see a ton of Buttercup, since he lives in District 12 (and eventually 13) and our POV character Katniss is usually off fighting for her life somewhere else, but he makes his few appearances count.

Case in point: this passage from Mockingjay, which I’ll let close. Now that I’ve typed it out, I need to go find whoever’s chopping onions around here…

©Lionsgate Entertainment

*SPOILER*

My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out, or maybe he couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.

“It was a waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you want. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s never ever coming back here again!” Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I clutch my middle to dull the pain. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving new voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious.

But he must understand. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.

—Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Literary cat shout-out: Crookshanks

Literary cat shout-out: Crookshanks

©Warner Bros.

Clever Crookshanks belongs to none other than Hermione Granger, Brightest Witch of Her Age™ from the Harry Potter series. He’s half-Kneazle, half-cat, and fully adorable. (Harry would say that’s a matter of opinion, but I would say he’s wrong.)

He’s described as having a thick, fluffy ginger coat, a bottlebrush tail, a squashed, grumpy face, and slightly bandy legs. Per the Harry Potter Lexicon, his name is taken from the surname Cruikshank, which means “crooked legs.”

He bursts into the Potterverse for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the Magical Menagerie pet store in Diagon Alley when he yeets himself at Ron and nearly kills him.

Hermione sees this and thinks, “I need this creature in my life.”

“Okay,” said Ron. “How much—OUCH!”

Ron buckled as something huge and orange came soaring from the top of the highest cage, landed on his head, and then propelled itself, spitting madly, at Scabbers.

“NO, CROOKSHANKS, NO!” cried the witch, but Scabbers shot from between her hands like a bar of soap.

It took them nearly ten minutes to catch Scabbers, who had taken refuge under a wastepaper bin outside. Ron stuffed the trembling rat back into his pocket and straightened up, massaging his head.

“What was that?”

“It was either a very big cat or quite a small tiger,” said Harry.

“Where’s Hermione?”

“Probably getting her owl.”

Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.

“You bought that monster?” said Ron, his mouth hanging open.

“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said Hermione, glowing.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
©Warner Bros.

As Potterheads know—and as his fictional humans did not at the time—Crookshanks was only trying to attack a Death Eater in disguise, like a good boy. Hermione obviously made a smart choice in her familiar, but Crookshanks was smart to choose Hermione too. Throughout all his prowlings of the Hogwarts grounds after Hermione took him to school with her—when he could’ve dipped out forevs—he always wound up back home in front of the fire in Gryffindor Tower.

I’m of the mind that cats are like wands: they choose the wizard.

Other things Crookshanks was smart about in Prisoner of Azkaban include knowing that Sirus Black was always to be trusted and how to calm the Whomping Willow by touching a knot in the trunk.

“He’s the most intelligent of his kind I’ve ever met.”

—Sirius Black

Not only that, he managed to single-pawedly orchestrate Sirius’ break-in of Gryffindor Tower by stealing the portrait passwords from Neville’s bedside table. I’ll say it again. A CAT. Helped the most WANTED criminal in Britain break into Hogwarts. Good job, school.

Credit: Kaiserr

J. K. Rowling’s decision to give Hermione an unusually intelligent cat was inspired by a real-life, large, fluffy ginger cat that hung around the square where she ate lunch when she worked in London. The cat, who “looked as though it had run face-first into a wall,” prowled around with a disdainful look, avoiding peoples’ attempts to stroke it. Rowling never got close but became “distantly fond” of the cat.

In the Harry Potter series, Rowling made Crookshanks a bit friendlier than his IRL counterpart—he purrs loudly and curls up in laps often, Harry’s included. Even Ron, who seems to be yelling at or about Crookshanks on every other page in Azkaban, comes around to sort of liking him, offering his new pet owl Pigwidgeon to him at the end of the book for the Crookshanks Seal of Approval Sniff Test™.

©Warner Bros.

This bushy-haired boy may have been a little misunderstood throughout his page-time in the books because of his intelligence, but as I’m sure his bushy-haired mom would agree, intelligence is a trait worth being misunderstood for.

The common room was almost empty; nearly everyone was still down at dinner. Crookshanks uncoiled himself from an armchair and trotted to meet them, purring loudly, and when Harry, Ron and Hermione took their three favorite chairs at the fireside he leapt lightly on to Hermione’s lap and curled up there like a furry ginger cushion. 

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
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Obvi this tweet made me lol, but it also made me think: Why did the Hogwarts founders think it was best to separate the students by personality type?

Didn’t they ever hear of “opposites attract,” or considered, as evidenced by their very founding of a school together, that people need to learn to get along with all types of people in life?

To be fair, the kids do get to interact with students in houses other than their own—in classes when competing over house points or when trying to whack bludgers at each other on the Quidditch pitch.

No wonder Dumbledore’s Army was a success: the Hufflepuffs, Gryffs, and Ravenclaws just wanted to hang.