I absolutely love The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer, so of course I had to read her latest book, Renegades, which was released this past November. I’m not really a fan of superhero stories, so I was a little uncertain at first. However, once I got past the nicknames and costumes and secret identities, I found myself really enjoying the story.
Renegades is set in a grim dystopian future where the superheroes can’t save everyone, the villains just might have a point, and in the end, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. It doesn’t pull any punches. The main character, a young villainess who volunteers to infiltrate the superheroes’ organization, grows increasingly torn between the two sides as the book goes on. Her own superpowers are less impressive than her ingenuity and resourcefulness, and she truly believes the world would be better off with no super-powered “prodigies” at all.
Nova and Adrian, the two main characters, have opposite goals and opposite views of the world. Yet at the same time, they have a lot in common. Both of them have their doubts about the Renegades, the powerful superheroes who rule the city. Both of them lost family members at a young age and are still looking for justice/vengeance. They were raised by the leaders of opposing sides and began working for their families’ cause at a young age. And they both have not one but two superhero identities, one of which is known to the Council and the other regarded as a threat. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when they meet out of costume, ignorant of the fact that they’re already enemies, they get along quite well.
Although the book is long, the plot itself is very simple, and almost seems to exist just as a framework for the characters, world-building, and extensive backstory. However, I don’t mean that as a criticism. This simply isn’t a plot-driven story. Despite the action sequences and superhero imagery, it’s a character-driven exploration of shattered faith and divided loyalties, and personally, that’s something that appeals to me far more than fights and explosions. Both Nova and Adrian won me over so completely that I enjoyed following their emotional journeys and didn’t really care how slowly the plot developed. However, if you’re someone looking for an exciting adventure story, you may want to look elsewhere.
If I have a criticism, it would be that the book is such a morally ambiguous mess, its two viewpoint characters are essentially the only likable characters. Adrian and his Renegade team are true heroes fighting for justice, but they are heroic antagonists who you still can’t always root for. Nova is compelling and sympathetic in spite of all her flaws and misguided goals, and that’s a huge achievement in itself. But the other Renegades, while many are well-intentioned, come off as a huge case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, exerting control over every aspect of life in their city, serving as judge, jury, and executioner in all cases of crime, and encouraging a sense of dependency in those without powers, leading them to believe they cannot cope without their all-powerful superhero leaders. Meanwhile, the Anarchists – the supervillains who have dedicated themselves to bringing down the Renegades – are even worse. They kill in cold blood, see assassination as the best way to change things, and don’t care one bit whether ordinary civilians get caught in the crossfire. And yet, with one or two truly villainous exceptions, they care for their own like family and really do believe they’re trying to liberate the world.
There’s something grimly realistic about that. It’s sometimes almost too easy to classify fictional characters as good or evil, heroes or villains. By using those labels and yet creating a world in which there’s not much difference between the two, Meyer emphasizes that things are rarely that neat and tidy. In real life, few people see themselves as the villain of their own story, and few conflicts are purely good vs. evil. I won’t say none. But there’s something about the book’s murky moral conflict that rings true and definitely makes the main character’s internal conflict and eventual decisions far more believable than they would be in a world of good and evil.
In one scene, the two main characters have a surprisingly honest discussion about their beliefs. They don’t agree by any means: she thinks the public is too dependent of superheroes to solve all their problems, while he believes that’s a superhero’s duty; she believes the world would be a better place if no one had special powers, while he seems shocked by the idea; and she openly defends her infamous uncle, who he’s not aware she’s related to and definitely does have any sympathy for. However, they trust and respect each other, and each of them listens to what the other has to say, without dismissing it outright. I would love to see this part of their dynamic explored further, and I think it will have to be if the series is going to have anything resembling a happy ending.
Despite the fantasy and superhero elements, I feel like there’s a message somewhere in this book that is relevant to our present-day world. I’m not saying the Renegades and Anarchists have real-life counterparts, because they and their conflict are products of the fictional world they inhabit, but I am saying that the novel paints a picture of a polarized, volatile society where rival groups fight for control at the expense of the ordinary people. It comes across not just as a fantasy story but as a dystopian novel, and every dystopian novel carries some kind of warning that is drawn from the real world in which it was written. The Giver has a message about individuality and conformity, Fahrenheit 451 explores censorship of information, and 1984 warns against surveillance and brainwashing. Likewise, Renegade explores the responsibilities of those in power, the ways in which good intentions do not always have good results, and the inability of the novel’s two rival factions to find a peaceful solution. Don’t let the superhero capes and clever code names fool you: this book is not an escapist fantasy.