One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that I come into contact with lots of books that I might otherwise not have heard about. (Nice for me, that is; not so much for my wallet.) The new YA fantasy novel Red Queen has jumped onto our teen bestseller list, and while I was much surprised (and pleased) to discover that it was an original story and not yet another tired Alice In Wonderland retread, something about the premise left a little to be desired.
Red Queen is set in a universe where society is divided by blood type. Not your typical O positive or AB negative, though; the upper class and aristocrats of Norta have silver blood in their veins, while the lower class bleeds red. Silvers and Reds are strictly separated, not just by blood type but by ability as well. Silvers can manifest a variety of magical powers, from pyrokinesis to telepathy to ferrokinesis. Reds, on the other hand, are powerless both literally and politically. Any unskilled Red who remains out of training or employment by a certain age is required to conscript in the army and sent off to fight in a stagnant war against neighboring Lakeland.
Our protagonist Mare Barrow is on the eve of conscription and considering throwing in with a Red revolutionary movement when a slumming Silver stranger offers her a position serving in the royal household. As the primary income source for her household, she is in no position to turn the guy—who, in the way of these things, turns out to be the crown prince—down. Her first serving job is at the Queenstrial, an event where the daughters of Silver nobility show off their powers as a way to prove their worthiness for the two princes’ hands. Everything’s going swimmingly until Mare falls from a balcony—directly onto the electrified dome separating the Queenstrial participants from the spectators. Except despite her red blood, she doesn’t die—instead, she discovers that she has latent powers allowing her to control electricity.
She’s immediately swept into court intrigue; the king and queen pass her off as an orphaned but noble Silver raised by a Red family, unaware of her heritage, but it’s a complicated charade. Because of her red blood, a single cut could give away the whole thing, and before she can begin daily lessons on how to control her powers or the history of the noble house she’s been saddled with, she has to be loaded down with makeup to keep her from even blushing red. Meanwhile, she secretly allies herself with the Red revolutionaries since she’s ideally placed to feed them info.
After much drama and subterfuge, she and her allies discover that she is not alone as a Red with Silver-like powers. Silvers keep a blood database—like a fingerprint reference, but ickier—of every Red from birth forward to make sure they’re all kept in line. Within the catalog, they discover that in recent years over two dozen other powered Reds have appeared—and have been subsequently wiped out, mostly through conscription and assignment to the front lines of the war.
While I like the idea of a heroine dismantling her society’s oppressive paradigm by using her oppressors’ powers against them, I’m stuck thinking way too hard about the worldbuilding to really get invested. The basic genetics of the whole blood thing just don’t make any sense to me.
In most stories where magic is passed on by blood, it’s genetically recessive—you’re unlikely to have it unless your parents do (or at least are carriers for that gene). We meet both of Mare’s parents; they’re perfectly ordinary Reds. There’s no suggestion that she has a Silver ancestor, or, more importantly, that Silvers and Reds can even interbreed. Sure, Mare has romantic feelings towards both princes at varying points throughout the book, but there’s no serious discussion of her bearing kids with either of them.
But also, regular real-world humans bleed red because of the specific iron-based nature of their blood. Wouldn’t that imply Silver blood is dramatically chemically different? And sure, human/nonhuman hybrids with differing blood chemistry exist in speculative fiction—shoutout to Mr. Spock—but I’m having a hard time figuring out how one population evolved two forms that were so deeply disparate. The people of Norta don’t seem to know either—which is strange to me too, considering that they’re advanced enough to have radiation detection, security cameras, and a database of blood samples. You’d think they’d be a little more aware of their blood chemistry. Given that Mare is learning to pretend to be Silver for part of the book, it would have been a perfect opportunity to explain exactly how things got the way they are.
And if Mare isn’t somehow a hybrid, and her powers are just a pure and dramatic mutation, that’s… kind of weird too. The real world equivalent would be something like two healthy, genetically typical parents giving birth to a kid with hooves or wings—something way outside the range of “normal” mutations for a human being, that had never been seen before on human beings, appearing in a single generation. And given that there doesn’t seem to be any ambient natural magic in Norta—any sort of power is tied to Silver bloodlines and manifests more like X-Men mutant powers—it’s not like she could have accidentally been cursed as a child or blessed by the fae or stumbled into an enchanted glade or anything like that.
I guess the main conflict here boils down to: if an author is writing a story where magic exists, should they remain otherwise bound by general scientific fact? Honestly, I’d prefer if the answer was yes. I’m not asking for peer-reviewed research here; just a nod in the direction of the audience that says “I put some thought into this worldbuilding”. Harking back to Mr. Spock, Star Trek gets away with a lot of scientific handwaving in the name of futuristic advances, but even so they address Spock’s biology, his parentage, and how and why his Vulcan nature presents itself multiple times throughout the series.
Although Red Queen didn’t explicitly say there would be more, internet scuttlebutt suggests that there will be a sequel. (I’m glad there will be, partly because of the very open ending but also because Mare never actually became queen, making the title a strange misdirection.) If there is, I’d be interested in seeing if the author addresses any of the above issues. Hell, I’ll gladly take some pseudoscientific explanation like radioactive fallout or gene manipulation as long as it’s presented in a vaguely reasonable way. I’m generally good at suspending disbelief for a story, but sometimes credibility stretches a little too far. Maybe the sequel can bring it back before it snaps entirely.