3/5 stars on Goodreads
The Girl in Red by Christina Henry is the latest book in her series of fairy tale retellings. This one is based on Little Red Riding Hood. The book started with promise, but it ended up leading nowhere. It has no story arch and no conclusion. It has a series of events, and then it ends.
The Girl in Red is set in post-apocalyptic America. Most of the population has been wiped away by a fast-spreading mysterious virus that causes a cough that kills in a couple of days. Red, Cordelia, believes that the safest place is her grandmother’s remote house, and she sets out to walk hundreds of miles there through forests to avoid being taken to government quarantine camps. Militia and people ready to do anything to survive are some of the obstacles she faces.
In Little Red Riding Hood, the journey through the perilous forest is only a part of the story, and not even the major part. The important part is when she reaches the safety of her grandmother’s house and finds that the wolf has reached there first. That’s when the story happens.
The Girl in Red isn’t that book. We follow Red on her perilous journey about two thirds of the way when it abruptly ends, followed by an epilogue showing her reach her grandmother’s house safely. Scent of food indicates that everything is well there. Along the way, there are two encounters with the army ready to take Red to a camp. The third, the important one that should take place after Red believes she’s reached safety, never happens. The book just ends and the reader is left hanging, wondering if this could possibly be the entire book. It is.
It seems like the author hasn’t really understood her source material. The story doesn’t progress anywhere. There are obstacles on Red’s way, some that force her to kill even, but they don’t form an arch. And the dangers she faces are amazingly easily overcome too, especially considering the apocalyptic nature of the setting. The major revelation to Red seems to be that she’s the Huntsman, not the Little Red Riding Hood. That’s not enough to carry a book.
In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a seductive force that lures the hapless girl away from her path so that it can reach the grandmother’s house first. But in this book, we never learn what the wolf is. There’s the virus, but then there’s a monster too. I don’t know why the book needed both, especially since they only serve as a catalyst for the story. It would have been a different matter, if it had turned out that Red’s grandmother has the monster incubating inside her too, but the story never reaches that part of its arch. Instead, it ends just when we learn what the monster looks like―though not why it exists in the first place.
Red is a disappointing character. She’s a twenty-year-old college student, but she comes across as a teenager. She has all the makings of a diverse, something for all character, but none of it has an impact on the story. She has a prosthetic leg, so she’s not physically perfect. But the prosthesis is just a prop. Worse, it’s the Chekhov’s gun alluded to throughout the story (‘I hope my leg don’t give up on me’, ‘I hope I won’t trip’), but which is never fired. She never falls because of it and it never lets her down at an important moment. She walks and runs with a heavy backpack on without trouble, she kicks and defeats grown men without any problems from her leg, and it never even chafes, forcing her to stop. So what’s the point of giving her such vulnerability? None that I could figure out.
Red is also black with mixed background, though with such a light skin and straight hair that she can pass as a Latina, which the author finds important to mention. Her skin colour has no impact on how she identifies, and apart from some rednecks who attack her parents at the beginning of the book, the fact that she’s black plays no role in the book. So what’s the point of mentioning her skin colour? None.
On top of everything, Red is bisexual. The book has no romance or sex, and although sexual violence is constantly hinted at, nothing like that takes place. Why then would it matter that she’s attracted to both men and women? It doesn’t. So Red only looks good on paper. Her diversity has no purpose or impact on the story, which is highly disappointing.
Apart from her character, I found myself annoyed with little details that don’t really matter. Her food comes in tin cans, which is highly impractical on a long trek because they’re heavy and take a lot of space in a backpack. She’s hiking for months, but no mention is made of such nuisances like periods or the availability of toilet paper. How much sanitary products can she fit in her backpack and still have room for food anyway? She also wins all the fights she gets into without getting so much as slapped herself, hacking her opponents to death with her axe. She’s not large or sporty, and has only attended one self-defence class, yet she’s a killing machine all of a sudden.
All in all, this is a deeply flawed book at its root. But the story starts well, and as it’s told in two timelines, before and after, I kept reading to find out what has led to Red’s current situation. It seems like it’s going to something bigger, so I didn’t really notice the flaws until it abruptly ends without delivering what it builds up to. So I gave it three stars. I was going along with the story right to the sudden end, rooting for Red. I just wish the rest of the story would have been there too.