Defy by Sara B. Larson
Out of the narrative ingredients available to a writer, the love triangle is an especially potent and attractive one. It’s an instantly relatable situation that generates tension and conflict in spades. Wielded wisely, it can flavor a story, emphasize a theme, or even be a story on its own. I submit for your examination A Midsummer’s Night Dream, where yon Billy Shakespeare makes merriment for all by playing merry hell with a love quadrangle. Wielded poorly, it can feel bland, unnecessary, or worse—shoehorned into a narrative that didn’t need it. And when that last one means that the love triangle devours the narrative from which it was born, you’re in trouble.
Case in point, Sara B. Larson’s Defy. On paper (oh, what an incredibly poor metaphor to use for this medium), Defy seems right up my alley. “Alex” is actually young woman living as a man—specifically, as a guard for Prince Damian, the lazy heir to the jungle nation of Antion. Alexa and her twin brother, Marcel, disguised her gender to keep her from being sent to the breeding houses after losing their parents in an attack by neighboring Blevon. The war has raged her entire life, but takes on new meaning when an assassination attempt on Damian’s life kills Marcel. But she barely has time to mourn before she, her fellow guard Rylan, and the prince are kidnapped by the enemy. As Alexa attempts to stay on top of the situation, she finds herself dealing with her feelings for Damian and Rylan.
Somewhere in the background of Defy, there’s a very traditional coming of age story, where the Chosen One ends the war that has been devastating with a one-against-one fight with the Big Bad and becomes a woman in the process. (This story makes a very confused entrance during the end of the novel.) However, this story is constantly and consistently overpowered by the love triangle between Alexa, Rylan, and Damian.
Now, there is not a thing wrong with a love triangle. I love watching attractive people dither over who they should make out with as much as the next person who also likes that. But it’s very hard to care about Alexa’s constant inner turmoil when she seems much more interested in her own love life than ending the horrific war that killed her parents, brother, and any semblance of a normal life for her. Young adult heroines cannot all be (nor should they all be) Katniss in matters of the heart, but a basic handle on one’s priorities is nice.
And this is Alexa’s main note as a character. She’s really good at fighting and really attracted to boys. It’s great to see a young adult heroine experience desire so viscerally, but it starts to come off as Alexa being so incredibly repressed that merely thinking of Damian’s blue eyes or Rylan’s brown eyes throws her into spams of ecstasy (denoted mostly by furious heart action and intense blushing). This may have been the point, since Alexa’s main conception of what is male is that boys do not like boys or have any other kind of emotions. To Alexa, feeling like a girl doesn’t mean feeling like she doesn’t have to lie about her gender, feeling like she can express emotion, or even getting to grow her hair out and develop a visual identity of her own; rather, feeling like a girl is experiencing sexual (or, at the very least, sensual) attraction to a boy. Such mixed feelings could be starting off point for a great novel about gender identity, but Larson doesn’t engage with this at all.
The characterization is just as abbreviated for the love interests. Prince Damian is the bad boy, while Rylan is the nice guy, and I mean that quite literally. Once Rylan realizes that Alexa is internally combusting every time Damian breathes near her, he assures her that it’s okay for them to be together. But if it doesn’t work out, he’ll be waiting for her. Forever. I’ve seen some reviewers accuse Rylan of not having a personality, but the reality is a lot creepier than that.
The worldbuilding, at least, tries to be more diverse. Antion is a Brazilian-esque jungle where most people are olive-skinned, to the point that white redheads are considered oddities. It’s vaguely sketched, but prominent enough that it might make young fantasy readers step back and question their own assumptions about the genre. This is a definite plus and should be encouraged!
But the breeding houses—where all women of child-bearing age are repeatedly raped in order to bear future soldiers for the war—particularly takes the cake. Setting the fact that it’s a remarkably long-term investment that can’t have paid dividends yet and makes little to no sense, it’s a very provocative and extreme concept that sets up Alexa’s world as so hideously sexist that this is a thing that happens. No wonder Alexa needs to be so diligent about concealing her gender; this is a culture that hates women on a basis perhaps unheard of in the real world. But nothing happens when Alexa’s gender is revealed. This cultural more never influenced any of the “good” characters, so they’re all fine with her being a guard and also a lady. In short, while Defy brings up both passing as male and systematic rape, it never actually addresses or engages with gender and sexism. Which begs the question: why bring it up something so extreme and painful as systematic rape if you’re only going to use it as a footnote to motivate your heroine? Something like that shouldn’t be flavor text.
You know what? Let’s wash this out with a love triangle song (that does not have a Hero’s Journey walking around in the background in a daze):
Bottom line: In Defy, a love triangle swallows a traditional Hero’s Journey whole, taking along characterization with it. It also brings up the systematic rape of an entire nation’s female population as a footnote to motivate the heroine, who spends a lot more of her time on the whole love triangle thing. Avoid.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.
Defy will be released on January 7th.