World-Building Wonder with Character Discontent

I thought I would love this book. I had heard great things about Marie Lu’s The Young Elites, and after reading the blurb, I thought this would be a book that I could really get behind, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

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 The premise for this story seemed incredibly interesting to my young adult self. Ten years ago, there was a blood fever endemic. Every adult who caught the fever died, as did many of the children, but some of the young folks who survived the fever are left with strange markings and are labeled “malfetto.”

Our protagonist is a malfetto. Adelina Amouteru’s face and hair have been dramatically changed, and her father blames her for their family’s misfortune. Her sister, Violetta also survived the blood fever, but, unlike Adelina, appears to have survived unscathed. For both girls, however, their father’s love has a limit. Adelina sums it up within the first few pages when she says:

“Still. He loved [Violetta], in his own way. It’s different, you see, because she was his investment.

I was another story” (pg 4).

His only investment hope for Adelina is that she might be what is known as a Young Elite (oh look, the title), malfettos who are known to have gained certain abilities as a result of the blood fever. Which means that, while Violetta is forced into uncomfortable clothes and a somewhat strict social format, Master Amouteru abuses Adelina in an attempt to waken some sort of power in her. Which eventually comes back to bite him.

All of this is explained within the first ten pages of the book, so needless to say, it’s pretty fast-paced in the beginning. But this first bit is only a flashback, told from Adelina while she is in a prison cell, awaiting execution. The story really picks up when she is saved by the Dagger Society, a group of Young Elites intent on finding and saving others like them, a group hunted and killed by the government.

This is also where the narration changes a bit. Up to this point, it has been mostly flashbacks told by Adelina. After her rescue, while still in first person, it becomes present tense, and switches between narrators. Most of the story is still told by Adelina, but we get little pieces of narration from the members of the Dagger Society.

Unfortunately, this is where one of my issues with the book arises. We get so little information from some of the other characters, that sometimes it kind of feels like it was put there just to add drama/shock value instead of moving the story forward. (mini-spoiler ahead) For example, Adelina develops a bit of a crush on Enzo, the leader of the Daggers, and it seems that he feels the same way. While this in itself is not a bad thing, it is sort of hinted that the only reason he feels this way is because he used to love another girl very similar to Adelina. But because we get so little of his narration, we learn precious little about this other girl, and so the tiny snippet kind of detracted from the story for me. This is just one example of something that, in my opinion, detracts from the story rather than adds to it.

To be honest, I did not like Adelina. Marie Lu talks a little bit in this interview about how Adelina is sort of a villain in the making, which I was really excited about and thought would be really interesting. Instead, I found her a little whiny, and repetitive. A lot of times, it seemed like she was too focused on reminding the reader how dark and angry she was, trying to justify it through her horrible childhood. While I get that these are important pieces to who she is as a character, it happened so often that it took me out of the story because my brain was so busy thinking, “I get it. She’s angry. She’s an antihero. Let’s move on please.”

I was also not a fan of how she handled many situations. (bigger spoiler ahead) At one point, her sister gets taken by the Inquisition, the people in charge of rounding up and killing Young Elites, for the sole purpose of using Adelina against the Daggers. What really threw me off about this is that she just seems to go along with it. This person, who is supposed to be angry and dark and powerful, just lets herself be used.

She keeps making excuses about why she needs to just go along with the Inquisition, and why she can’t tell the Daggers, excuses that don’t entirely make sense until about half way through this section, after she had been lying so long she couldn’t go back and change it. If she had just come out with it, I think a lot of her problems could have been solved, or at least she would be in a no worse position than she is now.

In all honesty, I wish we’d heard more of the story from characters like Enzo and Raffaele and other Dagger members, and a little less from Adelina. While Adelina wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped, I was dying to know more about Enzo and Raffaele and my sweet little Gemma. I found the other members of the Daggers to be pretty fascinating and well-rounded. I think hearing the story from their points of view would have both given me the sweet satisfaction of seeing them more fully developed, and also solved many of the problems I had when reading Adelina’s point of view.

While the protagonist didn’t quite reach my expectations, I will say that Marie Lu seems to really know the structure of the world she’s created. One of the big things that I really appreciated was how magic (if you can call it that) is presented. Lu offers this idea that everything is connected to certain emotions (fear, joy, ambition, etc) and that these feeling-wheelconnections create certain threads that link to everything. The emotions with which a Young Elite identifies dictates how he or she can manipulate the threads, which is how their power manifests. I’ll admit, I found this idea interesting enough that I walked around
my house for a few days pretending I could see these threads.

Lu is also pretty good at constructing the culture behind her story. There are all these natural, casual mentionings of myths and holidays and ceremonies and history that made the world around Adelina seem, to me, as real as any of the characters. I loved the part where Teren, the leader of the Inquisition, tells Adelina the story about the angels of Joy and Greed, because it was a great look into the sorts of stories they tell in the culture, which makes it that much more real, but it never seemed forced. It was just a part of the scheme to get Adelina to help him.

Speaking of which, I think Teren makes a solid villain. His story is haunting enough that the reader feels bad for him, without it ever being presented as an excuse for his actions. Right after Teren tells Adelina the story about the angels, he gives her this little speech:

“There is an imbalance in the world… signs of demons walking with us, defying the natural order. Sometimes the only way to set things right is to do what is difficult. It is the only way to love them back” (pg 261).

If anyone has seen Serenity, the movie sequel to Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” television series, imagine the Operative from the movie. Teren’s speech was so reminiscent of this scene, it gave me the shivers, especially since the Operative is one of my favorite villains. Teren has that same sort of outlook, where he is aware that what he is doing is wrong on a small scale, but he firmly believes he is acting for the betterment of the society, a society to which he does not belong. That kind of dedication is honestly pretty terrifying.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love this book as much as I wanted to, I still plan on reading the next book. (Warning: the rest of this paragraph will have major spoilers. Seriously, don’t read it if you want to avoid spoilers. These ones are doozies.) I am fascinated by Maeve, the Elite mentioned in the epilogue, whose power allows her to bring people back from the dead. Sort of, I think. The vagueness is part of what interests me about her. I also want to know if she can bring back Enzo, and if she does, how this will affect him, because it obviously did some weird things to her brother at the end there.

(Still some huge spoilers. Sorry). While I’m a little curious about what Adelina will do now that she’s not a part of the Daggers, in all honesty, I’m more worried about Violetta. Her powers interest me, and I think that given real instruction, she could become a big player

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in deciding the future of malfettos, but Adelina doesn’t exactly seem like the best or most stable of teachers, and, frankly, it concerns me.

(Now the spoilers are done. I promise.) All-in-all, no, this was not my favorite book I’ve read this year. But, it was definitely worth the read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in stories focused on an antihero, particularly a female antihero. While I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, I think the book still offers some great things. At least enough to keep this reader interested in what will happen next.

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