Review: Defy by Sarah B. Larson

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DefyDefy by Sara B. Larson (2014, Scholastic Press)

Blurb: 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?

After reading the above description, I was really excited to read this book. I expected a strong female character, an action-packed fantasy novel, and a lot of in-depth character interaction. Sadly, that is not what this book is. If you want a strong female character who is decisive and self-confident and a leader, this is not the book for you. Alexa is defined, both by others and by herself, solely in terms of her relationships to other (male) characters: she is Marcel’s twin; one of Damian’s elite guard; Rylan’s friend. This evolves or devolves (depending on how you choose to look at it) into Alexa as the love interest of both Damian and Rylan, and as the pawn of the Men with the Plan. At no time does Alexa come up with a plan of her own—virtually all of her actions are the results of orders given to her by men. The only reason Alexa lives to the end of the book is that men perform heroic actions, they protect her, save her life, and tell her what to do to stay alive. That’s not really my idea of a strong female action character.

The world-building in Defy is minimal; it’s a romance novel with swords and magic and a generic fantasy setting, not a fantasy novel with a romance. I didn’t actually mind that so much because so many books go overboard with world-building. What I did mind were the places where the world-building slipped, for example, when one character tells another that “pride goeth before a fall.” I couldn’t quite work out how a character in a fantasy setting with no real mention of religion was able to quote the Bible.

The focus on the romance rather than on a plot is also responsible for the wildly uneven pacing of the book. The plot-based scenes do have a fair amount of action in them, but the minute the action stops, all Alexa does is moon over the dudes. Seriously! If she’s not actively fighting, during her weeks-long journey through the jungle, while being held captive, the most efficient, skilled soldier in the king’s army thinks not about survival or escape tactics, but is instead unable to produce a single coherent thought that does not involve her attraction to Rylan and/or Damian.

The author uses the gender-swap device solely as a means of getting Alexa close enough to Damian and Rylan that she can fall in love with them. There’s no exploration of gender roles in society—theirs or ours. The same-sex aspect of the love triangle, which I was looking forward to, was completely sidestepped. I would have wondered if the issue of same-sex attraction was deemed inappropriate for the target YA audience were it not for the vivid descriptions of the breeding houses—oh, didn’t I mention that? All captured children are separated by sex: boys train to be soldiers, girls are forced to bear children who will then be subjected to the same fate. Although this is disturbing enough just on the face of it, what’s even more disturbing is that their inclusion seems to be more to evoke in the reader a reaction against the current regime than to serve any real function within the story. The characters themselves just accept the breeding houses as the way things are rather than as, you know, a reason to actively oppose a vile regime instead of being part of the elite guard ensuring the regime’s survival.

All in all, this book was a huge disappointment. Between the lack of a plot, the lack of any real character or relationship development, and a fair bit of what seemed to me to be anti-feminist content (I won’t go so far as to call it misogynistic, but others have), based on this book I’m going to give the rest of the series a pass.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 2 stars out of 5.

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