The Young Elites by Marie Lu
Monday, May 09, 2016
After years of chewing over it and thousands of words of inconclusive blog posts, I still have very little idea where the division is between 'YA' fantasy and 'epic' fantasy (interesting - heated - discussion on this very point over at r/fantasy).
I mean, physically, it is generally around 15-20 feet - depending on the size of the bookstore. But as overarching, sub-genre distinctive themes? I got nothing.
Marie Lu's The Young Elites (2014) further muddies these opaque waters. The Young Elites is also a unique sort of muddle, as it contains both very-much-YA and very-much-epic-fantasy tropes within the same book. Rather than blurring the two together, it happily plucks from both extremes.
Adelina is a malfetto, one of the scarred survivors of a great plague that swept through the land. Although generally despised as 'cursed', some malfettos also exhibit magical powers - these are called 'Young Elites'. (Why one term is cod-Italian and the other cod-Ralph-Lauren-catalogue, I have no idea.) These Young Elites are sought after by both the Inquisition (who wish to kill them) and the Dagger Society (who wish to recruit them). Adelina, as you might expect, turns out to be a rather powerful Young Elite - one that's greatly desired, in every sense, by both sides.
On one hand, we have a self-loathing young female protagonist (her powers, in fact, stem from her pain, loss and insecurity, which, even in the world of YA tropes, is pretty heavy-handed), she's totes beautiful, even if no one ever notices (except they always do), she feels ugly even though she knows she's also objectively a hottie, she's got a boy-that's-out-of-her-league as a love interest (his powers are fire related, so we learn - a lot - about the warmth of his touch. so warm. so very warm.), a too-good-for-this-world younger sister, a ticking time-bomb of an age-related ritual (life doesn't really begin until 16, folks, which is the Most Important age), and a seriously cool revolutionary in-crowd that may or may not accept her. On Wednesdays we kill kings. This right here is a pretty decent tick-list of YA SF/F tropes
On the other hand, we have an extremely rich world with all sorts of implausible-but-embedded rituals and traditions, a detailed magic system with its own mythology and magical mineralogy, a plethora of overt Chosen One narratives, elaborately detailed training sequences (so much fun - I'm a sucker for those) and big, clearly-milestoned quests (generally involving the right of succession, because in epic fantasy, systems of unquestioned, inherited governance are totally grool).
In the Venn Diagram of 'YA things' and 'epic fantasy' things, I'm used to Weeks/Eddings/Mead/Hobb/Rothfuss books that flounce around in the middle. Coming of age stories. 'Why me?' narratives. Finding your 'real parents' because you don't fit in. But The Young Elites charms me, as it freely lifts the best - or at least, the most archetypical - bits from both sides. It isn't a stew, it is a salad.
Lest I get completely bogged down wholly in an analysis of genre tropes, the important thing is The Young Elites is an immense amount of fun. Well played, book. Well played.
And, I suppose, it should be - what with cherry-picking the best of two very entertaining, very commercial traditions. The fantastical background elements - the conniving Inquisition, the whirlwind of magic powers, the towering Chosen One types - are all well done, painted in broad, but convincing, brushstrokes. But the real joy of The Young Elites is Adelina herself. She's a hot mess (with and without comma), and she's an empathetic one. Despite having superpowers, superfriends and super-looks, she's a gothily sympathetic figure; a mopey, but ballsy, underdog that we're happy to cheer for. The challenges she overcomes aren't token, either. She's continuously under threat, but never, ever surrendering - whether she's being bullied by a horrendous father, crappy 'friends', or a sinister dystopian state, Adelina refuses to ever buckle under.
It also helps that Adelina's magic taps into her dark side - and her mounting frustration - we're hooked in for the journey. She's not a passive character, and her rage and her agency are intertwined. The Young Elites captures, in a fingernail-gnawing way, the unfairness of it all: which means we're firmly on Adelina's side when she lashes out, no matter what the consequences might be. It is easy to find yourself cheering (a little bit guiltily) as she gets a little mean in the name of justice. Readers are left with the suspicion that - just maybe - this isn't a book about the rise of the Chosen One, but the Dark Lord, and that's a surprising (and joyous) thematic hook.
If anything, The Young Elites is another example of the nose-cutting spite that is genre labels. The outdated legacy of chain bookshops and time-strapped marketing, we still treat books as discrete, Linnean subcategories, where never the twain shall meet. And with titles like this one - that should be bringing YA readers into epic fantasy, and vice versa - that's a crying shame. Whatever category you sneak up on it from, The Young Elites is a hoot. Silly and over the top, yes, but also escapist, surprisingly captivating and a whole lot of fun.