Author: Sara B. Larson
Series: Defy #1
Published by Scholastic Press
Release Date: 7 January 2014
Genres: High Fantasy, Young Adult (YA)
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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?
Thank you to NetGalley and Scholastic Press for providing me with an ARC of Defy in exchange for a fair and honest review.
My Review of Defy:
There have been quite a lot of mixed reviews for Defy, partly because of the ineffectual gender-bending and partly because of the world-building. While I didn’t find the book as abhorrent as some, I did find myself noticing a lot of world-building and logic problems, in addition to a few other minor issues.
What I Liked:
The writing was actually pretty good, especially for a debut novelist. The scenes are well presented and the dialogue is easy to read, not overly laden with tags (“said” “replied” etc) but not so lacking in them that you can’t figure out who’s talking, which is somewhat of a pet peeve for me.
I actually liked the characters, and given the reviews for the book before I’d read it, I wasn’t expecting to. In the first part of the book, Alexa is ridiculously tough. She’s fought hard, she takes no crap, and she trusts no one except her brother. Rylan, her friend and fellow guard, is bland in that “nice, caring, strong silent type” way but aside from his jealously over Alexa and Damian’s mutual attraction, he adds basically nothing to the plot beyond travel companion. I liked him, and hoped he’d develop more, but he never did.
I really liked Damian’s characterization, but my thoughts are mildly spoilery so click thru if you want spoilers. While this didn’t surprise me, it’s an infrequent characterization and I enjoyed how Larson developed him over the course of the novel. Alexa was never sure what his intentions were, what he was hiding, or what he was really up to, and I appreciated that just because there was an attraction, the Prince didn’t automatically spill every secret he had. Country first, hormones second. Good for you, dude.
Bonus: This has nothing to do with the book really but in the digital ARC, there were random emojiis thrown in at the chapter breaks. It made me chuckle to see cake and forks for absolutely no reason. I have a weird sense of humor.
What I Didn’t:
Minor: I do not buy that a 36-year-old muscled captain of the guard got his butt kicked by a then 16-year-old girl who is likely scrawny and has little fighting experience. Even putting that aside, having the most skill does not mean that one is suited to a leadership role. Leadership and wisdom aren’t the same as sword skills. Maybe this is why they’re in a very long horrible war and have allowed their king to make such poor ruling decisions virtually unchecked. Just a thought.
There was an over-the-top emphasis on the love triangle, which dragged down the middle of the book and actually served to make Alexa a weaker character overall. Once the love interests know she’s a girl, Alexa starts acting more like a girl, which would be fine because she IS a girl and there’s nothing WRONG with that, but holy crap she is whiney. She cries all the time. She gives up and waits for one of the boys to come hug her and tell her that she can do it because she is just the bestest lil’ sword wielder in ever and then she gets fired up and tries again. Where is that strong girl who hid her gender and beats her opponents in 3 minutes and takes no crap? I liked her and she’s missing.
MAJOR: The world-building in this book was just simply bad, for a number of reasons. First, it was far too close to Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series: girl with twin brother impersonates a boy, becomes close to a prince and becomes one of his personal friends or in this case a guard, and a love triangle develops. Or basically, the 17-year-old version of Alanna: The First Adventure, except not nearly as good.
Second problem: there’s a war that the king started because the Blevonese killed his wife, and it’s been 10 years or something and they need more soldiers … so the King’s solution is to take all the boys away and draft them into the army and to take all the girls away and force them into breeding houses where soldiers can go rape them so they get pregnant so they can produce more soldiers. This atrocity is presented within the first 3 chapters – it’s meant to show us the cruelty of the King and the horror of his reign. Ok, accomplished. It’s only been ten, maybe eleven years since the war began. Surely things cannot have gotten that drastic, and if they have, is your solution really to throw more people at it? And if they’re taking all the children away to be trained as soldiers or forced to stay in the breeding houses until they are able to conceive children, where are they keeping them all? Second, the King is telling a lot of lies. Are the people really this … stupid? No one talks to anyone from other countries and there’s no one speculating that the King is lying … anywhere? No whispers, no murmurs, nothing?
Furthermore, how did the entire populace become so downtrodden so quickly? The soldiers come steal your children away for a horrible future and no parent puts up a fight? No one rescues and flees the country? The only times anyone expresses revulsion towards the breeding houses are the prince’s guard and the prince himself. The soldiers, some of whom we can assume were in their jobs pre-rape houses, don’t have any moral qualms about this at all? There isn’t one mention of riots or protests or attempted rescues at any point, and I. Do. Not. Buy. It. You can’t just write out family unity and love because it would complicate the plot, but that’s exactly what Larson has done in Defy and it destroys any buy in the reader attempts to formulate with the book.
The entire convention seems to have been added to show the reader just how evil the King is. It’s done for dramatic effect, to suit Alexa’s need to gender-bend and pose as a boy, which makes the plot more interesting, and which leads to a love triangle because of course boys have to fall in love with her. She’s the ONLY teenage girl around; all the other ones are trapped in the rape houses. She is the default choice for who to crush on and she has no competition. Gee, how convenient.
In the End:
Defy had a lot of potential as far as writing and characterization, but it borrowed too heavily from other sources (Alanna) and never stood on its own merit. More importantly, the world-building was poorly constructed, illogical, and presented more questions or outright disbelief than reader buy-in.