Book review: Fairest, Marissa Meyer

I’ve loved Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. They’re a fantastic series of interlinked fairytale retellings with lively, dynamic characters that push the boundaries of the familiar and flip conventions and ideas on their heads. I love that the women of the Lunar Chronicles are totally unique and vibrant, without slipping into cliched traps about ‘strong female characters,’ and that they all bring different skillsets and experiences to the series.

But after reading FairestI’m not sure I’ll be able to pick up Winter, the final book in the series, because I was so infuriated, frustrated, and ultimately disgusted by it. Meyer took an incredibly strong and excellent series and effectively ruined it with this novella, the tale of Levana, the moon’s queen. It left a bitter taste in my mouth that made me question what she’d been thinking when she wrote it — and the whole series, because authors always have permutations and complexities of characters in mind long before they put them on screen, so to speak. She knew who Levana was and how she got there all along, and she finally showed us, and it wasn’t pleasant.

Fairest is the narrative of Queen Levana as a young woman, showing how she came to power and how she held onto it. It’s also the narrative of an incredibly selfish girl who may start out as a vaguely sympathetic character because we see her as lonely and troubled, but she quickly turns dark and twisted. The way that manifests — and the reason for it — is incredibly enraging.

Sometimes authors write stories that are clearly intended to be critical, covering social issues but not actually endorsing them in any way, shape, or form. Characters might use racist slurs or behave abusively to women, but it’s contextually appropriate and included as commentary. In this case, Meyer seemed determined to turn Levana into a cartoonish villain, manipulating readers in every way possible while relying on troped, hackneyed, stereotyped, and revulsive tools to do it. It was lazy writing, frustrating reading, and a sign that Winter might well drive me up the wall.

Key to the storyline of the text is Levana’s use of a glamour to hide her true appearance, which we are led to understand is hideous after a childhood accident. She moves seamlessly between different physical appearances, doing more than just enhancing her looks, like many lunars do. This isn’t so strange in a world where beauty is prized and someone with facial scarring might want to hide it; but what is troubling is how quickly she slips into the bitter cripple stereotype. Levana, you see, is evil because she’s crippled. She’s lonely because she’s crippled. She’s a mean, horrible person because her childhood injuries ruined her and made her vicious and cruel.

Ableism for the sake of ableism — as a character tool and plot device, not as a commentary on oppression — makes me froth at the mouth, and Fairest had it in spades. The problem wasn’t that characters around her made snide comments about her appearance — this would have been a great embedded textual commentary on growing up in a judgmental and hateful world. Rather, the decision to basically decide that Levana grew into a horrible and controlling person because of her disability was the problem. We see Levana as power hungry and demanding as a result of her looks — and the way the story is written, the bitter cripple stereotype is accepted and advanced as the reason for Levana’s personality.

This is not a commentary on ableism and the way people view disabled people. It’s just ableist, a crisp and nasty reminder that disabled people are not welcome in society and that we can’t even settle in to read a book without running the risk of being reminded how much people hate us and all that we are. Levana the evil queen is scary and bad because she’s crippled and gross, willing to go to such lengths to retain her crown that she’ll burn a child to death to avoid having to give up the regency.

It’s not just the ableism in Fairest that was infuriating, though that would have been plenty: It was the use of rape as a plot device, something that stemmed directly from the treatment of Levana’s character as evil because of her disability. In the early stages of the book, when she’s still a sympathetic character and you feel the way her society treats and abuses her, she develops a crush on one of the palace guards — something understandable, as he’s the only one who shows her any kindness. It’s a testimony to her isolated life and how lonely she feels.

But as she grows into her powers and gets bitter, she uses her powers of manipulation to force him to love her — and not just to love her. She rapes him, depriving him of the opportunity to consent all while trying to make him feel as though he’s choosing this voluntarily. She forces him into an unwanted marriage, raping him repeatedly. In the book, this isn’t outright framed and described as rape, just evidence of her controlling and cruel personality, but it is, and we need to confront that, because this is rape as plot device. It’s the use of the loss of a character’s bodily autonomy and sexuality to advance the plot — which is also lazy writing.

Fairest soured me on the Lunar Chronicles, and that makes me incredibly angry. Now that Levana has been turned into a cartoon villain, I don’t really see how Winter would be an interesting read; and it makes me sad, because I was really loving these books, and I thought Meyer was bringing something amazing and great to YA fantasy.

But I guess not.