The premise: Alexa Hollen has been disguising herself as Alex Hollen for years to escape the king’s ominous “breeding house.” She and her twin brother Marcel are part of the prince’s guard, sworn to protect Prince Damian above even the king. A series of events results in Alex being kidnapped, along with the prince and her fellow guard, Rylan. Alex must deal with a terrorist group, a royal conspiracy, and her feelings for both men, all while trying to keep them–and herself–alive.
My favorite book growing up was Alanna: The First Adventure. Alanna did all the things I was nowhere near ballsy enough to do: disguise herself as a boy, train to be a knight, protect her prince, collude with thieves, and fight mythical beasts. My favorite part was that she posed as a boy for years–I couldn’t believe she was able to pull that off to fulfill her dream. It struck me as impressive and brave. Prior to puberty, I was convinced, if given the chance, I could pull it off.
As an adult, I’m less positive I could do it. But that’s not the point.
Alexa, the protagonist of Defy, also chooses to pose as a boy and join the king’s army to avoid a life of constant rape and pregnancy. I applaud her decision, but would have found it more meaningful if I hadn’t hated her SO. MUCH.
It really irritates me when a convention I like is done poorly. The two conventions in Defy‘s case are the aforementioned girl-dressing-as-boy plot point and a reaaaallly half-hearted love triangle.
I wasn’t super girly as a kid and didn’t feel feminine, so I like books where the heroine relates to and feels comfortable around men. I didn’t like Alexa, though, at all–something about her really bugged me. Her issues seemed off. I can understand how confusing it would be to pretend to be a straight male in order to gain respect while hiding sexual feelings for your male companions. Alexa’s reaction, however, to this event was, “What is wrong with me? Why am I feeling this way?”
Not, “I can’t afford to feel this way,” though that was explored a bit. No, her main question was, “Why am I feeling this way?”
…because you’re straight. You like guys. You are actually a woman and you are attracted to men.
It just struck me as a strange reaction and/or focus for the author, and it made Alexa seem reaaaal stupid.
Alexa also repressed a lot of her emotions to keep up the man facade, even after multiple of her peers told her it was okay to grieve. I didn’t feel it was consistent with her character; I felt it was an assumption about how her type of character should act. I think my irritation is personal; I don’t like “non-girly female” interpreted as “unemotional female,” because those don’t always go together. Case in point: a short-haired, uber-casual female blogger who cries once a week about entertainment.
The love triangle was the other part that didn’t work for me, which is unfortunate. I understand why people have problems with love triangles, and I should be horrified by them on principle…but I secretly love them. And, sometimes, love triangles can wooooork.
This one did not.
Defy‘s love triangle can be summed up as, “Alexa found herself drawn to Prince Damian more and more…and also Rylan was there.” It’s hard for me when love triangles are uneven. If you can’t write one side of the triangle convincingly, why not cut it? Then you could have a convincing romance instead of wasting pages on a weaker one.
And UGH. I hated Rylan. So, so much.
He came across as very entitled. I get how frustrating it is to love someone who loves someone else, especially when that other person is unworthy. “Grand Theft Autumn” is one of my favorite songs, and I have earnestly sung, “You need him?/I should be him,” many a time. You are allowed to feel this way and even express these feelings if the person you like has been stringing you along. It’s best to get everything out in the open.
It is not okay to shame the person you like for not liking you and/or liking someone else. You do not deserve their love because you’ve loved them for a long time. If someone is not interested in you, despite your good qualities, that sucks…but you HAVE TO GET OVER IT. PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE.
Rylan throws tantrums and guilts Alexa the entire book. Even though he was intended to be a sympathetic character, I did not find him sympathetic in the least, and was even less invested in the love triangle because of his childishness. He hurt the story rather than helping it; if he had been written differently, he might have been sympathetic. As it was, he was awful and useless and I wish his actions had been framed as selfish.
Characters aside, the situations they found themselves seemed laughable and sort of fanfic-y. “Oh no, here I am as a prisoner in the jungle, and I have to share a tent with both the guys I like! What a dilemma!” At least the shojo animes I watch have the sense to play this event for comedy!
Also, for all his good qualities, Damian kept trying to get in “quality time” with Alexa while Rylan was sleeping. That’s gross and also SUPER RUDE, and would be even if the guy in question wasn’t in love with your girl! Alexa would tell him to stop, because she didn’t want to hurt Rylan’s feelings. Um, how about IT’S COMMON COURTESY NOT TO BANG IN FRONT OF SOMEONE YOU SHARE A TENT WITH?
The book wasn’t all bad. I finished the whole thing. Larson kept me guessing with the plot, constantly bringing up twists that I in no way anticipated. She didn’t flinch away from harsher material; while dark and hard to read at times, I appreciated that she didn’t sugarcoat what reality was like for women in the kingdom. She also dealt well with grief and sacrifice and the loneliness of keeping up a pretense. Unlike Tamora Pierce, she didn’t shy away from killing off important characters (note: I say that with regard to Lady Knight specifically.) And, perhaps most admirably, she didn’t offer romantic resolution. I don’t love the way she went about it, but I felt that choice was purposeful and improved Alexa’s character. The ending was sort of a sequel hook and while I have no intention of reading the next book, I felt the hope of the characters as they looked forward to a new start.
To sum up, while parts of this book were good, the elements that failed brought the whole book down. It’s one I’m glad I got from the library instead of buying. Give it a read if you want interesting ethical dilemmas and some good fantasy action; also check it out to see how NOT to write a love triangle.
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