Red Queen is one of those books that I really didn't have any intention of reading, except everyone was raving about it, so I shrugged and added myself to the library wait list. Of course the loan came through at the worst time, at the beginning of a month when I started working on various other book club reads, but alas, the timing was it was, so I dug in.
Mare Barrows is a red-blooded commoner in a world ruled by silver-blooded elites who also possess strange powers, like the ability to manipulate water, or fire, or heal people, or shut down others' powers. Mare's country of Norta is engaged in an ongoing war against the Lakelanders, and every Red who isn't employed when they turn eighteen is conscripted into the army. Mare's three older brothers are in the war and Mare is resigned to being conscripted, too, though her younger sister has a job as a seamstress. But when Mare's best friend loses his job when his boss dies, she becomes determined to steal enough money for the two of them to steal away...an act that only results in her younger sister's sewing hand being irreparably broken. Desperate to repair the damage she's done to her family, Mare tries to steal as much as she can, but inadvertently steals from Norta's crown prince, who instead of punishing her gets her a job at the castle. But when Mare accidentally falls into the middle of the Queenstrial, when eligible girls from Silver families show off their abilities in hope of winning the hand of one of the princes, it's revealed that she's not just a Red, though she bleeds like one--she has the never-before seen ability to create and manipulate lightning.
Mare ends up posing as a Silver princess, trying to balance her sense of self-preservation with a desire to help her people. She joins a Red resistance with a hope for changing the status quo and tries to avoid the crown prince's bride, Evangeline, while dealing with her attraction to both the crown prince, Cal, and his younger brother and her supposed fiance, Maven.
I didn't really like this book. It gets off to a very slow start, the world building is confused, and Mare is not a great heroine. Much of the book is just Mare going from lesson to lesson and fretting about how everyone will find out she's a lie, and trying to hide her activities by turning of the security cameras that abound in the palace, like everyone else is completely stupid and won't figure out that all the cameras just happen to turn off whenever the girl who can control electricity is up to something. For the world, it has a mix of magic and technology that could be intriguing, but doesn't really end up working. Mare remarks a few times that they Silvers don't actually have amazing technology, that it's all manipulated by their abilities--but they have cars, and motorcycles, and apparently nuclear technology? That doesn't seem like stuff that can be made with magic. And what makes Silver blood silver, if the thing that causes their abilities isn't what does it? Because Mare clearly has abilities, too, and her blood is very red.
The "commoner masquerading as a princess" trope is one that I would normally love, but I just couldn't like Mare. While her loyalty to her family is admirable, she's told repeatedly of exactly what to watch out for, but she refuses to listen to anyone and so is completely blindsided when things don't turn out the way she expected. And I really didn't like Kilorn, Mare's best friend, as a character, either. He was just kind of a jerk. And the supposed romance wasn't really here, either. Despite Mare repeatedly saying how attracted she is to Cal or how much she cares for Maven, there doesn't appear to actually be anything there. Maybe there's a tiny bit of something at the end, but it's clearly bound for another love triangle in the next book, and I'm not really sure I have the patience for that.
Overall, I'm not so sure what has people raving about this book. Some of the supporting characters are interesting--Julian, for example--but while the end fight was cool and made me want to root for Mare, I don't think she's a strong enough central character to carry the series, not with her inability to see exactly what's in front of her face, and the promising world is just a flimsy skin over a logic-less void. I can't really see myself picking up the other books in the near future, not with another 1600 more interesting books on my to-read list.
2 stars out of 5.