by Sara B. Larson
Rating: 3.5 stars
*This is my first book from NetGalley I received in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Scholastic Press!*
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 was very excited at the book since I love stories where a girl disguises herself as a boy and sweeps through the competition with her surprising strength of character. I hoped this book would evoke all the feelings I associate with good fantasy books and for the most part Defy delivers on its promise. It is a great YA book, definitely something I would devour in one sitting as a teenager. Being an adult though, I could clearly see some flaws in the plot and characterisation. Maybe my expectations were a bit high, considering this is a debut, but I believe the author can easily avoid similar mistakes in the future.
I was pleasantly surprised with the story’s setting – a jungle is not something we usually get in the fantasy genre with knights and medieval societies. It threw me for a loop at first since I’m more used to the usual temperate zone landscape, but I learned to love the different feel it gave to the story. I also liked that the author used multiracial characters and only gradually included more sorcery into the plot. This helped to keep the tension throughout the book high and resulted in a nice climax.
Right from the start we are shown the horrors the long war and the rule of King Hector has brought to the land. He’s a classic villain, so the reveals of his atrocities throughout the book did not come as much of a surprise to me. Breeding houses in particular were such a horrible concept I believe the author herself shied away from describing them in too much detail. They are certainly a very convincing motivation for Alexa’s disguise, so I almost felt like she did too little to keep up the mask of a devoted guard once she’s out of the palace. I would be too terrified to deviate much in my behaviour or get distracted by budding romance, but then again, I’m not a teenager anymore.
Alexa and her twin Marcel are fascinating siblings with a very tight bond, so I was sorry to see Marcel killed off early in the book. His death broke something inside his sister and I wished to see her strong, determined, and confident persona before this tragic event; unfortunately, that did not exactly happen until the end of the book. She starts to behave more like a girl than a boy, which felt odd to me in some way. After almost 4 years of pretending to be a boy, I thought it would be easier for her to keep up the pretence. I also missed an explanation how she kept her gender secret once in captivity. Toilet breaks and her period would certainly make it clear soon enough, but I understand that these are minor problems in a fantasy book that has other, bigger issues to focus on. It would have been nice if there were a smart explanation, I think.
The secret message to the Heart of the Rivers propels the action forward but it feels kind of odd at first. Especially when she’s threatened then released ahead of Rylan. It doesn’t make much sense, especially once she gets hurt by a jaguar. I have a hard time believing this one when she’s got a fire going. It felt kind of random and more like an excuse for the delay in her return to the palace and the ‘not all magic is evil’ message. Alexa swallows this one uncommonly quickly – her parents were murdered by a sorcerer, so she should hold more of a grudge or at least mistrust against them.
About the romance; Rylan had no chance at all, so I do not consider this a love triangle at all. Alexa shows a budding romantic interest for him at the very start of the novel (which she is not all that conscious about), but Prince Damian soon takes over her life and thoughts. Rylan is there only to keep her from falling for the prince completely head over heels, with no regard for her life. I felt that utterly unfair to the faithful and constant friend she got in Rylan. Why is it that the most devoted of men never get the girl? Prince Damian lied to her all the time – for a good reason, but it still felt like exploitation to me – while Rylan silently had her back. That is why I did not understand her passion for the prince she initially did not even like. He may be gorgeous, but I’d like to believe there’s more to love than pure physical attraction. It is understandable in some regard since we are talking about a 17 year old girl with no experience at all, but her confusion about feelings for Prince Damian and the guilt she feels for her fellow guard Rylan strips her of her strengths almost too much for my taste. For the majority of the book she behaves like the most cliché YA heroine and not like the person who almost became the Captain of the Guard. So the return to her old persona at the very end of the book made me sigh with relief.
Fighting scenes are nicely described and feel realistic enough. I have more issues with the way secrets come out and how much gets revealed in advance by foreshadowing. I guessed most of the secrets, really. I blame the myriad of YA and fantasy books I’ve read. For someone less experienced they would stay hidden until the reveal.
Consensus: This is a solid read with a nicely flowing plot and rising tension. It will appeal to younger readers and to fans of romance, but people looking for an adventure should be satisfied as well. It has a unique setting and a fresh magical system that the writing style only helps to enhance. Despite my grumbling, the flaws are almost negligible and can be easily avoided in the next book. I’m looking forward to the author’s next work.