After losing my right eye four years ago, I started paying attention to how people with one eye were portrayed in books. Most of the time, people with one eye aren’t portrayed well at all. I was hopeful when I heard that The Young Elites by Marie Lu featured a main character who had lost one eye.
The Young Elites is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of 1300s Italy. Ten years before the story opens, a blood fever swept the lands. All survivors of the blood fever were marked in some way: the loss of color in the eye, hair changing to unnatural colors, etc. All who were marked are considered “malfettos,” abhorrent and monstrous.
The main character, Adelina, in addition to being marked by her silver hair, lost her eye during the blood fever. Her eye had become swollen and painful, a condition that reminds me of glaucoma. Due to the lack of modern technology, the only choice in Adelina’s case was to remove the eye. The extraction is described in a few simple sentences that made my skin crawl. The details weren’t gory, but vivid. During the procedure, Adelina’s face was also scarred.
Some of the malfettos were blessed—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with mystical powers. One can control fire, another wind. An outlaw group of people with those with powers are called the Young Elites.
Adelina doesn’t believe she has any powers because she didn’t come into them during puberty, like most others with powers. Her father tries and tries to get her to show her power. Because she is a malfetto with no powers, he believes she’s worthless. Over time, she comes to believe this too.
She finds her power, the power of illusion, in a life-or-death struggle with her father. He wants to sell her off as someone’s mistress because she isn’t good enough to be a wife. She knows, that even if she isn’t worth much, she is worth more than just being a mistress. After she accidentally kills her father, she knows she has to hide. The Inquisition is hunting all malfettos, who the country’s leader believes are the cause of the country’s misfortune. She is caught and sentenced to death. She is to be burned at the stake in front of her entire town. Just after the fire is lit, the Young Elites sweep in and save Adelina.
The Young Elites believe Adelina can help them with their plan to end the hunting of malfettos. She is taken to train with them. Here, Adelina has to learn to compensate for her blind side. Other members of the Young Elites purposefully attack her from that side to help her learn how to sense when someone is there. I liked that this was pointed out. With one eye missing, you do have to compensate. I also liked that Adelina didn’t instantly know how to sense someone was there. It’s not something I knew how to understand when I first lost my eye.
The Young Elites also show Adelina that she isn’t worthless. They befriend her, and invite her to huge parties where she is expected to socialize with the guests. She is treated like a young woman for the first time. The Young Elites also give Adelina a mask to hide her disfigurement. Adelina believes that now her true beauty can shine through. She has hated herself for a long time, because when she believed she didn’t have powers, her father treated her poorly.
I think the lack of a supportive parent really hurt Adelina in the self-esteem department. I like to hope that I’d be the kind of mother that would tell a scarred child that they are beautiful and worthwhile. I understand that, being set in a different world, beliefs are different. It still hurt me to read about someone hiding part of who they are to look beautiful.
Sometimes, I found the depiction of life with one eye jarring. Many times Adelina “closes her eye.” Even though I am missing my eye, I still refer to both of them as a set. I close my eyes. That may just be a “me” thing, though. I have never changed my vocabulary because of my missing eye. In fact, I was taught not to change my vocabulary. As I believe many people who are disabled know, changing your vocabulary only calls attention to the disability. It really frustrates me when people correct me saying things like “I watch TV.” They will tell me that no, I don’t watch TV, I listen to it. I think that making the distinction, like changing my own vocabulary, serves only to re-enforce the perception that people with disabilities can’t be part of everyday conversations because of their disability.
By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure which group was the “good guys” anymore. It certainly wasn’t the Inquisition that hunted down malfettos like they were no better than animals. It wasn’t the rulers, for they blamed the country’s bad fortune on the malfettos. It wasn’t the Young Elites, either, because they only saved the malfettos with powers that might be useful to their cause. I prefer having someone to root for in my reading, but not everyone does.
While Lu did jar me a time or two, her depiction of life with one eye wasn’t horrible. I have seen a lot more mistakes made in one book.