Young Elites has been out for a while, five years in fact, but with Marie Lu’s book 4 of the Legend series coming out sometime this year, I felt it would be as good a time as any to delve further into her work. However, beyond having the same author and a headstrong female protagonist, these novels are not incredibly similar. Instead, Young Elites is Lu’s foray into fantasy, set in a pseudo-renaissance Europe (particularly Italy) and laced with fantastically-powered individuals and royal intrigue. It is also distinctively darker than many of her other works, especially in regard to the characters and their actions in the story. However, this is not to say that the added darkness made it more effective, as I felt that the story was a bit too one-note and bogged down by its self-seriousness in a way that played right into the tropes of YA fantasy.
The novel follows Adelina Amouteru, who as a child contracted a blood fever that had spread through her nation. Though few survived the fever, those who did, called malfettos, were left permanently marked and rumored to have abominable powers. For Adelina, these marks came as silver hair and a scar over her left eye and were met with hatred and fear from her father. In an attempt to escape him, she accidentally kills him and is forced to go on the run. However, the Inquisition Axis, an army that hunts down malfettos, is determined to catch her and will use whatever means necessary, including Adelina’s younger sister, to do so. On the opposite side, Enzo Valenciano, former prince of Kenettra, and his group called the Young Elites hope to use Adelina’s incredible powers to reclaim power and exact vengeance on those who wish to wipe them out.
The writing is definitely plodding, and takes a while to build momentum especially in the beginning, but it is precisely during this time that Lu’s character work is most compelling. Adelina has very complicated emotions towards both her sister, who she adores and envies, and her father, who she hates and yet wants to please. Moreover, she is vengeful, jealous, and cruel, along with being kind and vulnerable, which is exciting because that is what real teenagers are like (not just a one-dimensional, always good hero). However, her anger and misery were written a bit too hyperbolically, and dwelled on much too long, to the point that they no longer serviced the story or showed how someone would actually act given her traumas. Yes, there is pain in her experience, but to have her only in misery is not only nearly impossible for a human, but also makes the writing rather one-note. Nevertheless, when the novel moves on and introduces the Young Elites, there is certainly enough action and excitement, as well as well-executed depictions of magical powers, to make up for this character weakness.
Ultimately, I think intense fans of fantasy will have a great experience reading this novel, particularly if “magical” powers are your thing. Casual readers might enjoy the darker interpretation of the genre; however, I don’t think this is the best place to start reading fantasy. Finally, fans of Lu’s works will likely love seeing how her writing style comes across in this other type of story, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a harder-edged summer read.