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Tournament of Books Round 3: Red Queen vs. The Alex Crow

09 Mar

This was an interesting match-up for two reasons. 1) I have issues with Andrew Smith. 2) I really liked The Scorpion Rules, and was disappointed that it didn’t move to the second round. Despite my personal feelings, I tried really hard to judge both of these books on their own merits.alex crow

The Alex Crow is made up of four intertwined male-centric stories. Two of the storylines follow Ariel, an orphaned refugee from a never-explicitly-named country, who has been adopted by an American family and sent to a Kafkaesque summer camp for boys to bond with his new brother, Max. A third storyline follows the schizophrenic melting man on an epic road trip. The fourth is a diary from a horrific sea voyage undertaken by a ship named The Alex Crow, which provides backstory to the rest of the novel.

Although I was captivated by the Ariel’s camp story and background story, Smith made it hard to judge The Alex Crow on its merits when he had Ariel think things like, “I hadn’t known [my adoptive mother] very long, but who could ever get to know that woman, anyway?” This thought repeats sentiments Smith has expressed in an interview. So, I wasn’t able to set aside my biggest issue with Smith. As much as I enjoyed Ariel’s two storylines, I was disappointed that the female characters are so underdeveloped. Besides the unknowable mother, there are Mrs. Nussbaum (a Battleaxe Nurse trope) and Crystal Lutz, an accordion-playing figment of the melting man’s imagination.

Still, the good stuff is really good. The boys’ experiences at camp are funny. I even chuckled at Max’s constant stream of masturbation jokes. Ariel’s refugee experience is gripping and heartbreakingly believable. I would have liked The Alex Crow better if Smith had stuck to Ariel’s two narrative strands, and devoted more creative energy to developing his female characters. The melting man turns out to be a red herring, anyway; and the voyage of The Alex Crow could have been condensed within a short passage from Mrs. Nussbaum’s book, which Ariel reads at camp.

red queenI began reading Red Queen a few days ago with high hopes. I generally enjoy fantasy, scifi, superhero, and dystopia stories – all elements contained within this attractively-bound book. In a nutshell, Mare Barrow is a member of the oppressed Reds who discovers that she has a special power that simultaneously makes her useful to and a threat to the wealthy, powerful Silvers. Complicating matters are three guys with three different agendas, all pulling her head and heart in three different directions. Can she use her newfound ability and position to help her people? And which guy will she choose? It had me at hello.

Then Silver blood was spilled, and my brain had trouble suspending disbelief. Humans with silver blood? I found myself wondering what could make blood that color, and went so far as to google it. Did you know there is a species of Antarctic fish that has translucent white blood? It’s because it has no hemoglobin! That doesn’t explain how a race of humans could evolve to survive without hemoglobin in their blood (the fish don’t need it because they live in very oxygen-rich water). Never mind, let’s just assume that aliens were involved. If the Silvers are a new race of alien/human/mutant/superheroes, though, did they really need to be white? Silvers turn white when they blush – they are literally the whitest people ever.

Still, when I was able to shut off my brain and not think too much, I enjoyed Red Queen. It features a plucky heroine, some good action, a few pleasing twists, and plenty of teen angst. Though the big twist suffers from too much foreshadowing, I did get swept up in the climactic battle at the end. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late to elevate Red Queen from the middle of the dystopia pack.

Granted, it really just needed to rise above The Alex Crow. The truth is, when I think about Red Queen, it wasn’t just the silver blood that bothered me. Aveyard’s world-building in general wasn’t very thorough; and while she created a Strong Female Character in Mare, her other characters seemed a bit flat. I actually wanted to learn more about Evangeline, Mare’s main rival. She was depicted as a heartless bitch, and I felt like she got short shrift. Descriptions of places were vague, and the kingdom of Norta never came to life for me. I wish I could have seen the map that Mare studied at Summerton.

That’s why The Alex Crow is the victor in this battle. As flawed as it is, Ariel and Max lived and breathed from beginning to end. Maybe I’m a sucker for orphans and masturbation jokes?

WINNER: THE ALEX CROW BY ANDREW SMITH

Reviewed by Donna Block, Niles Public Library District

 

 

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