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REVIEW: Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Dear Ms. Redwine,

There’s been an influx of female-led traditional fantasy in the YA genre. If you had told me last year that this was going to become a thing, I would have been ecstatic. I’ve been getting bored with the urban fantasy and paranormal subgenres, and traditional fantasy is my weak spot. But let’s just say the reality has generally left me underwhelmed. Despite this, I had high hopes for your debut. At last a YA cover with a heroine wearing practical clothes! Unfortunately, it turns out I was mistaken.

redwine-defiance
Rachel Adams is the daughter of Baalboden’s most skilled courier. But it’s been three months since her father, Jared, was scheduled to return and according to the rules of the city, he’s officially declared dead. Rachel refuses to believe it. She wants to find him but in this world, not only is it difficult to survive the wastelands outside the city walls, women are second-class citizens incapable of going anywhere without a male protector by her side.

With her father dead, Rachel is assigned a new protector but it’s not the older family friend she’s expecting. Instead it’s Logan McEntire, her father’s apprentice and the young man to whom she confessed her feelings two years ago, only for him to rebuff them. To say she’s dismayed is an understatement.

But there’s more at stake here. Baalboden’s leader, the Commander, believes Jared betrayed him and that Rachel knows where he is. You see, Jared’s last mission involved an important package and the Commander wants it back. And to obtain his goals, he will threaten everything Rachel holds dear.

First of all, I was misled by the cover copy. I honestly thought this was a traditional fantasy. Early chapters soon told me otherwise. This is actually a post-apocalyptic setting in which the world regressed into a society where there are several outpost-like cities scattered across a wasteland. It’s also vaguely dystopian in the sense that the city of Baalboden is ruled by a controlling megalomaniac but that comparison is tenuous at best. If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say the setting is similar to that of Reign of Fire.

Which brings us to the worldbuilding. Oh, the worldbuilding. I realize I’m extraordinarily picky about worldbuilding but I’ve also come to accept that you really cannot read for the worldbuilding in the YA genre these days. It is just a recipe for soul-crushing disappointment. Defiance is a prime example of that. In this world, society has regressed to one reminiscent of faux-medieval Europe. At the same time, bits of technology remain: batteries, sonic pulses, etc. In fact, it was the references to those bits of technology that told me this wasn’t a traditional fantasy at all.

This is fine and all but there’s no explanation for how this happened. Similar to the premise of Reign of Fire, Defiance claims that drilling into the earth’s crust awoke the Cursed One – a fire-breathing serpentine-like creature that is explicitly described as not being a dragon. A pity, since I spent half of the book thinking it was a dragon until that little factoid was revealed in a throwaway line later in the novel. It’s this lack of grace in the worldbuilding, the way I’d form a picture of the setting based on details given to me only to be jarred out of the narrative when it’s revealed that no, it wasn’t that way at all. I don’t know if this is my fault as a reader or simply the order and timing in which those details are revealed, but I literally found myself unable to buy into the worldbuilding. At best, I’d call it kitchen sink in style.

Another aspect of the worldbuilding that irritated me was society’s treatment of women. It sucks to be a girl in a post-apocalyptic world! You become a second-class citizen who cannot walk around without male supervision. You must have a male protector until you come of age, at which point you’re presented to all the available men and are Claimed. (Yes, that is what it’s called in the novel. Claimed.) You’ve become the source of all evil – for reasons that are never completely explained. Is it because your leader is a sexist lunatic? Or is it because of something else? You can’t wear pants because apparently, the sight of your legs turns men into rapists and it is your responsibility not to tempt them because we all know men can’t control themselves.

(I mentioned all of the above to Jane and she told me she saw similar worldbuilding in another post-apocalyptic YA coming out this fall. What is happening? This is the last trend I want to happen in the YA genre!)

Of course, this misogynistic society provides the perfect backdrop for our independent, feisty redheaded (of course she’s redheaded) heroine. The novel makes a huge point in telling us Rachel’s not like the other girls: she was taught how to track by her father, she can survive in the wastelands, she knows how to fight, and she prefers pants over dresses (this is how we know girls shouldn’t wear pants because if they do, they might get sexually assaulted). I get the feeling this is supposed to be a feminist statement but instead it left me feeling sad because the only way we can show a “strong” female protagonist is by placing her in a sexist society? Never mind the fact that it privileges a specific type of “strong female character” over others, and that’s just not an idea I can get behind.

The romantic subplot between Rachel and Logan is telegraphed from the opening pages. Nothing in it will surprise. Readers who love that dynamic will be happy because I think it’ll hit all their buttons. But those readers who like a surprise or two in their romantic progression will be bored. And I admit, there were a couple scenes where I rolled my eyes. At times, the execution could be rather inane.

