Red Queen Series Book 2, HarperTeen, 2016, 440 pgs.
Forewarning here, major spoilers for both books in the series.
Betrayed by the prince she thought of as an ally and friend, Mare escapes the palace with one small piece of hope: a list of names that lets her know there are others like her. These people, red-blooded but with powers of their own, may be the key to winning a war against the Silvers. Mare must find them first, though, to train them. And to keep them out of now-King Maven’s clutches.
Well, let’s start with the good and the neutral. Some things haven’t changed much from the first book, and there are some definite improvements here, too, so let’s talk about those.
Glass Sword is just as generic and predictable as the first book in its series, to the extent that you can still sort of see the skeleton of The Hunger Games poking out from under the skin of the new characters and world. I don’t necessarily mean this as a bad thing, either. I’m as happy with popcorn-flick formula as the next person, but I’ve read enough of it to notice it when it’s present. It’s definitely present here. This is the second book in a dystopian series, where there’s far less prancing around in formal wear and far more government oppression.
It serves the same purpose, too, to make it clear that the well of awfulness runs extremely deep in this world and that any move to make things better is going to be met with quick, violent payback. To this end, it hits a lot of the same beats that Catching Fire did. The tone has changed from exploratory to revolutionary, as the main character changes from a backwater girl to a symbol of political resistance. “Little lightning girl” becomes just as much of a burden as “girl on fire” ever did, and, like the nickname, the catchphrases used in the first book carry through and shift their meaning. The plot structure is similar too, with the seeming peace before the plot actually hits leading to an almost despairing cliffhanger ending. We even have the (blessedly short) love triangle between the childhood friend and the trauma-bonded ally.
For as by the book as the novel can be, though, Aveyard does do some nice things with it. The novel opens on at least three of our core group, namely Farley, Mare, and Cal, having willingly used and manipulated each other, and the reactions to that are spot on. Forgiveness does not come too easily or quickly to anyone here, and it takes until halfway through the novel for trust to really be reestablished. As archetypal as most of these characters are, their reactions feel real, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that.
Similarly, I liked the development Mare went through over the course of the book, from street-smart but immature girl, to the edge of wrathful monster, then out the other side of that to someone wiser and more resolved in her cause. I admire authors who can bring a character to that edge without making the audience lose sympathy for them. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think Aveyard pulls it off well. Really, I like the way the characters are played in general; the five-man band of Farley, Shade, Kilorn, Cal, and Mare that forms toward the beginning is a particularly fun dynamic. And, as I said before, the inevitable love triangle is played fairly quickly and gracefully, with Kilorn acknowledging his feelings but backing off because he knows Mare doesn’t feel the same way. There’s no unnecessary petty drama or drawing it out.
The problem is Maven.
You see, from the end of the first book I had assumed Maven was a double agent. Why? Well, it was really the only thing that made sense to me. Red Queen ends with Mare and Cal escaping from a gladiatorial execution by killing the man who had been suppressing their powers, beating the other combatants, and making a run for it. Which I had been screaming at them to do for the full twenty pages of the scene. Now, surely if I, as a person who is not that good at strategy, can get to that tactic from having played a video game once in my life, our militarily-raised chess-master who lives in a world where this power is relatively common could see the possibility and prepare for it. And he didn’t. Conclusion, especially when combined with his regret at the coup: he let them go.
I thought this was all but confirmed when I read the prequel novellas and saw how Shade was recruited. It takes the Scarlet Guard the better part of a week to trust the conscripted grunt who has everything to gain from joining, but they take the royal who has everything to lose after one night and a sob story? No, they had to have previous dealings there, and were using him to get Mare into the fold. That he let them go again at the beginning of this book was just another nail in the coffin.
It’s a good twist, I thought. A little unsubtle, but it makes the character not so flat and brings the “anyone can betray anyone” refrain nicely full circle. Wouldn’t it have been some great dramatic irony for that to work out in Mare’s favor for once? That appears to not be where Aveyard is going with it though, or if it is she’s badly miscalculated. It’s very hard to bring a character back from the psycho stalker edge. Which makes all those things I noticed not deliberate, if blatant, clues but glaring inconsistencies.
The quickest way to kill narrative tension is to make your villains idiots, or to let your readers in on the fact that you’re wiling to dumb them down to suit the needs of your heroes. The quickest way to kill any sympathy I have for anyone in your story is to also make your heroes sort of stupid. Aveyard has done both here, through sloppy writing. I realize that a lot of this is almost a retroactive review of the first book, but Glass Sword suffers from many of the same problems. The moves Maven makes here are only halfway functional as plans, with gaping holes, and our band of heroes fall for the traps anyway.
I said of Red Queen that, regardless of how generic it was, I like this world and these characters. That’s still very true. Unfortunately I no longer feel like I can trust the author to construct a plot that can actually hang together, and that’s one of the biggest problems a work can have.