Beyond The Red by Ava Zae

Beyond The Red is a YA science fiction romance told from two points of view: alien world queen Kora and half-blood commoner Eros. The story moves quickly and is an easy read from start to finish. This is not a complete arc, instead ending on a mini arc without resolution and somewhat abruptly. But there are copious amounts of action, romance, and politics to keep readers invested.

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Story: On a distant world were colonizing humans were abandoned, Eros watches in horror as his family and nomadic camp home is slaughtered by the hated native, human-like but alien Sepharons. When he is captured, he expects a quick execution: there is nothing more reviled on that world than a hybrid human/Sepharon half blood – a perversion of the pure bloodlines. But Sepharon Queen Kora sits on a shakey throne and needs a warrior who is loyal only to her. Eros is taken on as her slave (and hidden bodyguard). But will he be able to keep her alive through her twin brother’s political machinations? And will she be able to protect him from an entire world that wants him permanently removed from existence?

Readers of the YA genre will recognize many elements from 2014’s The Winner’s Curse. But Beyond the Red is better written, if perhaps similarly problematic in the logic areas. There are many YA genre cliches here, especially the issue of ‘show, don’t tell’: the ‘strong girl’ who is supposed to be able to take care of herself yet constantly needs saving; the boy who does all the physical acts/sacrifices himself constantly while the girl sits and looks pretty; the love triangle; and annoying repeated litany of “She killed me people, so I can’t fall in love with her”/”he’s a half blood beneath me so why do I want to kiss him?’ ad nauseam. The characters and story are highly melodramatic; unfortunately dropping the IQ of both characters to the level of the Kora’s pet wildcat.

Those who enjoy stories of damsels in distress being rescued constantly will enjoy Beyond the Red. For me, I wanted more depth in world building, characterization, and especially a much needed grounded reality. The world felt cobbled together to create a yet another angsty romance – rather than an organic tale of a foreign world and culture. The “alien” sepharon were pretty much human in nearly all ways and manners and other than some physical characteristics, I could not differentiate them from the humans. As well, a bizarre combination of science fiction elements (nanites) contrasted against a fairly typical fantasy setting jarred on several occasions – I wish this had gone purely sci fi or purely fantasy for that reason.

Those with any foundation in linquisitics or science will cringe at many elements of the story. The Sepharon speak perfect English but the humans have a couple of slang adaptations (e.g., “sortuv” for sort of). Because there were only 2-3 linguistic derivations in otherwise standard English, they felt unnatural and a crutch to differentiate the humans from the Sepharon. Similarly, the genetic discussions are highly unlikely and again felt cobbled together in order to push the romance angst. It’s a case where the science is created as needed – motorbikes and genetics, nanites and phasers – but no other modern technology such as steel architecture, detection devices of the rebels, monitoring cameras, etc. are used since they would have defeated plot points. It makes for very sloppy and unimaginative world building. Either make the society fully technologically modern or don’t – setting this on an alien world isn’t a justifiable excuse for a modern-archaic mish mash.

Perhaps most unappealing to me were elements of the torture porn with Eros. There is quite a bit of mental and physical deprivation yet he seems to weather it all and still be very well adjusted. I would have expected a darker and more nuanced character as a result of his past and present ordeals. But Eros spends most of the novel smack talking and joking back to his captors and Kora. In fact, he’s pretty ambivalent about the whole slave making process and what it means for him. I just didn’t buy it at all and didn’t like his character or want to follow him as a result.

On a more personal note, the naming conventions felt uninspired. Eros (I kept thinking of cupid), Sarek (Star Trek anyone?), and Kora (no, she isn’t a water bender from Avatar). They were quite distracting. Other readers may not find that problematic, though. But yeah, another case of throwing some random syllables together.

So although this is a fairly typical YA fantasy romance, undemanding readers can sit back and enjoy the angsty romance. Though who peer under the hood, however, may find themselves disappointed at the slipshod world building and illogical/unrealistic characters. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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