Defiance is the first book of a trilogy so I feel that I must warn people that a love triangle is being set up for future books. It didn’t come into play much in this installment but I would not be surprised to see it unfold in the next book. I wanted to mention it here because I know other readers are as weary of love triangles as I am. Especially because [spoiler]Rachel and Logan get together before the end of Defiance and if there’s one thing that irritates me, it’s when a love triangle develops after the couple is together.[/spoiler]

There were times where I felt like this was a story about grief and working through it, but the narrative lacked subtlety, instead tipping into the melodramatic. Maybe this is a sign that I’m too old to be reading this book because that crossing into the melodrama pushed me out of the narrative rather than drew me in. I couldn’t identify with it at all and I’ve lost a loved one more than once in my life and cycled through the stages of grief every single time. I could not connect with these characters and what they were going through.

I do think there were seeds of potential. Even though Rachel’s lack of common sense annoyed me, I liked her conflict over something that happens late in the book. To avoid spoilers, she commits an act that changes her forever. I think that was appropriate because it is an act that does transform a person and makes them question if they’re worthy of forgiveness and love. I think something could have been built on it, and maybe it will be in future novels, but again the narrative felt clumsy to me in its handling here.

I would be remiss if I did not warn about the ending. In fact, some people may wonder why they read 400 pages to reach that ending. I count myself among that number. I don’t necessarily expect warm and fuzzy; this is a post-apocalyptic novel after all. But I do expect some catharsis, some emotional reward for following these characters on their journey. Instead, upon finishing the book, I immediately hopped onto email because I was so WTF over it. A friend emailed me back telling me that she felt sorry for me, that I’d actually read the entire book to get that conclusion.

I know it’s the first book of a trilogy so the conflict will continue and unfold over successive novels, but that ending doesn’t make me want to find out what happens next. What it does do is make me want to get away from these idiots as soon as possible. Characters are fallible and they should make mistakes. I absolutely believe this. But at the same time, when I’m promised liberation from a lunatic dictator – no matter how one-dimensional and caricaturish he may be, I expect it to happen. What I do not expect is (massive ending spoilers in the hidden text) [spoiler]the absolute destruction of the city you were trying to save, along with the majority of the city’s inhabitants[/spoiler].

I can’t help but feel that I fell for a bait and switch. I went into this expecting a traditional fantasy but instead got a post-apocalyptic fantasy masquerading as a traditional fantasy. Given how badly the post-apocalyptic subgenre has been working for me lately, this cost the book several points. I had a difficult time connecting with either Rachel or Logan, feeling that they made stupid decisions for the sake of plot more often than not. Around three-quarters of the way through the book, I was thinking this novel was in C to C- territory, okay but not great. And then I reached the climax and ending and wondered why I even bothered reading this book. D

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

26 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 08:18:28

    You’ve become the source of all evil – for reasons that are never completely explained. Or is it because of something else? You can’t wear pants because apparently, the sight of your legs turns men into rapists and it is your responsibility not to tempt them because we all know men can’t control themselves.

    Jeez, sounds like Afghanistan.

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  2. DS
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 08:38:53

    @Jayne: Or middle class Victorian England as portrayed in many historical romances– many of them not set in the Victorian era at all.

    Honestly, can we just get over this trope?

    And the spoiler about the ending–

    I don’t remember where I read this but it reminds me of this joke conclusion to a story when an author has written herself into a corner:

    “Rocks fall, [almost] everyone dies.”

    ReplyReply

  3. Rachael
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 08:45:06

    Sounds like if you’d make a Hunger Games Knockoff Drinking Game of it, you’d have been too tanked to be bothered by the time you got to the not-a-dragon.

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  4. Angela
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 09:22:09

    I’m stuck on wondering what the fire-breathing, serpentine-like creature was if it wasn’t a dragon.

    And the spoiler for the ending? The book would’ve been thrown at the wall.

    It doesn’t come out until next week, but a really good fantasy (actually fantasy) YA book I just read was Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier. Also a first in the trilogy, but that’s where I think the similarities end here…I really enjoyed it.

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  5. Sunita
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 09:23:06

    What everyone else has said. Plus, Claimed? Blergh.

    ReplyReply

  6. Carolyne
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 12:04:06

    I realize I’m extraordinarily picky about worldbuilding but I’ve also come to accept that you really cannot read for the worldbuilding in the YA genre these days.

    Oh, please don’t fall into this despair! It makes me so sad to hear any reader say that. Good worldbuilding is out there, and we should expect it, and demand it–as adult readers, as reviewers or editors, and especially on behalf of young readers. Yes, I’m taking it on faith that there’s solid worldbuilding to be found in recent YA novels, since I don’t have any good examples to list at the moment. On the other hand, hearing that makes me want to open up a new doc and start building a world, so…well, even the worst of books and the most disappointed of reviews can lead to inspiration to come up with something better.

