(Goodreads summary here.)
I was so scared to start this book. I know that the Red Queen series stirs a lot of mixed emotions, but I have always loved it. I read the first book very shortly after it was released, so I’ve invested a lot of time and emotion into this series. The last thing I wanted was to be disappointed by the finale.
And, fortunately, I was not.
There’s a lot to unpack with this one (it is a bit of a monster at 650+ pages), so bear with me. I have a lot of thoughts (and 7 pages of notes), so get ready for a long one. I promise I’ll try to keep it interesting. Also, since it is the last book in a series, there will be spoilers for the previous 3 books, so reader beware!
Let’s talk a look at the plot first. The political narrative has always been strong in these books, but it really does come to a head in this one. Maven is in control of the throne, has made hasty allies with long-time enemies, and is hell-bent on eliminating the threat Cal poses to him and his throne. Cal has taken up his crown once again as he works with his grandmother and uncle to take back his rightful place on the throne. Mare and the Scarlet Guard, with the addition of their Montfort allies, are looking to remove Maven from power, but, rather than reinstate Cal, establish a more egalitarian, democratic system like the one in Montfort. I loved the addition of the third side. With the exiled king narrative, it can get a little tired if done poorly, since there are typically only two factions fighting. By adding in a third faction, character motives and actions are split an additional way, and it adds even more to the political tensions. You wonder who is going to betray who and why and when. It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time, trying to predict who would do what. And it thankfully never got too overcomplicated. Sure, there’s a lot of complex back and forth and tons of secrets, but it all adds up in the end.
As the plot thickened, nothing felt too convenient, either. Sometimes I find that authors just throw in events that just happen to help the main characters and prevent them from being injured or making a poor decision. Sure, there are a lot of moments when the main characters are saved at the perfect time, but the reasons given to explain it are completely logical within the world of the story. Every “miraculous” save isn’t miraculous at all: it happens because someone in the story has enough foresight to plan for it. And while that does kind of sound like an easy excuse, it works because that’s just how the characters are. I would almost have been more surprised if preventative, almost paranoid action hadn’t been taken.
This next section is maybe vaguely spoilery? I’m going to be safe and say skip this paragraph if you haven’t read it!! I’m not quite sure how much of a difference it made in my reading of it, but I accidentally spoiled a character death for myself (if you’ve read this, I’m sure you know which one). Obviously, I really wish I hadn’t, because knowing what’s going to happen with something like this is never fun, but I’m also not convinced it changed a lot of how I read the book. I think you’re meant to wait for this to happen, like you’re meant to be expecting it to happen but aren’t sure when, so me knowing for sure it was still had me waiting on the when and how of it. I don’t know, I’m really just mad that I did it in the first place.
I also really appreciated how the story read like it wasn’t 650 pages long. I blew through it in 3 days (which is a great review in and of itself) just because there’s never a dull moment (okay, well there might be a couple, but even those are really interesting.) Every aspect moves the story forward in some way. Not every scene is a battle. In fact, most of them aren’t. As much as I enjoy those scenes, I was a little concerned they would take up the bulk of the book, since, you know, they are at war. But that’s not what happens. Yeah, there are a lot, but they don’t overwhelm the book. The political narrative itself is more than enough to keep the story moving on its own.
Speaking of keeping the story moving, I loved how much this story was, at its core, character-driven. Yes, the political tension and battles make it very action-heavy, but everything happens as a result of a character making a deliberate choice. It could have very easily been a lot of “oh, this person just happened to be injured in battle, causing this to happen, causing this to happen.” Instead, it’s a line of dominoes as each character makes a choice about what they want to, need to, or should do. Each and every character is given an excess of agency, which means that none of the main characters are really forced into their actions (with a few obvious and strategic exceptions). It makes it all the more interesting to see things from their points of view when the chapters shift because we get to see why they’re making the choice they do, then get to witness the fallout. It’s really riveting to read.
