Home  |  Reviews  |  Vlogs  |  Interviews  |  Guest Posts  |  Fairy Tales  |  Jane Austen  |  Memes  |  Policies

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

DEFY by Sara B. Larson | review

Say the words "gender-bending epic fantasy" and which lil' ole blogger pops into your head? Probably this girl. So Sara B Larson's gender-bending epic fantasy debut should be an easy win for me, right? 

Defy by Sara B Larson
Get It | Add It
Fantasy, 336 pages
Expected publication: January 7th 2014 by Scholastic Press
A lush and gorgeously written debut, packed with action, intrigue, and heart-racing romance.

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?

I hadn't heard of Sara B Larson's debut, Defy, until it showed up in my mailbox, which is shameful of me, because I'm normally pretty on top of anything that even hints at the phrase "gender-bender." (I blame this almost completely on Tamora Pierce, and probably a little bit on movies like Rocky Horror, Ladybugs, To Wong Foo and Just One of the Guys. My formative years in a nutshell, friends.) So even though I had no plans to read this, and a whole stack of other things that needed to be read instead, I promptly sat down with this one almost immediately upon opening the package.
And for all my high hopes and a fairly strong start, I was sadly disappointed.

Defy was an oddly confused piece of writing. It doesn't know if it wants to be the next big smexy romance novel or a straight-forward epic fantasy, so it tries to do both, and fails. 'Hot and bothered' just doesn't work as well when there are more pressing concerns like fighting for your life. Now, I've always been one to say that romance still has a place - maybe even more of a place - when the setting isn't all that conducive to a romance; people still fall in love in the middle of wars. Emotions are heightened, life seems short, and people carpe the hell out of their diems. But... if that's the case you wanna make, then that mentality, that forced, manic, precarious vitality has to be represented and believable. And those other concerns, like war and death and hurt, loss, pain, anxiety — they need to intrude, need to make up a bulk of the characters' thought-space, even. Otherwise, it makes your characters seem vapid and self-absorbed, and all of the potential tension in your story (beyond the sexual) goes right out the window. If they don't legitimately fear for their lives, we won't. If they only care about the ills of society in a cursory way, when forced to, we'll either stop caring about the world, or stop caring about the characters. (And by we, I mean me, but I'm guessing some of you, too.)

Defy felt like a lot of potential, wasted. And I don't just mean the more dire aspects of the society, and the seriousness of the situation. Even Alexa's disguise as Alex felt wasted. Larson does have talent that tries to rear its troublesome head, but beyond the lack of depth and the apparent obviousness of Alexa's disguise (who doesn't know? I think just adults, who presumably are too busy or too obtuse to pay attention to anything around them...Like the fact that one twin matures from boy to going-on man while the other remains sexless and ambiguous. Or the fact that one twin (the not-boy one) seems to spend most of his/her time openly leering at all of the sweaty dreamboats in his/her regiment...), I just felt like there needed to be more follow-through, follow-all-the-way-through, in Defy. There needed to be some psychology, some cause-effect, and all those fundamental hallmarks of good world & character building. Two apparently-straight boys are in love with someone pretending to be a boy - shouldn't there be...a grappling with confusing feelings? As a woman in a society where women are forced into brothels to be brood mares for the army, shouldn't their be some real hatred and bitterness? More distrust, more paranoia and caution in regards to the "disguise," or some acting-out, and even some self-loathing for being a member of the Army that helps prop up this institutionalized sex trafficking? Though there was a scene - a single scene - of disgust for the world Alexa lives in, I can't say that it was really more than set-up for a pivotal moment of the book -- a means to an end, and not a real analysis or condemnation of the world. It was well-done in the moment, and then relegated to the d-plotlines once again.

There were things that should have been explored and capitalized on, that should have had a greater share of the focus, over faux drama and twu wuv. So Alexa's the best fighter ever, and she's maybe magic ooh ahh. She's also smart and resourceful (one assumes), so let us see some more of that. She shows moments, but let's have more than moments; let's have that be the bulk of the narrative instead. Not confused longing and a lip-service condemnation of the serious ills of the world, before getting back to the Very Urgent Business of who's hotter, the prince or the pauper? I try not to get too moral when it comes to a book and how it presents its story -- I generally don't feel authors have some sort of "responsibility" to...well, anything, really, other than the story they set out to tell. But as amoral a reader as I am, I couldn't help but be bothered by the shock tactic of using the forced prostitution of children as an easily-discarded frame for a story about how Alexa's milkshake swordplay brings all the boys to the yard.

Now. I've gone very negative, and some of that may be the wine talking (but probably not), so I do want to say that some of this I just saw as rookie mistakes. The story could have done with a lot of lengthening, which, beyond making more depth likely, would have allowed for more of an exploration of some of these difficult plotlines. The timeframe is very compressed, and if you're rushing to get your main characters alone in the woods together so they can get their angsty-flirt on, you're bound to neglect some of the more troublesome aspects of the story. They're just not as fun, amirite? The story as a whole would have benefitted from a slower pace, and I know I'm not the only one who thought that:

And while we're talking about rookie mistakes, even though it seems silly after the more serious stuff: the names! What was with the names? They were so jarring to me; every last one of them seemed like something the author thought sounded cool, and not at all like something that fit the world being built. Cultures have patterns, languages have forms and cadence and a feel to them, and these things all make part of a believable world. Names are a much bigger part of that than you'd think, because they represent the characters who are our 'in' to the world, and therefore represent the world itself; you can't have:
This one is Frenchish, and this one's English-like, this sounds kinda Spanishy, and ooh, this sounds "exotic" and maybe a little ethnic, so that's perfect - let's toss them all together into my insular, isolated world! Perfect! No one would ever believe they didn't develop organically as an extension of the culture and language of a people! *pats self on back* 
Choosing something with no real rhyme or reason other than it sounds badass is something a budding writer does in middle school. You gotta murder your darlings, baby, and you gotta make sound decisions rather than "cool" ones. I just had to get that little rant out of the way, 'cause it bothered me...