    Too bad about this book. I find the cover very attractrive and probably would have picked it up just based on that.

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  7. Estara Swanberg
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 15:38:06

    Well developed world building in YA science fiction: Andrea Höst’s Touchstone trilogy.

    Well developed (if a bit too little due to book length) world building in fantasy featuring heroines in their twenties: Andrea Höst’s Champion of the Rose (reviewed by the Booksmugglers where I discovered the author), Stained Glass Monsters and Medair.

    Yes, I’ve become an unashamed fan girl, but I do think she has what you’re looking for.

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  8. Erin Satie
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 16:09:10

    Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a recent YA with exceptional worldbuilding. Great writing, great story, great heroine.

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  9. SeaGrace
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 18:59:32

    I’m a little surprised at the reaction to the aspect of girls not being able to wear pants. I grew up in a smallish college town in the Midwest in the late 50′s – early 60′s. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to public schools until I was in 9th grade. Not Afghanistan, not Victorian England. Not that long ago. Yes, it was a stupid policy, especially because we were only allowed to wear pants UNDER our dresses if it was below 30F. It seems ridiculous, but it wasn’t any more ridiculous than the policy of the Catholic school I attended for early elementary wherein all girls/women must have their head covered in church, which lead to the nuns forcing girls who forgot their chapel caps for daily Mass to wear strips of toilet paper bobby-pinned to the top of their heads.

    I have DEFIANCE on reserve at the library. I like distopian/fantasy novels (especially those by Ann Aguirre and Ilona Andrews) and I still look forward to reading it. I didn’t read the spoiler, I hope I don’t have the same reaction to the ending you did.

    ReplyReply

  10. hapax
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 19:42:11

    I don’t remember where I read this but it reminds me of this joke conclusion to a story when an author has written herself into a corner:

    “Rocks fall, [almost] everyone dies.”

    Credit Where Credit Is Due Department: “Rocks fall, everyone dies” comes from the wonderful webcomic Something Positive, in reference to a tabletop game episode in which all the players insisted on thwarting the DM until she invoked the now famous clause.

    I’d link to the strip, but their server seems to be down. /iz sad/

    ReplyReply

  11. Jayne
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 06:32:26

    @SeaGrace:
    No, it’s not really the pants. The pants are just a focal point for the fallacy that the way a woman looks, or acts or dresses is somehow responsible for poor widdle men being unable to control their insane lusts and thus that women are the cause for their own rapes and assaults.

    ReplyReply

  12. Jia
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 09:11:39

    @Jayne: Interesting you should mention that because when I described the society’s treatment of women to a friend of mine, she said the book sounded like it was trying to make a Statement ™ about Women in Other Countries. I couldn’t unsee it after that, which made the introduction of the Tree People later in the book more awkward because I couldn’t parse them as being anything other than coded Native American “savages.” (They lived in trees. They hunted with arrows. They wore feathers.) Cringe-worthy, all around.

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  13. Jia
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 09:16:41

    @Angela: Your guess is as good as mine! From what I gathered by the end, it was a blind firebreathing snake with feet? So I guess a wyrm or wyvern? But then I always considered “dragon,” “wyvern” and “wyrm” to be interchangeable so I must be missing something.

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  14. Jia
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 09:19:50

    @Erin Satie: I’ve heard a lot of good things about Seraphina. I think I was originally leery because it had dragons in it (oh, the irony of this statement) and coming from a traditional fantasy reading background, I’m pretty jaded about dragons. But if they’re interesting dragons, I’d be willing to give it a try!

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  15. Jia
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 09:32:07

    @SeaGrace: As Jayne said, it’s not the pants themselves that are the issue. It’s the idea that it’s always a woman’s fault that she’s assaulted: she wore tight pants, she showed cleavage, she was walking around by herself. The burden is always on the woman not to get raped. It’s hardly ever on the man not to do the raping.

    Maybe Defiance was trying to deconstruct that. I don’t know. I’m not the writer, I’m only a reader. I always get the sense that books like these (feisty, independent heroine in a sexist society) are attempting to do just that but more often than not, they uphold the values they purportedly push back against. For example, the idea that Rachel shouldn’t go walking around wearing tight pants because she’ll get assaulted doesn’t come from the bad guys. If it had, then we would have narrative support that hey, this value is bad! Because if the bad guys uphold it, well then, it’s obviously not a good thing, right? But the one who said it was Logan, one of the good guys and the love interest. That’s a problem on multiple levels ranging from a good guy upholding the victim blaming narrative to why in the world is the love interest saying something like this about the girl he likes?

    I think there’s something to be said about these post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA novels coming out featuring societies in which girls have been reduced to property belonging to men and/or sex slaves. And none of it is good.

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  16. Sofie
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 09:44:42

    As always, thanks for the review, Jia.