Additionally, I really liked how, while the characters do change as the series goes on, you can definitely see that they’re the same character as when they started, since they’ve retained most of their core traits. I feel like some characters do a complete 180 as their series progresses, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but I like seeing characters change while still staying true to some aspect of what they’re like. It makes the story more believable. Mare starts out wanting what’s best for the people she loves, and she keeps that. Cal wants what’s best for Norta, and he keeps that. Kilorn is completely loyal to Mare, and he keeps that. It makes the overall story more interesting because these kinds of traits, which seem to be entirely good, actually pose problems for the characters. To me, that’s good writing, taking a character’s best traits and values and using it against them. It forces characters into situations where they question their values, and the fact that all of Aveyard’s characters came out of the fire with them intact is so central to their development.
Onto specific characters. Let’s start with the obvious: my girl Mare. I know she causes a lot of debate, since a lot of people do not like her as a protagonist, especially in the first book. To those people, I say: give her a chance. Sure, from what I remember, I thought she was a little lost and maybe a touch whiny in the first book. But she’s really grown over the course of the series. Mare has one of my favorite overall character arcs of maybe any character I’ve ever read about. She shifts from letting the people in power control her to being a force for change, making her own decisions about her life and working to improve the lives of others. I honestly don’t know what more you could want in a main character. Does she make some poor decisions throughout the book? Duh. Does she (mostly) recognize them and learn from them? Yes, and that’s what counts. She really has become one of my favorite characters, especially upon looking back on how much she’s grown throughout the series.
Evangeline is a character who I still don’t think I have figured out. I am all for her redemption arc (if you can even call it that, honestly). I feel like, no matter what she did, I was still mad at her for making what I thought was the wrong choice. I know that’s kind of dumb, but I just wanted her to become the perfect antiheroine who ends up the heroine. And that’s not really what she does, and, you know what, that’s okay. She doesn’t save the day; she saves herself. As much as I wanted to see her become a good person, I am more than happy to see her become her own person, which is what she does. Not once does Evangeline make you think she’s one of the good guys. But she does end up kind of helping the good guys out in the end, which is really about as much as we can ask of her.
I read somewhere that people were kind of bored with Iris’s chapters, and I’m not really sure I get that. I love Mare and Evangeline and their story as much as anyone else, but I enjoyed seeing what was going on in Norta from a new point of view. It also helped to expand this world, since we get to see the Lakelands and its culture and people. It reinforces the idea that even other nations in the world still view Reds as lesser and oppress them. It reminds us what happens when one set of people are given almost unlimited power, regardless of the cultural values of each individual society. Also, it was interesting to see Maven from the point of view of someone who’s close to him. It’s a reminder that he’s not quite sane and that it’s really quite obvious to those around him, and yet they (mostly) follow him anyways. It’s part of what makes him so dangerous. I think that her chapters were integral to understanding the way the story progresses and why.
And Cal. What a guy. I went into this book absolutely furious with him, as I’m sure most people did. I get why he did what he did at the end of King’s Cage, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I kept waiting for him to give up his crown and do the right thing, which I think is really the point. I also wanted to be sure that, when he did it, he didn’t just do it for Mare. Again with the agency, but I wanted to see Cal grow in that way, where he decides that, really, he’s being selfish. He has the best intentions but just can’t bring himself to do exactly what is needed. It frustrated me to no end. I won’t spoil what happens in the end, but it was certainly a long road to get there.
A little side note on characters: I’m really glad we got to see more of Kilorn. He really is the ideal best friend. He’s infinitely loyal, almost to a fault, but isn’t afraid to tell Mare she’s wrong. A lot of this stems from the fact that he is perfectly okay with still being friends with Mare, even though she doesn’t reciprocate his romantic feelings for her. Isn’t it sad that that’s my standard, that all it takes is for you to be okay still being friends even though you’ve been rejected romantically? Get your shit together, popular culture and society. Still, I think Kilorn is great regardless. He’s great comedic relief, and, honestly, I still think he is a little underutilized. I still want more from him.
