The Young Elites is the first book in a new series by Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of the Legend trilogy (Legend, Prodigy, Champion).
A few years ago, a plague swept through the world and forever changed it. Every adult who became ill died, but there were children who survived this illness. Some of the survivors bore marks afterward and became known as malfettos, and a few of these displayed unusual powers. There are rumors of dangerous Elites who can create fire from nothing, control animals or the wind, or become invisible.
While many people fear the Young Elites, Adelina is in awe of their abilities. Both Adelina and her younger sister Violetta caught the plague as children. Violetta recovered without any permanent changes, but Adelina lost her eye during her illness. Her hair also turned silver, marking her a malfetto, and her mother died leaving the two sisters with just their father. Though Adelina is beautiful, her father realizes no man will want to marry a malfetto and turns his attention to Violetta—except for when he tries to provoke Adelina, hoping she will exhibit a power of her own and become a useful daughter to him after all. However, Adelina never shows any signs of abilities regardless of the abusive tactic employed and her own attempts to bring forth some sort of power.
One night, Adelina overhears her father and a man doing business. The cost of the transaction is Adelina herself, whom the man does not deign suitable for a wife but believes would be an acceptable mistress. This is not acceptable to Adelina, who decides it’s a good time to act on her plans to run away from home and does so. When Adelina’s father catches up to her on horseback, she finds something within herself for the first time and creates dark, terrifying illusions. Her father is killed by his frightened horse, and Adelina continues to run until she is caught by the Inquisition and imprisoned, both for the murder of her father and the crime of being a malfetto with otherworldly powers.
On the day Adelina is to be executed, two things happen: she is able to call on her illusions for the second time, and she is rescued by a group of Young Elites like herself. If she can pass their tests, she may become one of them—but her biggest obstacle to belonging with them may be herself and the darkness within.
The Young Elites is an entertaining book that initially seemed like a mish-mash of tropes from other books I’d read before. Of course, the main premise has been done many times before: a small subset of people develop superpowers, making them outcasts feared by the rest of society. Many of the powers they developed are also quite common in these types of stories, and many of the character types are familiar as well. However, the end of the book made me rethink this opinion since some rather unexpected events occurred, and one storyline in particular did not follow the predictable path I’d expected at all. The epilogue was also excellent with the introduction of an intriguing new character and some great setup for the second book—and now I am quite eager to read the next book in this series!
Marie Lu stated on Twitter that the basic premise of The Young Elites is “What makes someone fall to the dark side?” She has also said, “THE YOUNG ELITES is an origin story of a villain, and Adelina is essentially Darth Vader or Magneto as a teenage girl.” This is a dark novel, and Adelina can be a sympathetic character but is not always one, especially as the book nears the end and becomes even grimmer. It’s not surprising she has some problems, given her background. Her father was a cruel man, and he was especially terrible to his older daughter. If not for her emergence from the plague with the silver hair that marked her a malfetto, men would have been lining up to marry her, but since they’re not he doesn’t find her a particularly useful daughter—and he tries every tactic he can think of to force her into using a power since the only way he can see her becoming of use to him is if she develops one.
While she despises her father, Adelina is also well aware that she is in many ways her father’s daughter. She is glad to discover she has a special ability, and there are times when she even embraces the darker side of it. Earlier in the book, she makes mistakes, but I think it’s easy to understand her motivations and behavior even while feeling that she is making the wrong choices. She’s certainly not completely unsympathetic: Adelina seems to just desperately want a place to belong, and she also does seem to care very much about her sister and some of the Elites she comes to consider friends. Later in the story, her actions become more terrible and unsympathetic, although she remains an interesting character even as she turns closer to the evil side.
I had mixed feelings about the writing. There was occasionally some lovely phrasing, but the first person present tense of Adelina’s narrative did seem stilted at times. I also felt there was too much telling, and that Adelina’s first test with the Young Elites was too simple and served as a shortcut for characterization. The Elites can see which attributes their energy aligns with through gemstones; for example, Adelina is found to have a strong affinity for ambition, wisdom, passion, fear, and fury when she is tested by one of the Elites. The time spent in a room with gemstones tells the others a bit about her and seems to be a way to make others react to her without judging her by her actions. After this, Adelina often thinks of what she is doing or feeling as being a reflection of her alignment with one of these, which I found irritating since it fit her into a box of personality traits and emotions instead of letting her live and breathe as a character. The other Elites are often discussed in terms of their alignments instead of as people with personalities outside of what’s gleaned from this test, making this appear as a convenient way to tell about their characters without having any actual character development.
While there is a romantic storyline, the most complex and memorable relationship in the book was that between Adelina and her sister. Adelina’s feelings about her sister are complicated. She certainly shows that she cares about Violetta, but she also resents her sister for both not being a malfetto and being their father’s favorite (even if she is aware that her father was not kind to Violetta, either). Adelina also underestimates her sister, and I was glad Violetta had a lot more depth than she seemed to in the beginning.
The Young Elites is a fast-paced, enjoyable story despite its tendencies toward telling instead of showing, particularly using the Elite test to bypass actual character development. The ending really took this novel to a whole new level with its surprises and intriguing epilogue, and I was also pleased that Violetta was given more depth that made the relationship between the two sisters quite compelling. I also liked that the author did not shy away from a dark ending as I love to see authors take risks even when events may be unpopular with some. Due to the overall entertainment value and the strong finish, I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series despite the issues I had.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.