The premise of the novel is that in the Kingdom of Norta, those with silver blood live in luxury while those with red blood live in poverty. Mare Barrow, a Red, accepts that poverty is her lot in life until she is forced to masquerade as a Silver—and realizes that the Silvers want her to believe this lie so that she will not question their relative affluence. Although the Silvers have supernatural powers to which most Reds cannot lay claim, the novel suggests that their true power relies on degrading the Reds to such an extent that they no longer question their position as second-class citizens and instead compete with one another for the scraps tossed aside by the Silvers. The class conflict in the novel reflects real-world situations in which social groups are pitted against one another in order to make room for a small group to amass disproportionate wealth and power.
Reds not only live in poverty, but are also conditioned to accept that the kind of wealth the Silvers enjoy is so far out of reach that they might as well not try to grasp it. For example, Mare has not learned any valuable skills in the Reds’ poor school system. Because she does not have inherently marketable talents like her younger sister Gisa does for sewing, Mare works as a pickpocket. She steals very small sums of money and goods from other Reds, who are left out in the cold when they find their property missing. It is only out of desperation that Mare decides to try robbing Silvers. Her best friend, Kilorn, is being drafted into the army and must either accept his conscription (a certain death or mutilation warrant) or come up with an extravagant sum of money to pay smugglers to help him escape. Mare resorts to stealing the money, but only because it is already a life-or-death matter.
Mare brings Gisa to help her steal from the Silvers. When Gisa is caught picking a Silver’s pocket, the guards tell her that she knows what the consequences are before they crush her sewing hand. This scene demonstrates that the Silvers use scare tactics—the threat of a crushed hand—to keep Reds from even thinking about robbing Silvers, even though doing so surely has far less impact on its victims than the effectively permissible act of robbing Reds.
The way in which Reds are all but forced into criminal acts in order to survive, then set at the mercy of an imbalanced legal system, reflects the way underprivileged groups throughout the colonized world have been excluded from access to wealth. In the United States, for example, the end of chattel slavery was succeeded by a barrage of legal and cultural roadblocks to Black Americans’ success. Today, American prisons are extremely overpopulated with Black inmates because Black communities have been left very few options for economic survival and are unfairly targeted by drug laws. The novel follows the conventions of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, George Orwell’s 1984, and other dystopian fiction in order to address real political and cultural inequality through the use of fictional worlds.
Mare understands that the Silvers hold double standards for Reds. However, when she begins living as a Silver in the capital, she realizes that these double standards are more fragile than she previously thought. Ultimately, the Silvers’ ability to exact so much power over the Reds relies on the Reds’ concession to compete with one another instead of with the Silvers.
Mare shocks the Silver court by revealing that she has supernatural abilities, which only the Silvers are supposed to have. The Silver royals react by taking Mare captive and concocting a story about her. According to the official account released to the kingdom, Mare is a long-lost Silver royal whose parents died when she was a baby and who has been raised by an adoptive family of Reds. Mare is puzzled throughout the novel about why the Silvers do not simply kill her. Their insistence instead upon spreading the false story of Mare’s parentage demonstrates that they are less threatened by Mare herself than by the possibility that the Reds collectively could realize that magical abilities, which the Silvers have used to argue their superiority, might also be available to Reds.
Mare’s adversarial relationship to Evangeline further demonstrates that the Silvers are anxious about marking themselves as superior to Reds. Evangeline goes out of her way to publicly prove herself mentally and physically more powerful than Mare. Although Evangeline is somewhat stronger than Mare, her power does not so far exceed Mare’s that it is clear Mare could never best her given the proper training. Mare’s abilities do not threaten to weaken Evangeline’s abilities, but in order to feel powerful, Evangeline must dominate and degrade Mare. Silver power, as royals like Evangeline imagine it, thus exists only in relation to Reds’ comparative weakness. Again, this formulation of Silver power parallels the power of elite, wealthy white people in the United States. The white American ruling class depended first on slave labor and then on the working class in order to produce the wealth it controls. Still today, the disproportionately Black prison class is forced to do physical labor (such as fighting wildfires) for no pay, meaning that by funneling Black people into prison, the white ruling class acquires an ever-growing source of free labor.
Sensing the potential power of a collective Red movement like the Scarlet Guard, power-hungry Maven and Queen Elara commit terrorist acts and blame the Scarlet Guard for perpetrating them. By doing so, they help divide the general population of Reds, who are either for or against the tactics of the Scarlet Guard. The Reds’ disagreements over revolutionary tactics prevent them from becoming better organized against the Silvers, leaving ample room for Maven and the queen to grab even more power for themselves. Similar divisionary tactics have been used not only in the United States but throughout the world by power-seeking groups—as could be seen with the rise of the extreme right across Europe and in the United States during the second decade of the twenty-first century.
