I fought valiantly to maintain my composure, but it was a losing battle. “Why are you telling me this, my lord?”
“Because you, of all people, understand. Because, for a while now, I’ve known that of anyone on my guard, you’re the one I can trust. I wish that you wouldn’t continue to pretend with me, Alex. I’m telling you this so that you may know that you’re not the only one who puts on a show for everyone around him. You’re not the only one playing a part.”
The kingdom of Antion has been at war for years with the neighboring realm of Blevon. Life in Antion is cruel beyond measure—particularly as all females are sent to breeding houses to be routinely raped and impregnated so as to produce more soldiers for the war effort. When their parents are killed in a brutal act of black sorcery, 14-year-old twins Alexa and Marcel are desperate to avoid such a fate. In order to save his sister from the nightmare of breeding houses, Marcel convinces Alexa to cut off her hair and masquerade as his twin brother—Alexa has always been the outstanding fighter of the family, anyways. As the years pass, “Alex” and Marcel make their way up the ranks of soldiers and become two members of the Crown Prince’s elite Guard. But when Marcel is killed on the job, Alex is left completely alone in the world. Without Marcel’s help (he was always the brains to Alex’s brawn), Alex finds it harder than ever to conceal her secret—especially from her best friend and fellow guard, Ryland, and the keen-eyed Prince Damien himself.
The debut novel from Sara B. Larson, Defy is the latest entry in the fairly familiar Sweet Polly Oliver trope, particularly prevalent in the fantasy genre. I don’t hold this against Defy—the girl masquerading as a boy storyline (in the King’s guard, no less!) is wonderful when it’s done well (see Tamora Pierce’s Alanna in the Song of the Lioness series and Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names). The trope can be used to expose the trappings of patriarchy, or it can be a mechanism through which stereotypes can be cleverly subverted, or it can provoke insightful questions of gender inequality not only in fantasy worlds, but in our own society.
Unfortunately, Defy does nothing to defy stereotypes. It doesn’t ask any provoking questions about gender roles, nor does it examine sexuality, gender or the inequality that forces Alexa into her masquerade. No, Larson’s novel reinforces stereotypes and the shittiest of gender roles: The book is essentially a vehicle for a ludicrous love triangle among heroine Alexa, her best friend and her Prince.
The thing that is so irritating about Defy is the fact that there is potential in the book. When she’s not mooning over her multiple love interests, Alexa is meant to be the best of the best of the King’s Guard. She’s the fastest, most dedicated fighter (she even takes down the captain of the Guard on her first try), and she works hard at her charade as a man. Alexa’s secret should drive and define her character; her motivations for hiding her gender are completely understandable (the alternative, in the breeding houses, is horrific indeed). Why, then, does Alexa’s secret amount to nothing in this book? It could have been fascinating to examine same-sex attraction in this particular fantasy world (given that both Rylan and the prince were already attracted to Alexa as Alex)—alas, the big reveal is that both men had known for years that Alexa is female (and have been falling in love with her, completely unbeknownst to Alexa), rendering her entire struggle moot.
Similarly disappointing is Alexa’s complete lack of interest in defying the established order of Antion. Instead of examining, questioning or challenging the institutionalized sex slavery of women in this particular kingdom—or having Alexa discuss it in any way—sadly, Alexa’s single-minded preoccupation concerns how hot Damien and Rylan look with their shirts off.
There’s also the problem of Alexa’s portrayal overall. She’s shown as a feckless girl who needs rescuing multiple times by the men in her life (this, despite her supposed fighting prowess). Her inner narrative is dedicated to hiding her frequent blushes, which happen whenever something mildly titillating (like how brawny Rylan’s arms look) crosses her mind. Don’t even get me started with the scenes in which Alexa literally sleeps in the middle of a love triangle sandwich—Rylan on one side, Damien on the other in a tent so small that they are all basically spooning—because that would really happen, guys. Or there’s the convenient fact that both Rylan AND Damien are madly in love with Alexa, and they have been for years, but we aren’t given any plausible reason as to WHY they are in love with her.
This, combined with pedestrian writing and an idiotic central conflict and plan to bring down the government (not cooked up by Alexa, mind you, but by the smart older men who keep things from Alexa because there’s no way the precious little girl could have handled it—it’s for her own good), makes for a frankly insulting read.
Suffice it to say, there’s little actual defiance in Defy. I certainly won’t be wasting my time with any further installments.
In Book Smugglerish, a deflated 3 swords out of 10.
Better Books Featuring the Sweet Polly Oliver Trope
Instead of this disappointing exercise, here are a few (much better) books featuring the female-masquerading-as-male trope:
1. The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce
2. All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen
3. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
4. Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
5. The Bloody Jack Series by L.A. Meyer
6. Sword of the Rightful King by Jane Yolen
7. The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas