Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard (HarperTeen, February 2016)
Victoria Aveyard burst onto the scene in 2015, with the publication of her first novel, Red Queen. The young adult fantasy novel was praised for filling the void that the completion of both the Hunger Games and Divergent series had left. One part superhero saga, one part dystopian fiction, the series centers around a young girl, Mare Barrow. Mare is a “red,” so named for the color of her blood, a lower-class citizen. The reds are ordinary, their lives only meant for servitude, while the silvers—their aristocratic counterparts—all have superpowers, which make it all-too-easy for them to abuse the reds and stamp down any rebellion.
Glass Sword is the second book in the series. By the time this book begins, Mare has realized she is different: she is red, but she has powers. Mare and Cal, the former Prince who has been framed for murdering his father, are on the run from the new monarchy. It’s Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones meets the Avengers. It’s brilliant. The premise of this book alone makes it impossible to put down; Aveyard keeps the pace clipping along, deftly managing to weave in moments of character growth and loss among intense action scenes. The language is gritty and compelling, overloading the senses. It’s not lit-fic, to be sure, but it still gives the reader plenty of pull quotes, like:
“It isn’t hard to let people die when their deaths give life to something else.”
“We seem weak because we want to.”
The conceit of this book is wonderful unto itself, but what really makes it shine is our heroine, Mare Barrow. At this point in Mare’s journey, she is no longer timid, no longer afraid of either the silvers or her own power. Mare is allowed to be something we rarely see in young adult literature: Mare is ruthless. There are several points in the novel where Mare is given a choice: grand mercy upon those who had previously used or hurt her, or kill them. Mare slaughters them. It’s terrifying. It’s wonderful. Now don’t get me wrong—obviously, I’m not endorsing mass murder. But Mare has the same kind of imperfections that I loved in Katniss. Katniss was allowed to be blunt and unfriendly. Mare is allowed to be merciless, in a way that eventually pushes away those who love her. It’s rare to see a female character who is granted that much power, and whose femininity doesn’t force them into a box of compassion or remorse. There are moments where we see Mare go completely off the deep end, and those are some of the most powerful moments in the book.
Another triumph of Glass Sword is in its romantic development. Aveyard knows her genre. She knows that many young adult series force a love triangle. She uses this to bait the reader into believing not one but multiple love triangles are developing at any point in the series… and then she completely shatters our expectations. Most of Glass Sword felt as if it was building to a romantic relationship between Mare and her best friend (spoiler alert), Kilorn. Throughout the entire build-up, I was irritated, sad that another YA author was forcing a relationship that none of the readers had asked for. And then, the moment arrived: Kilorn confessed his love and… Mare turned him down. Bluntly. Honestly. Beautifully. There’s romance in this novel. There’s so much tension I could scream. And yet I can honestly say that I have no idea who—if anyone—Mare is going to end up with. And I love it.
But of course, not all series are perfect. Though the romance of Glass Sword was unpredictable, I was disheartened by how much of the rest of the novel was. It didn’t just fill the void that Hunger Games left, it emulated the formula it presented almost to a T. Book one: present the circumstances of your dystopia, but keep your character isolated (in Hunger Games, Katniss was in the arena; in Red Queen, Mare spent most of her time trapped in the palace). Book two: break them out of isolation and set up a rebellion. Both series center around bringing down a corrupt government that divides people into a binary of classes. Both series’ heroines become scapegoats of the rebellion—while Katniss is called the Mockingjay, Mare is the Lightning Queen. Both series highlight the faults of the rebellion as well as its triumphs—they warn that victory might not be as clean-cut as it appears.
It’s a formula that works, to be sure. Overall, I did enjoy this book. But by the end, there was a part of me that still felt dissatisfied. I felt as if I had read this book before.
Is dystopia “over”? How do you find newness when your favorite genres seem exhausted?
This week, let’s spend some time down in the romantic, grimy, bustling New York City subway system. I’ve collected images of three characters in the subway: care to flesh them out a bit?
