By Sara B. Larson
Available now from Scholastic Press
Alexa Hollen is an orphan girl, which means she's supposed to go to the breeding houses and produce more soldiers. (It's just as gross as it sounds.) Luckily, her twin brother is a quick thinker and helped her disguise herself as a boy. They're now in the prince's guard together, Marcel still helping her keep her gender a secret and Alex ever becoming a better fighter.
The background of DEFY is war. Antion, the country Alex and Marcel live in, has long been at war with Blevon. (I might be spelling these place names wrong. It definitely took some time to figure out what was what.) Alex has good reason to hate Blevon, since one of their sorcerers killed her mother and father. At the same time, what we're shown of Antion makes it out to be anything but clearly in the right. Breeding. Houses. Therefore, we come to the fact that Alex is in charge of keeping the heir to the throne safe.
DEFY is clearly meant to be compared to GRACELING. They slapped an all-but-identical cover on it and called it a day. And yes, there are many points of comparison: a heroine who is a talented fighter, questions of duty and loyalty, a journey in which romance blossoms. I can't help but feel that DEFY would come off better if I came to those comparisons naturally instead of having them shoved in my face. I like Alex, but she's no Katsa.
I have a major weakness for heroines who crossdress as boys. (It predates reading Tamora Pierce's Alanna books, but those certainly don't help.) However, DEFY is a bit of a letdown in that measure. Alex gets out of her closest calls through her brother's quick thinking. She binds her breasts, but apparently her hips don't exist. With the number of people who call her "pretty," it's hard to believe it was ever a secret. (The narrative doesn't help much with the suspension of disbelief.)
There are things that DEFY does very well. I find its portrait of grief convincing. Antion is not a place to show your weaknesses, so Alex must try to keep her emotions under wraps. When the worst happens, it leaves her upset and unbalanced and often blindsided by the hurt since she keeps repressing it. Also, she tends to repress it straight into violence, which might not be the best reaction, but it is an understandable one.
I also thought that the plot was interesting and buoyed by several fight scenes. There are lots of secret plans and double crosses to uncover. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion, although there are little threads left open. I believe DEFY is the start of a series, but it would stand fine on its own. As is, there's enough to convince me to crack open a second book.
Now we come to what will make or break many readers: the love triangle. Alex has had a bit of a crush on fellow guard Rylan for awhile, but she finds herself falling for Prince Damian, who has been hiding his true self beneath a spoiled act to keep his father happy. Both guys clearly like her back. It's not terrible, but it's just so obvious that Rylan has zero chance. The only thing that really saves it for me is that Larson brings it to an unusual conclusion . . . for now.
DEFY is a decent debut. I think Larson showed us the edges of an interesting, complicated world. (I definitely liked that there was a variety of skin tones between the two countries.) It would be nice to see her dive deeper in subsequent novels. DEFY spins together many tropes I thoroughly enjoy, which made it a fun reading experience. But it never quite dug into those tropes to emerge with something truly original. Still, I expect this book to do well, and it will appeal to fans of GRACELING waiting for a new Kristin Cashore book.