Written by: Sara B. Larson
Published by: Scholastic Press
Release date: January 7th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Buy: B&N, Amazon, Book Depository
Add on: Goodreads
A lush and gorgeously written debut, packed with action, intrigue, and a thrilling love triangle.
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?
Alex Hollen is 20 years old, the best fighter in the King’s army, and one of Prince Damian’s elite guards. Except… his name isn’t really Alex, and he isn’t really a he. …Alexa Hollen is a 17-year-old girl who, along with her twin brother, witnessed the murder of her parents by a black sorcerer when she was only 14. In order to escape the awful fate that awaits orphan girls in her country, she disguises herself as a boy. She and her twin brother pretend they’re 17 and become soldiers in the King’s army, working their way up to become the Prince’s elite guards.
When I saw this book on NetGalley, my thought process basically went like this:
- Hello interesting-looking cover, why does that dagger have a rose on it? *clicks*
- Oh, a girl has to disguise herself as a boy in order to join the army and fight for her kingdom? Yes, I’ll take two please.
Girls disguising themselves as boys is one of my absolute favorite tropes in YA. (This was also a huge reason I wanted to read The Burning Sky, as it employs the same trope.) So I was understandably lightning-fast in clicking on that “request” button, because I obviously have no willpower when it comes to books that employ my favorite trope.
And for the most part, I really enjoyed Defy. I’m definitely glad I requested this book, because it was a fun and light read.
Most of all, I enjoyed Alexa’s character, and her and Prince Damian’s relationship. Alexa is a character who’s fairly par for the course with this kind of book. But that isn’t a bad thing — she’s strong and determined and more than holds her own among her fellow guards, as expected. When she’s tasked with being Prince Damian’s personal guard after an attempt on the prince’s life, she starts spending more time with him than she had before. While this leads to some hilariously awkward moments (she has to sleep right outside his bedroom), it also lets her get to know the prince when he isn’t out in full view of the public. Her original impressions of him were that he was unthinking and arrogant and a little helpless, but she soon starts to see a different side to the prince than he usually lets on.
While their relationship and Alexa’s disguise were high-points of the book for me, which helped tip the scales in Defy‘s favor, there were several pitfalls that held me back from loving this one.
First of all, let’s take a look at that first line of the synopsis, specifically the part about “action, intrigue, and a thrilling love triangle.” This might turn some people off to the book, in fact. Love triangles are all too common in YA today. …But actually, from Alexa’s point of view, this “love triangle” is not even a real triangle. And I definitely didn’t find it “thrilling”. Rylan is a friend of hers on the prince’s guard, and while she’s a little attracted to him at first, and only for a short time, it’s quickly made clear that she thinks of him more as a brother, and it’s clear that Alexa fancies Damian. So what we’re left with is not the usual “girl can’t make up her mind about two different guys”, but two guys fighting over the same girl, and only one of them really feels the need to do any fighting. She’s made her choice, and Rylan has a hard time living with it. So, not only is this not your typical love triangle, it’s also most definitely not “thrilling”. More like “annoying”. I think Alexa’s relationship with Damian was strong enough on its own, and didn’t need the added tension. And Rylan had a lot of potential, but was sort of spoiled for me by the whole fight over Alexa. In my opinion, Rylan would have made a much better friend than potential love interest. We need more good girl/guy friendships in YA!
Additionally, I found the worldbuilding to be severely lacking. I understand that this is the first in a series. But even introductions — while at their core introductory — shouldn’t leave you feeling like there are gaping holes in your knowledge of the world, especially with regard to important facts. For example, the ongoing war between Alexa’s kingdom and a neighboring country. It’s clear that this war has been going on for a long time. But I’m still really unclear what started it to begin with. I thought it might have had something to do with the king’s wife being murdered by the enemy kingdom’s sorcerer, but that wasn’t terribly long ago. It feels like, in the minds of everyone involved, this war is basically never-ending. Apparently it’s gone on so long that the evil king actually justifies breeding more soldiers for his army using orphaned girls as soon as they’re able to bear children. That’s just… *shudders* But that also feels like something that would have happened after multiple decades of fighting, not less than 20 years. So maybe I’m still wrong about my assumptions of its origins. …Confusion! O_o
Defy also falls prey to that annoying plot-device where suspense is built through certain characters simply keeping secrets from other characters. I get that it makes sense for characters to hold information back sometimes, but other times it’s just unnecessary – and there were a lot of unnecessary secrets kept from our heroine in Defy. In parts, it may have been used to add tension to what otherwise would not have been a very exciting portion of the story, but I think that’s an indication that that section really would have benefited from a different form of tension, if secrets were all that were keeping it exciting.
Additionally, while I am all for girls masquerading as boys, and I would have been able to overlook a few slightly unlikely things that help the girl keep her secret… Defy required way too much suspension of disbelief in this regard. At one point in the story, Alex(a) is able to maintain her disguise while being escorted alone by two male guards for two weeks. Disregarding the obvious small issue of dealing with bodily functions… -_- Alex is supposed to be 20. And he never needs to shave…? As if the guards wouldn’t notice her lack of 5 o’clock shadow… or 5-day shadow… or 14-DAY SHADOW. Come on. =/ I have no problem suspending my disbelief to a certain point, probably more so than many others, but this just seemed way too impossible.
While I had a lot of issues with this book, the most important being the “love triangle” and worldbuilding, I also really enjoyed it despite those things. The secrets-as-a-plot-device and impossibility of Alexa’s disguise are smaller issues I think should be unique to this first book and its plotline, so that gives me hope for the sequel. I feel like Defy shows a lot of potential from Sara Larson as a writer, and I would definitely be interested in checking out Book 2, as long as there’s some improvement in those other areas.
If you’re looking for a fun, fast, and entertaining read, and are able to overlook the things I mentioned (or at least let them slide until they can be resolved in book 2), I’d definitely recommend checking out Defy.