***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: This series is the embodiment of Good Clean Fun: the prose is competent; the plots are are sweet, straightforward, and move at a nice clip; each book is gobbleable.
Scarlet is the sequel to Cinder, which I've also read (but haven't reviewed on Booklikes). To say they're fairy-tale re-imaginings is a bit misleading and doesn't give them enough credit. Meyer uses a few of the tropes from the original tales as touchstones (Cinder is the maligned stepdaughter, for instance, and there is a final ball where her wardrobe malfunction is not a glass slipper but a wonky cyborg foot), but the characters and the story line are all Meyer's. What separates these books from re-tellings is their ambition: there's an over-arching plot to all four books that's wholly unrelated to the original fairy tales. The evil Lunar queen Levana wants to marry Prince Kai on earth, kill him to take over the Eastern Commonwealth, and use the power of that position to conquer Earth. The first book introduced Cinder, and showed the kindling relationship between her and Kai--though the ending left that couple physically and emotionally estranged. The second book is Scarlet's story, but with Cinder's story still barreling alongside it, intertwining with it. The snowball effect of adding girls in each book, each with her own sub-story, culminating with one larger narrative, is both fun and a big writing project. (The third book will be Cress [Rapunzel], and the fourth will be Winter [Snow White].) I'm looking forward to seeing the sum of parts equal a rollicking whole.
The considerable positives of this series are: bright women who have strong characters and personal skills and don't think much about gender; romance without sex (at least so far, for readers who aren't ready for that); and fast-paced plotting. (Though the action scenes are a bit clunky and wordy.)
This second book is Scarlet's story. Scarlet is loosely (very loosely) based on Little Red Riding Hood: there is a missing grandmother, Scarlet wears a red hoodie, she delivers produce (in crates, not a basket), the villains are genetically-hybrid wolf-Lunars, and for a moment the Lunar Jedi mind-trick makes Scarlet mistake a wolf-Lunar for her grandmother.
I think Scar suffers a bit from having to share her story line with Cinder, as she pales somewhat in comparison. We don't feel as "in her skin" as we want; we see what she's supposed to be like (impulsive, reckless in her loyalty) but we don't feel it in our core. Scarlet sometimes seems senselessly angry, and is too quick to fall in love, while Cinder is spunky and resourceful in this installment, guarded in her feelings about Kai, and not taking any seducing from the delightfully buffoonish Captain Thorne.
The writing may contribute to this. The prose is perfectly serviceable but sometimes ordinary, with a few repetitive physical descriptions meant to signal emotions, like sweat gathering on the back of necks, surprised faces, thumping hearts, constricting lungs. In order to make it clear that Scarlet is impulsive, Meyer gives her a sort of flat, "telling" temper tantrum right at the opening, when she finds out that the police have closed the case of her missing grandmother. Scarlet takes a load of tomatoes that she's delivering to a restaurant and throws many of them against the restaurant's exterior wall by the delivery entrance. It wasn't a believable reaction for me--this is produce she labored to grow on her farm, and the income from it is her living--and it hints at Meyer's ticking off the first scene in her outline: "Scarlet is upset that her grandmother is missing; she reacts emotionally to the news that the police will no longer search for her. Later in the scene she meets Wolf."
The technical prowess of the plot suffers a bit--though I was happy to overlook it--from characters being slow on the uptake and hiding information from each other. There is a long literary history of this, but it should probably be used sparingly. For example, even if Scarlet is determined to rescue her grandmother by bartering her secret, wouldn't she pause for a moment to contemplate her grandmother's equally fierce protection of that same secret? Would her grandmother witness the torture of her own son, let him be killed, and let herself remain captive if the secret weren't vitally important--more important than their lives? Does Scarlet really want to enter the wolf's lair carrying Princess Selene's identity on a silver platter? I believe Meyer tries to minimize Scarlet's betrayal of her grandmother's cause by making the information obsolete by the time Scarlet arrives...but we know that Scarlet didn't know that going in. Also, it took Wolf and Scarlet a bit too long to understand that Cinder is Selene--they have more information than anyone: Scarlet's memory that a girl was given to a man named Linh from the Eastern Commonwealth, combined with the footage of Linh Cinder at the ball. And again, what exactly do we gain in terms of plot by having Cinder hold back her identity from Iko and Thorne?
I wondered for a moment why Captain Thorne stayed with Cinder. It's written as if he's a rogue who finds her amusing and pretty, but is that really enough motivation for a character who's an escaped convict to lend her the use of his ship? Although his personality is charming, he's painted as a broad stroke so far, and I look forward to having him fleshed out in future installments.
The love between Scarlet and Wolf is perhaps meant to be like the loyalty of wolves--born quickly and cemented early--but it doesn't quite work for me on Scarlet's side. She sees only the good in Wolf after a significant betrayal, and risks everything (including the safety of Cinder and Thorne) to protect Wolf, without having enough evidence that he won't betray her again or kill her. I would have liked to have seen more pass between them, before she gives him her heart. This deficiency is perhaps exacerbated by the fact of the two girls sharing a story line--there just weren't enough Scarlet pages to develop the relationship to a meaningful depth.
Finally, I worried about the way Kai "sacrificed" himself by agreeing to marry Levana. He stops the battle, but he knows he's majorly losing the war in doing so. Would a real leader do that? While Kai himself feels green and uncertain, having taken the throne young, I believe we're meant to trust that he's a natural leader. (In fact, this book is in a long tradition of YA literature that lulls us into supporting "monarchy in the right hands," which kind of makes my skin crawl. [See also the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.] But I digress.) Kai knows Levana's ultimate plan, he knows he'll be killed, he knows he'll actually aid her in taking over the planet if he marries her. We don't get to see his military advisers and generals discussing this issue with him--surely they wouldn't want this solution? We wonder how prepared his country might be, in their opinion, to fight a ground war against the Lunars (even with their wolf-hybrid army). The Eastern Commonwealth must be prepared to protect the country to some extent, and I want to know just how much.
In the end, though, you should just let these little holes and Scarlet's lack of screen time wash over you. Meyer wants to entertain you and she's damned good at it. Let her do it.
(A quibble on the cover: I love illustrated covers, but this one is vastly inferior to the clever foot/shoe of Cinder, and the braid/arm of Cress. The artist needed to study flapping capes, and to base this on an actual photographic image. Capes are usually nearly full circles of fabric. If you laid this cape out flat, it wouldn't be a coherent geometric shape at all, and there isn't enough material at the neck. This is the unfortunate weak entry in an otherwise clever series of cover illustrations.)