BUT, all that said, it is very fast-paced, and managed to be engaging even when it was getting under my skin. I saw enough in it that I would read the follow-up, even if it won't be high-priority; there is talent there, it just wants developing, and I'm curious to see what Larson does in the future. And I think I'll get that chance, as I have a feeling Defy is going to find a very devoted audience. (In fact, judging from some of my GR friends' reactions, it already has.) No matter how much we all rail against it and its predictability, there's always a huge market for love triangles; everybody wants to be Team Somebody. Defy will have that in spades. It's just the rest of it - all of its other bookness - that failed to deliver. It's probably a good "epic fantasy" for people who don't actually like epic fantasy, but want to feel like they're reading one - it gives you the bare bones of such a thing, with some vaguely jungle-ish world-building, looming war and atrocities, and mad swordplay skillz, but in the end, it's really just a standard YA love triangle dressed up in epic fantasy's clothing, like a child wearing her mother's heels and playing house.


  1. I pretty much agree with this. I just . . . both guys in the triangle know! There's no, "Am I in love with a boy?" And well, her disguise is so half-assed and apparently limited to binding her boobs. There are other things that make girls look different from boys! It is fun, but there's so much missing.

    And, ugh, breeding houses.

    1. I can understand Rylan knowing - or at least suspecting - because he works closely with her, and it would make him seem observant and give him some much-needed personality (and be so much better than "I heard your brother slip and call you Alexa aaaages ago"...). But both him and the Prince knowing was absurd, and robbed the story - and reader - of one of the greatest moments of a gender-bender, which is The Reveal. AND of all the confusion and exploring and weirdeness that comes with being attracted to someone whom you don't think you're SUPPOSED to be attracted to. And there IS so much more than binding - and Alexa acted very girly. If the premise was going to be that she's not very good at hiding it, then there should have at least been some people that looked at her askance, or thought she was gay (or if that's not a concept of this culture, than at least odd in some way). She blushes non-stop, she ogles the half-naked menfolk, she gets awful fluttery and heart-thumpy, and she has to keep reminding herself to lower her voice and use a "man" voice, all of which to me means she never really pulled it off with anyone. And the minute it's out in the open, everyone starts treating her like a delicate flower.
      Gah! So much wasted potential, just thrown away.

  2. Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series were the books that got me into YA fantasy, so I totally had my eye on this one...but now, I'm thinking it'll be dropping down the to-read list. I rather suspect a lot of the things that bugged you would bother me as well. Thanks for the detailed and frank review!

    1. Alanna changed my LIFE, man. George Cooper was my first (and longest lasting) lit crush*, 'cause I still love me some George. That series got me into reading totally different things, made me look at things in a new way, and showed me what a good book with a good female lead could be.

      THIS felt like a book written by a teen who also likes Alanna's story, and wants to emulate it - BUT IS ALSO DISCOVERING HOW AWESOME FLIRTING IS AND OMG I SHOULD TOTES PUT THAT IN THE BOOK. All the flirts. All the chest muscles. YEAH!


      *Tied with Gilbert Blythe. It's an interesting mix...

    2. Oh, George. Although I did like Jon in the first two books, before he turned into an idiot ;P

      Before I read the Alanna series I was pretty firmly a realistic-fiction-only sort of reader (and hadn't had much success with fantasy series I'd previously tried, like Chronicles of Narnia). It was kind of a happy coincidence that I ended up reading the Alanna series – I ran out of the books I'd brought along on a family summer trip and so my sister loaned me the first book, and then of course I had to read the rest... :D

    3. I was strictly a classics and horror reader, and I think a librarian might have recommended Alanna to me. I remember thinking there was no way I was ever going to like it, and then I promptly fell in love. Opened my eyes to what else a book could be!

      And I always liked Jon (still do), and think he's an incredible character, but George will always have my heart. =D

  3. Considering your review, and Gilly's (here: http://gillianeberry.blogspot.com/2013/12/review-defy-by-sara-b-larson.html) I will never, ever, ever read this book. It will just make me rage. I don't understand how publishers and editors aren't...well....doing their job better. The market seems flooded with touted books that are shallow, forced, 'tell, not show', and generally shouldn't be published. As an editor, it drives me bonkers. As an author, it makes me cry.

    1. Oh my gosh, I was just on her blog last night because of her review! I read it on Goodreads, actually, and she mentioned her gender-bender post, so I clicked over for that.
      Yeah, agree with everything she said. And it's VERY heavy on the telling. I mean, I can see why it sold, and why people are going to like it, as it's very fast-paced and engaging, but... having potential just makes it more disappointing that it was all wasted.

  4. YES. THIS. AAAAAAAAALLL OF THIS. Every single blasted point. You express yourself SO much better than I did in my review. I was too busy wallowing in disappointment to do much of anything, I'm afraid. And while I certainly don't begrudge those who loved this book, I'm definitely the gloomy Snape in the room when they start squealing.

    1. I wallowed a bit, too, after I read it, but I didn't realize just how much this bothered me until I sat down to write the review - and I could have gone ON! So trust me, you won't be the only gloomy Snape. lol!


Tell me all your thoughts.
Let's be best friends.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...