Onto relationships. This book put me in a really unfamiliar position. I know a lot of people love Mare and Maven together, but I am so not one of those people. I spent the ENTIRE book waiting for Mare and Cal to make up, which is bizarre for me because I usually couldn’t care less about the relationships if the characters are being rational, which they are here. Cal wants to take back his throne: fine, whatever, I’m not happy about it, but you’re better than Maven. Mare wants to eliminate the throne entirely and find equality for the Reds: YES, go show them who’s boss and don’t take no for an answer. I want characters to maintain their revolutionary ends, romance be damned, aka Mare in this book. And yet?? I wanted them to get back together??? I cannot remember the last time I was this invested in a relationship, especially given the surrounding circumstances. And I feel really bad about. Aveyard tweeted at some point that this book isn’t about the romance, and I totally see that and support it 200% and yet there I was, waiting for the romance to happen. Mostly, like I said before, I think I just wanted Cal to make the ethical, selfless choice, which ultimately meant that Mare wouldn’t be too mad at him and they could be fine. I know some of you are like, “Cal chose the crown over Mare, he doesn’t deserve her!” And I agree, which is why I wanted his arc to go so that he supported Mare’s cause, because really their relationship went hand in hand with him making the ethical choice. Also, I do see where Cal is coming from with his choice. He lost everything to Maven and feels like taking back the throne is the only way to regain it. And we know he regrets that it means forgoing his relationship with Mare. The whole of the romantic plot is reinforced by the political one, since both characters believe they’re doing what’s right. Yes, we agree more with Mare since she’s our protagonist (and, y’know, more ardently opposed to oppression), but Cal’s choices do have merit, albeit not quite as strong, but they can’t be ignored. I think it works because the political aspects make it so much more than a petty lover’s quarrel, put way more at stake than just their relationship – the whole of Norta is at risk – and that makes the narrative far more compelling. I think a good test for this is if we were to make the characters friends instead of lovers. Would the narrative still work? Here, the answer is absolutely yes. If Mare and Cal had just been friends, the drama would have felt just as real and as tense as it does when they’re in a relationship.
There also may be vague spoilers here? Be careful. I’m really not sold on the vague epilogue. I am all here for not ending with a firm romance, especially if it means that a character is taking time for focus on themselves rather than focus on a relationship. I know not every story should or needs to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow, but I just want to ensure that all of my fictional children to be happy. Like above, this was one time I actually wanted a pretty little bow, which I hate saying because I don’t think this book is about the romance (which might be why I wanted it so badly? We want what we can’t have, right?) I think mostly because it’s the finale, I wanted to know exactly what happens in the end. I know you’re supposed to trust that everything works out for everyone, and I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see it happen (give me fluff, okay? This is the one time I actually want it.) I think it’s really a testament to Aveyard’s writing, that she left me wanting so much more. She not only had me totally invested in her characters but also made them feel entirely real.
Speaking of writing, one of the things I loved about this series was watching Aveyard grow as a writer. Red Queen had its faults, and that’s okay. What matters is that this book, and really the previous one, are really stellar. She figured out how to craft her characters in more compelling and interesting ways, giving them strengths while also making those strengths weaknesses. Her storylines grew in complexity, and it was really thrilling to watch. Another touch she included with the finale was the expansion of the parallel to today’s world. Obviously the whole series is very rooted in the stories of the oppressed overcoming the oppressors, but it’s never more apparent than in War Storm. It also doesn’t really hit you over the head with it, which can be hard to do. I like to find similarities to today on my own, since it really forces me to analyze both the text and the real world (#EnglishLitMajor). It makes the overall impact far more striking in the long run. I also really liked the little touch in the epilogue with the bison. Gisa mentions that the bison had been extinct but recovered so that they are as numerous as they are in the book. It reminds us that this world is meant to be North America’s distant future. And it’s kind of jarring, as it should be. But it’s also a reminder that we can change. Sure, recovering endangered species maybe isn’t as important as ending rampant inequality, but it’s something. And it shows that, just as they do in the Red Queen world, we can learn from our mistakes and correct them before it’s too late.
So that was a lot. Again, I told you I had of thoughts, so thanks for sticking with me. Mostly I’m just sad this series is over. I’ve been committed to it for 4 years now, and it’s never easy to let things like that go. I know there are going to be short stories in this world with these characters, but it’s just not the same, you know? I’m ecstatic to be getting anything more, but it’s still bittersweet. I don’t know if you can tell, but I just really love this series, and this book is the perfect end to it. I’m sad to see it go.
Have you read the Red Queen series? Are you sad to see it be done? What other series are you sad about being completed?