Review: Defy by Sara B. Larson
Release date: January 14th, 2013
Series: #1 in the Defy series
Source: Gift from Shae
Rating: What a bummer. This book sounded like it was written specifically for me, but I ended up mostly frustrated and annoyed.
A lush and gorgeously written debut, packed with action, intrigue, and a thrilling love triangle.
Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king's army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince's guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can't prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.
The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she's sworn to protect?
I'm having such a hard time writing this review for multiple reasons, the main one being that I wanted to love this. I wanted so BADLY to love this. There are kernels of greatness in this book, and directions of brilliance in which it could have gone. For me, however, that promise was never delivered upon.
I make it no secret that genderbending is one of my favorite tropes on the entire planet. I wrote a whole post about it. The second I read about a girl disguised as a boy in a synopsis, I'm interested. (have yet to find a good boy-disguised-as-girl book, but ONE DAY).
|I want this story. Give me this story, book gods!|
This synopsis had me drooling, despite the "thrilling love triangle" bit at the top. I kind of ignored that, hoping it would be a palatable love triangle more in the vein of Alanna-George-Jon (more on them in a bit). While I'm not a girl who prefers her romance on the side, I'm sorry to say this angst-fest completely dominated the plot.
Which, at first, seems to be pretty good. We're introduced to Alexa, a girl whose parents are murdered (of course, but I can roll with this) and who then disguises herself as a boy to join the army, helped along by her twin brother (*side-eyes Alanna: The First Adventure*). She chops her hair off and assumes the name "Alex". Three years later, she's part of Prince Damian's elite guard, having successfully avoided the heinous fate that befalls most girls orphaned by the war in Antion... the breeding houses.
Oh, the breeding houses. Look. I like reading fantasy that deals with misogynist societies and proves how WRONG WRONG WRONG that is. I like genderbending, because it comes with this great message that girls are just as capable as guys, and isn't it STUPID for guys to only realize that after they've been tricked into thinking girls have penises. Also, when done REALLY right, it talks about how meaningless gender roles (and even gender in general--genderally speaking) should be. But Larson has set up a world in which the boys are sent to the army, and the girls are sent to the rape barracks, where they are forcibly impregnated to breed the soldiers of the future.
First off: logic fail. The war has only been going on for like ten years. That's a lot of children this budget-stretched kingdom suddenly has to feed, because I'm pretty sure those nine-year-olds aren't exactly ready to fight wicked sorcerers.
Secondly... ARGH. Okay. So Ashleigh over at the YA Kitten expressed all the reasons she didn't like the inclusion of this. My issue is that the inclusion of these rape houses seems almost gratuitous. The king needs to be evil, so he's started this. Alexa needs a reason to be frightened to be a girl, so this exists. Alexa needs a motivation, and the menfolk who hate the rape houses need to be shown to be heroes, so they all hate this. The women in this story are either victims, or they're Alexa. Rape is not a plot point or a world-building device. It is not something that happens to other people more than the victim. This book had the potential to be fantastically feminist, and it certainly tried to be, but it missed the mark.
Alexa begins with integrity and actually seemed like an interesting character to start. She plays it very close to the vest, and the juxtaposition of what she's feeling with how others perceive her was interesting to me. I even felt for her, particularly in a certain affecting death scene that I liked for plot reasons but that is extraordinarily poorly executed. The writing in this book is overwrought and ungainly at times. It would veer between authentically fantasy-esque and abruptly contemporary. Also, Alexa? I ever hear you use the word "harlot" again, I'm going to punch you.
But then Alexa loses her awesome. Why? Because boys. And now I get to talk about the love triangle. Nooooooooo. NOOOOOOO. Noooooooooo.
And now I am done talking about the love triangle.
|Spoiler: this did not happen, but wouldn't THAT have been fun!|
Okay, no, I'll explain. It's eye-roll inducing. I can guarantee you there will be tons of people who will love this, but I, sadly, am not one of them. I rolled my eyes so hard I sprained them. In this corner we have Rylan, who was tragically born without a personality but luckily has warm chocolate eyes to compensate. Take a shot every time the word chocolate is mentioned in reference to his eyes! In this ring, we have
Do you want to know one of the reasons I love girl-disguised-as-boy stories? The gender reveal. The WTF moment. The moment a character's entire perception of he MC changes. The two "SURPRISE! BOOBS!" scenes in the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce, a clear influence in the creation of this novel, remain two of my favorite scenes in history. We're cheated this. Why? SPOILER that is not that big of a spoiler if you were paying ANY ATTENTION: Because both boys knew all along. How is that any fun? That just means it's instalove all over the place! They've both been in love with her since day one! END SPOILER And now she must chooooose, between brown eyes and blue, a boy who's safe and a boy who makes her feeeeeel, the one who knows her secrets and the one WITH all the secrets, the one who zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Blah. The middle section, in which she is trudging through the jungle, dealing with her FEEEEELINGS for both of her boyfriends, is positively turgid. It's all angst and no plot. It is the Harry Potter puppet pal beating his head against the wall. It was long.
The genderbending is pointless if you don't ever actually SAY anything about gender roles. If you don't subvert them, challenge them, or force others to rethink them. And in Defy, the entire conceit is pointless. It mostly made me frustrated, annoyed, and... yes, eye-rolly. This book stayed both too close to Alanna and too far. A names, a male twin, a dark-haired blue-eyed prince in love with the secretly female best swordsman in the palace-- all elements from both books. But Defy lacks the message, the fun, and the SHIPS. It lacks the girl power. It lacks the eff you, stereotypes, women are not weaker moment. To put it simply, it lacks.
Points for the scene in which Alex is forced to sleep wedged between Damian and Rylan. I laughed heartily for the awkwardness. (Before the cheesy conquered. Oh, lordy.)
Also... why are the native people, aka ALL of the main characters in Defy, white? I know this is fantasy, and you can do whatever the heck you want, but Antion is a country covered in jungle. It has mangos, macaws, and acai berries. There are jaguars. This seemed like a fabulous opportunity to include some diversity in fantasy, a genre which has historically been extremely whitewashed, but alas, Alexa's "olive skin" was as POC-y as it got. The world-building was extremely thin and was the same vaguely medieval European system we always get, just in a jungle. Like so much of the rest of the book, it was a wasted opportunity. As is the plot, which is disappointingly simplistic for an epic fantasy novel. I am curious about what the plot could be in the second book, but not curious enough.
Also, Blevon is a stupid name for a country. As is Blevonese.