Fantasy and wish-fulfillment done well.
You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.
– Eric Hoffer
Each book, movie and television show, we love reveals some of our own desires, hopes and fears.
Every story is a fantasy.
We don’t read fantasy (just) to escape reality. We read to experience a reality we understand to be true and can’t access as often as we wish for it.
The fantasy in this story is a girl becoming one of the Boyz while still maintaining her attractiveness and desirability, evidenced through the two good men who both honor her and value her skills.
(Potential spoilers ahead: read at your own risk)
Alexa finds herself fighting on the wrong side of a cruel war. She has (from the age of 14) disguised both her age and her gender from her fellow guards.
Seeing as this is Fantasy, some of us can roll with the description that a 17-year-old young woman can hold her own, even be the best, among a group of trained fighters brought up as warriors.
What I appreciate is how this is eventually justified through both ‘gifting’ (magic is good for all kinds of things) and years of specialized training and preparation (from the age of 6 with her twin brother as a sparring partner and a mumblemumble father to train her). Alexa earns her wins, and her relationship with the different members of the guard are varied and individual– a bit thin, but still quite the feat in the small space the story allows for them.
Rather than a transformation (say, from a personal lie to truth, or from brokenness to healing), Alexa’s progression in this story is a growth in who or what she already is.
It is a valid and useful question, and not just for the YA reader: How does one honor and maintain what makes one unique while still leaving room to grow?
I enjoyed Sara B. Larson’s answer.
The entire time Alexa is motivated by duty. Her assignment is to be part of the prince’s bodyguard, despite his father being a cruel warlord, and the prince himself being unadmirable and self-centered.
“Whether I respect him or despise him doesn’t matter,” says Alexa, “I’m a member of his guard.”
Of course, before the half-way mark, she feels more toward him than duty, but those feelings are conflicted (life and kingdom under threat, and at least one more book to develop through).
Still it is that sense of duty that drives her to the end, while being informed and strengthened by her growing identity as a woman who is loved.
It was an interesting choice, to show a character settled strong in her essence (duty, commitment, skill) while keeping her from being stagnant. The effort here was to focus on internal growth, since external growth was just about intensifying what already is.
- The breeding houses. Alexa’s brother convinces her to cut her hair and fake being a boy because at 14 they both know about the place female orphans are taken. Just what they sound like, the houses double as a reward for, and a source of, soldiers for the unending war of the book.
- Lots of people die. Not super devastating for me as a reader (there wasn’t the time to develop my own emotional attachment to the characters, just to see Alexa’s), and at least one death was critical to the climax of the story (more than one, depending how you count). But this is a war story.
- The love triangle (merely existing) will be enough to put some people off.
- I’ve decided I need to quit avoiding these, at least for a little while till I’ve seen a few more examples. In this story she isn’t “wavering” between the men as much as she’s sad to see one of them sad to lose her. That wasn’t so bad to me, not at all manipulative or indecisive on her part, not in the sense of leading anyone on. (Makes me wonder how badly they’re handled elsewhere to earn the vitriolic hate. Means more reading. Yeah, I’ll deal.).
Things I enjoyed:
- An explanation (even though it was magic) for Alexa’s skill. I needed something to hold up my sagging suspension of disbelief.
- That the guys who knew her secret were motivated both to protect it, and didn’t let it change how much they admired her skill, or honored her commitment.
- The love triangle wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, with Alexa basically having a strong enough sense of loyalty to one that she wasn’t playing both ends against the middle.
- A few anachronisms that joggled me within the story– like quaking aspen a few weeks’ walk from macaw- and jaguar-containing jungles, the use of “okay” and a few other casually modern phrases or assumptions. Once you’re in the reading groove they don’t need to matter, but depending what it takes to create your reader dream…
- You really have to choose the suspension of disbelief to see a couple of 14-year-old kids coming into the specialized guard of the prince. Especially (when you learn later) that each guard, at least in the present, has to fight the best guard to get on the team.
- Leaving out that one of them is a girl, the fact they both pass themselves off as 17 and fight grown men is a reader-moment you just accept if you want to keep the story rolling.
- I saw that other reviewers complained about the breeding houses and violence, and the girl-warrior promise of the book devolving into an indecisive girly wobbling between two guys.
- In the first complaint, I believe the horror was necessary to show what justified the prince’s desire to overthrow his father. (And knowing that such cruelty exists today, I think being disgusted is a good thing).
- Concerning the love story, I think the author did pretty well with the space she had. She created a huge emotional vulnerability in the female main character, and provided weeks of close contact with two men who valued her. It’s a touchy thing, but I think it was played fair, especially considering it was disclosed in the cover description.
(This book was provided by the publisher free for my review through Netgalley.com)