    World building is important to me and I can only forgive poor world building if the rest of the story is fantastic. I don’t need extensive descriptions, but I need to have a clear idea of what world I’m playing in to enjoy it. So this is a pass for me.

    By the way, I read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong and I quite liked it. I’ve never been disappointed by your recommendations, so I’m not surprised. I’m adding Stolen to my TBR list. Thanks for introducing me to the series.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for traditional fantasy with a heroine who kicks ass or who is an assassin, thief, rogue, criminal, or other unconventional profession?

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  17. LG
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 10:16:53

    @Sofie: “Does anyone have any recommendations for traditional fantasy with a heroine who kicks ass or who is an assassin, thief, rogue, criminal, or other unconventional profession?”

    Maybe try Graceling by Kristin Cashore or one of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books.

    Graceling is set in a world where certain people have Graces (particular things they naturally do really well). The main character is a girl Graced with killing. The king decides to use her to exert his power, until she one day gets tired of hurting and killing people.

    Of Pierce’s Tortall books, my favorite is the Protector of the Small quartet, which starts with First Test – its main character is Kel, a girl who becomes the first girl to officially become a page and work towards becoming a knight. It might be better to start with the Song of the Lioness quartet, though (first book: Alanna: The First Adventure). The main character of that quartet is a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to become a knight – she later watches over Kel.

    Oh, and also maybe try Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. I don’t know that it entirely fits what you’re asking for, but I think it fits the spirit, if that makes sense. Some of the heroine’s awesomeness is due to mysterious and uncomfortable magic, but a good chunk is also due to her ability to keep her head and willingness to learn.

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  18. Sofie
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 10:48:51

    @LG: Thank you so much for the response. I’ve read all of these and loved them. I’m sorry I didn’t list them in my comment. These are good examples of what I’m hoping to find again. I’m not opposed to heroes as I also liked the Farseer trilogy, the Night Angel trilogy, Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles and others along those lines. It’s just that I really want a strong heroine. Someone suggested I try The Broken Crown by Michelle Sagara West. Has anyone read this?

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  19. Jia
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 13:48:45

    @Sofie: The Sun Sword series by Michelle West is my favorite epic fantasy series. It, and the Broken Crown (book #1) in particular, also features one of my favorite fantasy heroines, Diora. I love these books because they have a large and varied cast female characters, in addition to the male, and they’re all strong without falling into the trap of being only one “type” of strong. You have mercenaries and street rats turned nobles and ladies who’ve weaponized perfected femininity. It’s refreshing.

    Another book you might want to give a try, if you haven’t, is Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, which is about a female mercenary who was betrayed by her employers and seeks revenge on them. It’s that rare revenge fantasy in which the female protagonist seeks vengeance for a reason other than rape! So shocking.

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  20. Erin Satie
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 13:51:36

    @Jia:

    I am not huge on dragons, either, but I liked these. They’re nicely reptilian in nature, and (in keeping with the excellent worldbuilding) their vocabulary is full of words/metaphors that reference flying.

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  21. Sofie
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 17:25:33

    @Jia: Thanks so much. I’ll try all of these out and let you know how it went.

    ReplyReply

  22. WordSpinner
    Sep 07, 2012 @ 00:35:47

    This isn’t a YA novel nor is the protagonist a woman, but I really like the books of the Raksura by Martha Wells. Her worldbuilding and characters are spectacular, though the plots are pretty straightforward and classic–the first one is “orphan joins group, helps save group, gets the girl”. Also, it is a world of no humans–the main character belongs to a species of humanoid dragonlike/reptilian shapeshifters that don’t act like humans, and it seems like every fifty feet there is a different, nonhuman species (though some are more nonhuman than others).

    Also, it has a romance sideplot with a seriously awesome woman. And they are funny.

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  23. Erin Satie
    Sep 07, 2012 @ 03:08:43

    @WordSpinner:

    I agree that Martha Wells’ Raksura books are lovely. Not the sort of books that grab you by the hair and pull you along but reading them is a little like taking a warm bath, soothing in an invigorating way.

    The main character is male and, through his species caste-like system, is stuck in the role of “trophy wife”, which he absolutely loathes…even as he struggles to belong. Story has some fun moments.

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  24. AmyW
    Sep 07, 2012 @ 21:14:41

    I’m not surprised at all to see a resurgence of misogynistic future societies a la The Handmaid’s Tale in fiction — it’s not that hard to imagine it happening with some of the laws and statements from politicians recently…

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  25. Dabney
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 17:58:49

    @AmyW: I just read this (http://cjredwine.tumblr.com/post/54841923431/why-i-regressed-womens-rights-in-defiance) –when a friend Tweeted about it. I was struck by the echoes of The Handmaiden’s Tale . I was 24 when Ms. Atwood’s book came out. It depresses the hell out of me that these tales still so resonate.

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