Caution: this review contains inevitable Red Queen spoilers. I am not stealthy enough to review a sequel without mentioning what happens in the first book. Well, I am. I just don’t feel like writing in riddles.
I’m going to come straight out and declare that I had some issues with Red Queen. I enjoyed it and obviously I was keen to read the second book in the series, but I retained my reservations about a few aspects of the book: for example, the ways in which it bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain other YA dystopian series about a teenage girl forced to fight and become the poster girl for someone else’s political cause. I felt like Red Queen was basically non-stop action, with character development falling by the wayside, and I was hopeful that Glass Sword might resolve some of my problems with Mare and the world of Norta. I think most of this is about me as a reader, rather than the book itself; I like characters more than I like stuff blowing up. I’m weird like that.
Glass Sword begins immediately after the events of Red Queen, with Mare, Prince Cal and the Scarlet Guard escaping from the royal palace and the new king, Ravin’ Maven (as I affectionately refer to him). It is pretty accurate to say that, from this point, nobody takes so much as a five minute time-out for about 300 pages. I would like to tell everyone in these books to just CHILL OUT for a minute. You don’t need to constantly be planning to attack something/attacking something/escaping after just having attacked something all the livelong day. This is how I felt watching Avengers: Age of Ultron; I enjoy watching a city get smashed to pieces as much as the next person, but I prefer the bit when they’re all sitting around Tony Stark’s tower, trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Similarly, in Glass Sword, I would have enjoyed a brief spell in which Kilorn and Mare shared a packet of crisps while Cal watched a soap opera or something.
I have realised that Aveyard’s writing makes me think a lot. A lot. About big issues. For example, while reading Glass Sword, I started really questioning the whole point of war. Not just the war(s) in this book, but war in general. I plan on writing a thesis on Glass Sword in comparison with some of the great war poets – Aveyard and Wilfred Owen, perhaps? – to explore the extent to which Glass Sword is actually anti-war propaganda. The inherent futility of the process seems to be highlighted throughout.
In my house, we use the word “mare” as shorthand for “nightmare.” For example, “I’ve forgotten my keys; I’m having a mare!” or “the child is screaming at me; she is being a mare.” My guess is that Victoria Aveyard doesn’t use this particular bit of British slang, but, to me, it makes Mare’s name what we pretentious teacher types like to call an aptronym; a name which reflects the person it is given to. Because, seriously, what is the deal with Mare Barrow? I spent most of Glass Sword thinking “I do not think I like Mare. Is there something wrong with me?” Despite having read two books not just about her, but from her perspective, I don’t feel like I really know Mare. Is she not very interesting or is she actually very evasive for a first-person narrator? And then, very late on in the book, I had the astonishing epiphany that maybe this is the point: is Mare always just whoever and whatever the cause tells her to be? Stretching this point slightly further, is Glass Sword a fiercely complex feminist diatribe about allowing the male gaze to define the feminine identity? If this is true, then I think Victoria Aveyard is actually a genius. If it is not, then I need to ease up on the caffeine.
There are other ways in which I think Glass Sword is a bit subversive. I found Mare increasingly unsympathetic as the book progressed. She unapologetically doesn’t care about her family, or the new bloods, or even Kilorn, who I have become a bit obsessed with. Does she even actually care about Cal? Why does she keep thinking about Maven, when he is a) completely and certifiably insane and b) someone she only actually liked for about seven minutes in the first book? Maybe we should talk about Mare’s borderline sociopathic lack of empathy? Again, I’m now convinced this is all deliberate; it must be far easier to write a heroine who is actually heroic, who the reader will like and root for, even as they make mistakes and show their flaws. What Aveyard presents us with is a deeply flawed and selfish protagonist, making this a far more challenging read than, say, Shadow and Bone or A Darker Shade of Magic, both of which feature female protagonists who make questionable decisions, but ultimately earn and retain the reader’s sympathy and support. Why does a (female) protagonist have to be sympathetic anyway? All of Shakespeare’s best characters are villains; who’s to say that YA fantasy wouldn’t benefit from a hardcore antihero, especially a female one?
Although Mare is the centre of the books’s universe as well as her own, there is a huge cast of new characters added to the ones we already know from Red Queen. As the Scarlet Guard travel Norta in secret, collecting new bloods to fight against the Silvers, everything goes a bit X-Men/The Magnificent Seven/Agents of Shield, which I quite like. The new bloods are really interesting, particularly in discovering and learning to use their powers, and this aspect of the plot provides much of the emotion in Glass Sword too. This does, however, mean you have to remember the names of about 700 different characters and thus, Glass Sword turns into War and Peace.
Finally, I need to talk about Kilorn. I love Kilorn a bit, largely because of how supremely mean to him Mare is; I want to give Kilorn a hug and tell him he can do better. As one of the few “normal” Reds working on assembling the new bloods, Kilorn is mockingly referred to as “fish boy” and basically disregarded by Mare and Cal, which makes me very annoyed. As for Cal, the more Mare mocks his first-world problems, the more I sympathise with him; Aveyard does a brilliant job of conveying the immense pain and conflicted loyalties Cal experiences, even if Mare thinks everything is all about her ALL THE TIME.
Glass Sword has really got under my skin. There are books I’ve loved reading but forgotten the details almost immediately, and there are books I’ve not enjoyed but found positive things to say about because I was raised to believe that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything. I didn’t find Glass Sword, or its predecessor, a particularly easy read, but I don’t want everything to be an easy read; I want to be challenged by what I read, forced to think about it beyond the last page, and Glass Sword certainly achieves this. This series has real grit and, if I’m right about Mare deliberately being presented as an antihero, it also has a premise that is different and more rewarding than many of the other fantasy series out there.
Now can everyone else hurry up and read this book, because if I don’t have someone to talk to about it soon I will probably explode into a ball of lightning myself.