Young Adult lit is always exploring new frontiers, and royalty is often a fixture of the genre. Whether it’s alternate history, high fantasy, or dystopias, royalty and fairy tales have their place in YA cannon, and American Royals by Katherine McGee is the perfect storm of royalty tropes, designed perfectly to appeal to YA readers. The audience is there, and McGee is already the author of the wildly popular Thousandth Floor trilogy.
The book is designed to be broadly appealing, and it succeeds, it’s a best-seller. However, the book is disappointing to avid young adult readers, and the answer why is obvious: the book isn’t what it’s been marketed as, it’s as one reviewer described it, “like Gossip Girl on steroids.” Having seen the buzz about this book, any reader might assume that the book is an alternate reality novel about how the US would be different if the government figurehead was a hereditary monarch, rather than an elected representative. Sounds exciting, no? Too bad that’s not what it’s about.
This book is one cliché after another. The heir to the crown can’t marry for love, the younger princess feels ignored and acts out, there’s a lot of pressure on the oldest child. The heir falls in love with her bodyguard, an unsuitable choice, but gets engaged to an approved suitor for her country. The father is terminally ill, adding tension to Beatrice’s choices. The prince has a scheming ex who wants to get him back, another royal, but he’s pursuing a commoner. There are no original ideas in this book. It’s pretty disappointing, considering the novel premise.
Introduces an interesting premise and fails to deliver
This is objectively a cool idea- what would have happened if there was an American hereditary monarchy? The book squanders this really neat premise, barely addressing how the world is different because of this altered history. There are still royal families in Russia and Germany, and we do get some little tidbits, but mostly the coolest idea in the book is ignored for the intriguing question of whether Jeff is stupid enough to trust his ex-girlfriend over his sister’s lifelong friend. It’s more frustrating than anything else, because this book is disappointing!
Fails to address race
One huge oversight in the book is that it basically ignores the issue of race in America. One of the main characters is Latina, and that is mentioned once. When she’s dating the prince, none of the condemnations of her are racist. There are a couple of Black royal families, so of course racism doesn’t exist! There are maybe two paragraphs total devoted to race in the book, one of which is about the abolition of slavery, which is quickly explained away. I guess this world is one in which racism is eliminated, but exchanged for elitism? It’s more acceptable for the future queen to marry a Black future duke than a white bodyguard, so we have to assume class structure has replaced racism in the social order. It’s just such an oversight in pretty lily-white book- the book also tries to address class, but the only middle-class characters are directly royalty-adjacent, and so experience “real life” but tempered with the privilege of proximity to power.
There’s also some token gay acceptance in the book, mostly as a few throw-away lines. It felt half-hearted and squished into an already bloated, boring book.
Bland, cookie-cutter characters
The characters in this book might have redeemed it if they weren’t so intrinsically boring. It’s impossible to get invested in Beatrice’s love story because she’s boring, she has no interests, friends, or even personality traits beyond being trapped by royalty, smart, and devoted to her country. I honestly felt bad for her love interest, because he deserved better. Sam is equally boring, she’s a stereotyped party girl whose only plot tension is jealousy of her sister and frustration over wanting a guy she can’t have. Jeff is clearly a dolt, and hard to be sympathetic to as a result. If he was dumb and sweet, it would be one thing, but he also pretty much lacks a personality or consistent motivation.
Daphne is by far the worst offense- she’s a scheming lower-tier royal determined to marry the prince. She’s teased at the beginning of the book to have done something horrible, and when it is revealed it’s a total dud. She’s a liar, manipulator, and social climber, cruel and clever to a fault. She’s also the only character in the book to engage in sex, which is highly implied to be immoral? All of the royalty are not sexually active, which a pretty hard pill to swallow, but the one villainous character who actively is trying to sabotage our heroes is the only one having sex? This smacks of slut-shaming.
Too many POV characters
Having four point of view characters is way too much- it certainly served the purpose of the story, but it’s disconcerting for the reader and some of the characters are less interesting than others. Beatrice and Sam are particularly boring, and despite being the villain Daphne is possibly the most engaging character in the book. At least you can hate her, as opposed to being casually disinterested in the other characters. I found that the male characters in particular were lack-luster, Jeff and Connor have almost no characterization to speak of. The best fleshed-out is Teddy, and his character is mostly parental pressure and feeling responsible for his family.
So there’s basically no plot until half-way through the book, as there’s no tension. Beatrice needs a husband, but we don’t know why, so there’s no urgency. Daphne is trying to destroy Jeff’s relationship, but we don’t know what she’s capable of, aside from media warfare, so there’s no fear. Plus, we care zero percent about the characters, so it’s not like we’d worry anyway. The book is also far too long for a book in which nothing happens.
Derivative and unoriginal
This is one of the main issues I had with this book, it’s complete failure to bring something new to the table. It starts with the damn cover. Did it look familiar? It should.
The cover looks strikingly similar to another recent best-seller, the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend. The art style is similar, but the details are what really stands out: the blue background, sunglasses, dark hair done up, even the barely perceptible nose. The similar cover is a short-hand for a potential reader, “This is like that other book you like.”
But the biggest place this book draws its content from is The Royals, a TV show that aired from 2015-2018. Its subjects were a fictionalized British royal family, and their story might sound familiar. Here are a few notable similarities between the narratives:
- There are three children, Robert, Liam, and Eleanor. Liam and Eleanor are the younger, and twins.
- Robert contracts a political marriage to a woman Liam cares about, angering Liam.
- Eleanor has a clandestine relationship with her bodyguard, which is considered inappropriate.
- While Robert is staid, and committed to his duty, Eleanor and Liam are wild and obstreperous, chasing their whims and indulging themselves.
- Liam has a crazy ex-girlfriend who is a part of the upper class, and schemes to get him back. Liam falls in love with the daughter of the head of palace security, and his ex sabotages that relationship.
- The king dies suddenly, throwing the succession into a place of importance.
While The Royals is more intense, more murder, mayhem and intrigue, the bones are the same, at least in early seasons. Even if the author didn’t directly rip the show off, it’s clear that no original ideas populate this book.