Stanley Kubrick, Woman waiting on a subway platform, from Life and Love on the New York City Subway series, 1946. Photograph.
Unknown photographer, 1 Line at 125th Street Station, 1973. Photograph. Via flickr.
Walker Evans, Untitled from Subway Passengers, New York City series, 1938–41. Photograph.
Psst: This week is Online Open Mic! Submit your work-in-progress today and tomorrow to get feedback from your fellow writers!
In Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, the titular character, Usagi Miyamoto, is a masterless samurai who wanders through Edo-period Japan. Broadly, the Special Edition collects the first nine years of Usagi: his first appearances in various furry animal anthologies and all 38 issues published by Fantagraphics. Additionally, there’s a how-to by the author, rare Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cameos, and an in-depth interview. The two books come in a handsome slipcase with striking colors, and the pages, despite being very thin, immaculately hold Sakai’s linework. Physically speaking, my only complaint is that the covers tend to warp; maybe some nice French flaps would have fixed that.
As for the stories themselves, well, Usagi spends a lot of time walking. While walking, he consistently revisits places both physically (his home village or the palace of Lord Noriyuki) and in memory (Adachi Plain, the site of the battle where Usagi’s lord died). Tropes are also constantly revisited and revised: Usagi sleeps in a haunted shack owned by a haunted woman; two woodcutting peasants cross Usagi’s path; or Usagi squabbles with bounty hunter Gen and blind masseur Zato Ino. The comic is iterative, constantly running its characters through the same equations.
Is this sort of repetition bad? In our world of remakes and sequels, there’s a certain stench, a certain wariness about retreading old ground. In American adventure comics, though, it’s almost a tradition. This is partly because these comics were one of the last refuges for untrained artists—they were arenas where people with moderate skills could get paid while they learned their craft. Some of the most historically important adventure comics—the origins of Superman and Batman, the first appearances of the Guardians of the Galaxy, the early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are naive and primitive stories. Because of this, they’re constantly revised as comics’ cultural cachet rises and cartoonists with more polish work on established properties.
This holds for the earliest Usagi stories, especially the ones from the Albedo and Critters anthologies. The characters are strangely proportioned and inconsistently portrayed. The hatching is ill-considered and ends up flattening the image instead of adding texture. The narration is blunt and boring. For example, here’s a mess of patterns and anatomy that’s very hard to read:
It’s joyous to watch how fast Sakai gets better. His pattern-making becomes a consistent backdrop, a foundation, for the pacing of the series. The wavy tree bark, the gentle fields, and the sound, believable buildings join into a rhythm of world-building that works as an attractive tableau without distracting from the characters. Here’s a much clearer panel, where each pen stroke carries much more weight:
Just as Sakai grows and changes by iterating on his settings and characters, Usagi returns to the same places again and again. However, instead of retreading the same dramas, each visit changes Usagi and is shaded by said changes. Despite superficially seeming to repeat itself, each repetition is a chance to show the small ways Usagi has changed. For example, Usagi is warned early on that he’s too inflexible and too willing to fight. On his first return to his home village, the tension with his childhood rival, Kennichi, is thick and overt. On future visits, though, after Usagi has seen the consequences of violence and hot-headedness, he becomes more patient with Kennichi and more accepting of Kennichi’s marriage to Mariko, Usagi’s first sweetheart.
Usagi Yojimbo, through its wanderings, shows what it takes to really know a person or place. A single experience, no matter how powerful, is only a single view. It takes spiraling around a place, seeing it in every season, and knowing it will change as you change.
The impending snow warnings for this week in my area have got me thinking about the lovely quiet of a good snowfall. This week, let’s watch the snow fall, and write about it.
Maja Sholer, White #7. Photograph. Via Saatchi Art.
Lucas Lai, Memoire No.3. Photograph. Via Saatchi Art.
Koen Lybaert, Snowfall. Oil on photograph. Via Saatchi Art.