By the end of the novel, Mare has realized that the key to bettering life for her family and fellow Reds is not accepting jobs and handouts from the Silvers wherever they are available, or competing with other Reds for limited resources while the Silvers live in affluence. Instead, she resolves to collaborate with other Reds and even Silvers who want to see the world made fairer. The supernatural powers of the Silvers will have to stand up to the supernatural powers that Mare and a few of the other Reds are revealed to wield. More than this, however, the tyrannical Silvers will have to deal with the power of a coordinated movement of Reds who recognize that they are most powerful not as adversaries but as allies against injustice. The novel leaves the reader with the impression that the key to social uplift lies in collaboration among otherwise powerless groups.
Power and Degradation ThemeTracker
Power and Degradation Quotes in Red Queen
Families can go years without hearing a thing, only to find their sons and daughters waiting on the front doorstep, home on leave or sometimes blissfully discharged. But usually you receive a letter made of heavy paper, stamped with the king’s crown seal below a short thank-you for your child’s life. Maybe you even get a few buttons from their torn, obliterated uniforms.
This is the true division between Silvers and Reds: the color of our blood. This simple difference somehow makes them stronger, smarter, better than us.
In school, we learned about the world before ours, about the angels and gods that lived in the sky, ruling the earth with kind and loving hands. Some say those are just stories, but I don’t believe that.
The gods rule us still. They have come down from the stars. And they are no longer kind.
I’ve always wanted her hair, though I’d never tell her that. Where hers is like fire, my hair is what we call river brown. Dark at the root, pale at the ends, as the color leeches from our hair with the stress of Stilts life. Most keep their hair short to hide their gray ends but I don’t. I like the reminder that even my hair knows life shouldn’t be this way.
As more and more footage rolls, showing the marble façade of the courthouse explode into dust or a diamondglass wall withstanding a fireball, part of me feels happy. The Silvers are not invincible. They have enemies, enemies who can hurt them, and for once, they aren’t hiding behind a Red shield.
I don’t know who hired you or what they told you about the job, but it starts to wear on you. It’s not all changing bedsheets and cleaning plates. You have to look without seeing, hear without listening. We’re objects up there, living statues meant to serve….Especially now, with this Scarlet Guard business. It’s never a good time to be a Red, but this is very bad.
From my vantage point, hidden behind the flowers, I’m level with the king’s box and slightly behind it. Mare Barrow, a few yards from the king. What would my family think, or Kilorn for that matter? This man sends us to die, and I’ve willingly become his servant. It makes me sick.
So this is a pageant.
A violent one, meant to showcase a girl’s beauty, splendor—and strength. The most talented daughter. This is a display of power, to pair the prince with the most powerful girl, so that their children might be the strongest of all. And this has been going on for hundreds of years.
I shudder to think of the strength in Cal’s pinkie finger.
“I’d bow, but I might fall over,” I say to Queen Elara, and immediately I wish I could call back the words. She’s a Silver, I can’t talk to her that way. She could put me in the stocks, take away my rations, punish me, punish my family. No, I realize in my growing horror. She’s the queen. She could just kill me. She could kill us all.
You have no occupation and are scheduled for conscription on your next birthday. You attend school sparingly, your academic test scores are low, and you have a list of offenses that would land you in prison in most cities. Thievery, smuggling, resisting arrest, to name but a few. All together you are poor, rude, immoral, unintelligent, impoverished, bitter, stubborn, and a blight upon your village and my kingdom.
Remember the person you’re supposed to be, and remember well…You are pretending to be raised Red, but you’re Silver by blood. You are now Red in the head, Silver in the heart….From now until the end of your days, you must lie. Your life depends on it, little lightning girl.
After a moment of tense silence, the queen turns on her heel. “Very well.” Like any wife, she hates her husband for challenging her, and like any queen, she hates the power the king holds over her. A bad combination.
Thinking all Silvers are evil is just as wrong as thinking all Reds are inferior….What my people are doing to you and yours is wrong to the deepest levels of humanity. Oppressing you, trapping you in an endless cycle of poverty and death, just because we think you are different from us? That is not right. And as any student of history can tell you, it will end poorly.
The rage rises again, and I don’t even want to control it. But what can I do about it? What can I do to avenge my brother, or even try to save the others?
My legs move on their own, swinging out in a maneuver I’ve used in the back alleys of the Stilts a hundred times. Even on Kilorn once or twice. My foot connects with her leg, sweeping it out from under her, and she crashes to the floor next to me. I’m on her in a second, despite the exploding pain in my back. My hands crackle with hot energy, even as they collide against her face. Pain sears through my knuckle-bones but I keep going, wanting to see sweet silverblood.
Trees and bushes grow over concrete, reclaiming little pockets and corners, but even more have been cleared away. Shattered glass crunches under my feet and clouds of dust drift in the wind, but somehow this place, the picture of neglect, doesn’t feel abandoned. I know this place from the histories, from the books and old maps.
The king’s corpse lands with a thud, his head rolling to a stop a few feet away. Silverblood splashes across the floor in a mirrored puddle, lapping at Cal’s toes. He drops the melting sword, letting it clang against stone, before falling to his knees, his head in his hands. The crown clatters across the floor, circling through the blood, until it stops to rest at Maven’s feet, sharp points bright with liquid silver.