Sara B. Larson’s Defy tells the story of Alex Hollon, the best fighter on the prince’s royal guard. There’s just one catch, however — Alex is actually Alexa; she and her twin brother Marcel lied about her identity so she could join the army after their parents’ death at the hands of an enemy sorcerer. But Alexa’s true identity may not be as well-concealed as she thinks, and she’s not the only one with secrets.
Antion and Blevon have been at war since a Blevonese sorcerer infiltrated the palace and killed the queen many years ago. King Hector has forced many of the nation’s young men into the army, while young women have been forced into breeding houses (more on those later). After two years in the army, 16-year-old Alexa (pretending to be 19-year-old Alex) defeated the captain of the guard in a contest to earn a place on the prince’s guard.
A year later, after foiling an attempted attack on the palace (at great personal cost), and after the other guards stop an unlikely assassin within Prince Damian’s rooms, Alexa is assigned to stand guard over his bedchamber door at night. The prince has always been an indolent spoiled brat, but as the two are thrust into uncomfortably close quarters, Alexa starts to think that maybe he’s hiding behind a façade as well. He visits rooms in a seemingly-abandoned wing of the palace, receives late-night messages via a secret passageway in his outer chamber, and sends Alexa and Rylan into the jungle to deliver a letter to the Insurgi, a rebel group hidden in caves not far from the palace.
When a sorcerer attacks in the middle of the night, Alexa and the other guards are unable to fend him off. Damian agrees to be a hostage so long as his guards remain unharmed, but Alexa and Rylan are injured and all three wind up being taken out of the palace. During the long trek to Blevon, Alexa learns more about Damian’s true loyalties, the lies King Hector has told his people to justify the war, and her own heritage and abilities. But will it be enough to save them all?
Defy features some of the fairly standard plot points for young adult fantasy, but where it stands out is in its differences. There’s an ass-kicking heroine, but I love those. The love triangle is much less forced than many others in the genre. Alexa has been fighting an attraction to fellow guard Rylan since they met, knowing that to reveal her feelings would compromise her identity, but her growing feelings for Prince Damian make sense as she gets to know him better. The setting was one of the things that made me excited to read Defy — while most fantasy novels are set in a thinly-disguised version of medieval Europe, Antion is a nation carved out of a tropical jungle filled with jaguars, macaws, mangoes, and papayas. (Though, there doesn’t seem to be a city surrounding the palace and they don’t pass any settlements on the long trek to Blevon, so I’m not sure where most of its citizens live.) Most of the characters aren’t white, either, and people aren’t treated differently based on their skin colors. King Hector is fair-skinned since he’s a native of the neighboring nation of Dansii, but most of Antoin’s people (including Alexa and Damian, since both are half-Blevonese) have olive skin and dark hair and many of the guards, including Rylan, are even darker-skinned. I also like that it doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, though there are still unanswered questions that could be addressed if Larson writes sequels.
The one part of the book that was troubling was the “breeding house” to which young girls were sent in order to make more soldiers for the war with Blevon. Alexa is justifiably terrified to be sent there if her identity is discovered, and panics when forced to accompany a group of newly-arrived girls to the house. The description of conditions in the house is pretty horrifying and is meant to serve as a shorthand way to tell us what a terrible king Hector is. We also learn that Hector is a rapist and murderer (though the details are spoilery). I’m really torn about this; while rape during wartime is a sad reality, I’m not a fan of using it as a plot device. Still, if you can make it through (or skip) the one early scene at the breeding house, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.
Disclosure: I received an advance reader’s copy of Defy from Scholastic via Netgalley in exchange for my fair review. All opinions are my own.