I haven’t read any Marie Lu previously, but I had heard good things, particularly about The Young Elites, one of this year’s heralded YA fantasy picks.
In the wake of the deadly blood fever that swept through the land, all infected adults died but many infected children survived with altered physical features, and a few with mysterious new powers. Adelina Amouteru’s eye was removed, her hair turned silver, and her father began abusing her for being a malfetto, an abomination who is ruining their family by her mere existence. Determined to beat her until she either dies or develops a gift, his wish finally comes true when she murders him by magic after he tries to sell her to a stranger to be his mistress.
Captured by the Inquisitors, including mysterious Lead Inquistor Teren Santoro, and about to be burned alive for being a danger to the nation, Adelina’s only hope of survival is rescue by the Dagger Society, an elite group of Young Elites who seek out those with strong abilities. The leader of the Dagger Society is Enzo Valenciano, a conjurer of fire with a hidden past and an ambitious agenda.
All her life, Adelina has been used and abused. Now, both Teren and Enzo are offering her another way to escape the vengeful darkness consuming her – whose side will she choose? Or will her abilities destroy her and her world?
This book was such a disappointment. But I really should’ve known better just from the name. Not to be mean, but I loathe the moniker “The Young Elites” and cringe every time I type it. It just sounds dumb, like “The Pretty Committee” from The Clique series, while “The Dagger Society” sounds like bad steampunk band. All the members have terrible nicknames too, such as Windwalker and the White Wolf, which reminded me too much of X-Men.
Overall, I found the world-building to be insufficient. Vaguely Renaissance Italian, it didn’t seem like a fleshed-out place with distinct customs and culture. For example, what’s with the flying manta rays and the prohibition against underage sex? Things are mentioned, but never detailed. Blood fever existed as the deus ex machina to jump-start the plot, but Lu failed to explain how and why it occurred. The most explicated subject was the way the powers worked; however, it was difficult to comprehend a magical system that was described through rocks and energies.
Additionally, it seemed like Lu picked physical deformities out of one bag and cool powers out of another, mashing them together to create a character, who lacked any other semblance of a personality. Not that there’s anything monstrous about any of them – the Dagger Society is still an attractive bunch. It’s repeatedly mentioned that Adelina is beautiful even with a missing eye, and she’s quite preoccupied with her own looks and those of others, particularly male courtesan Raffaele.
As you might have realized from the prior sentence, I grew frustrated with Adelina quickly. I wanted to sympathize with her because she’s had a hard life, but she kept crying about her situation and acting indecisively. She believes she’s evil, capable of terrible things and constantly fantasizing about murder, yet she only accidentally hurt people because she didn’t know how to control her powers and she even felt guilty about it after. She was so not the badass serial-killing machine that I expected from the synopses.
Everyone else also added to her angst by inferring that she had a blackness within her soul and was basically going to bring about the apocalypse, which I’m sure didn’t help her state of mind – at that point, I wouldn’t have judged if she killed the whole lot of Debbie Downers. They were so maddening that it was no wonder she turned spy to rescue her sister. Ironically, despite her own treachery, Adelina believes that she herself is constantly betrayed. The only one she trusts by the end is her sister – except that her sister also crossed her by not revealing that she was a malfetto as well and by restraining Adelina’s powers. Maybe Adelina will accidentally on purpose kill her too?
Lead Inquisitor Teren had the most engaging chapters, having kidnapped Adelina’s sister to blackmail Adelina as part of his eradication of the Young Elites (i.e. he’s the one rubbing his hands together and cackling evilly). Basically the same person as the albino from Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, Teren is also a malfetto; nevertheless, he hates his kind and himself, self-flagellating as punishment for his curse. Most twistedly, he is so madly in love with the queen Giulietta that she easily manipulates him to do her bidding, including murdering her husband, a plot point that recalled the Evil Queen and the Huntsman from Snow White. She’s actually the character I was most intrigued by – I wish Lu had included chapters from her perspective so I could get a glimpse of her thoughts and motivations.
In another cool twist, Adelina’s romantic interest Enzo is Guilietta’s brother. He is the rightful heir to the throne, the crown prince who was deposed from the succession for being a malfatto. Now, the queen was the eldest child and I get that she’d be miffed that she couldn’t inherit just because of her gender, but she’s going a bit far by committing malfetto genocide due to her fear of their powers. However, she shouldn’t worry because Enzo had an incredibly ill-conceived strategy for retaking power. He has like 4 people in his “Dagger Society”, a few patrons who may or may not know his true identity, and he keeps getting his key power base (other malfettos) killed in retaliation for his hijinks. The odds were not in his favor, and I didn’t really care if he triumphed because he seemed to be a shitty leader who most likely would turn around and start massacring non-malfettos.
The ending was somewhat promising as Adelina finally begins embracing her darkness after accidentally killing Enzo – an incident which incited more amusement than sadness from me. Also, the epilogue hints at wider Young Elite intrigue, with Dagger Society member Windwalker having a connection with a malfetto princess who can raise the dead (you can see where this is headed). Still, I’m uninterested in reading the sequel, which is among the numerous reasons for my rating of