The novel opens with a piece of correspondence between a Mr. Siriano Baglio and Mr. Marino Di Segna. Baglio informs Segna of the impact the blood fever is having in the Southeastern districts of Kenettra. He pays particular attention to children that have emerged from the illness with physical changes.
Chapter 1: Adelina
13 years after Baglio and Segna exchange their letters, we alight in Dalia, where our protagonist, Adelina Amouteru, is about to be executed for the murder of her father, Sir Martino Amouteru. She has been in prison for more than 3 weeks awaiting her sentencing. While a crowd gathers outside to witness her being burned at the stake, Adelina thinks about her mother and her sister, Violetta. She then takes us back to the night of her father’s death.
It was a stormy night, and Adelina couldn’t sleep, so she overheard her father’s and his guest’s conversation, which was about her. She had been the topic of his conversations ever since she emerged from the blood fever changed. Prior to the blood fever, Adelina and her sister Violetta were considered beautiful, “budding images of perfection.” This all changed for Adelina after the ravages of the blood fever, and Violetta became their father’s favorite child. Adelina notes that this nepotism comes at the price of their father’s perverse cruelty.
At the beginning of the conversation, Martino is trying to convince his guest to invest in his merchant business. The stagnant Kenettran economy, paired with one of his daughters being a malfetto, means that no one wants to do business with him. All hope seems lost, until the guest asks about Adelina’s hand. Martino confesses that the offers are slow to come, as no one wants a malfetto to bear his children. The men briefly discuss rumors of malfettos with supernatural abilities, before the guest offers to buy Adelina as his mistress. Despite his initial shock and feeble protestations, Adelina’s father agrees to sell her in exchange for having his debts settled.
Rather than stay and be sold off like a piece of cattle, Adelina gathers her stockpile of valuables she’d been preparing for months and runs away. Before she leaves, her sister Violetta catches her escaping and warns her about their father’s wrath when he discovers her absence. Adeline disregards Violetta’s warnings and races by horseback into the storm.
Before long, Martino comes after Adelina. He first tries to cajole her to return, but then resorts to violence. It’s as he threatens to kill her that Adelina snaps. She feels a rush of energy and an urge to pull on “threads” that connected everything in the world to one another. When she does this, “towering black shapes” surged from the ground and lurched towards her father. Her father is petrified and crashes into his horse, which rears back and plants its hooves into her father’s chest, killing him.
Adelina then laid in shock on the muddy ground for an indefinite length of time, before re-saddling her horse and fleeing the scene. She rode for days until she came across a farmhouse and asked the owner to shelter her. Adelina believed she was safe, but woke up the next morning to Inquisition officers dragging her from the farmhouse. Violetta is with them, and identifies Adelina, believing that the officers will let her go. Instead, the officers charged Adelina with the murder of her father, and imprison her. And that’s where we are temporally, with Adelina awaiting the fulfillment of her death sentence.
Chapter 2: Enzo
In the dead of night, Enzo Valenciano receives a message via dove. The message is cryptic and brief: “I’ve found her. Come to Dalia at once.” The message is signed “Your faithful Messenger” (Lu 2014 pp. 52). Enzo has no outward reaction but decides that it’s “time to move” (Lu 2014 pp. 53).
Chapter 3: Adelina
We return to Adelina, where she is having her final meal. Before long, Inquisition officers come and take her to the central market square. The crowd is raucous and throws insults and objects at Adelina while she is being shackled to a stake. Eventually, Adelina notices that one of the Inquisition officers is younger the rest. He is introduced as Master Teren Santoro, Lead Inquisitor of Kenettra. Adelina is surprised that someone as important as the Lead Inquisitor would come to see her executed.
Teren approaches Adelina and whispers to her that she will “find [her] redemption in the Underworld” (Lu 2014 pp. 63). He then turns to the crowd and depicts malfettos as “twisted imitations of people” that are dangerous and demonic. After proclaiming that the Inquisition will bring the Young Elites to justice, he takes torch and sets the pile of wood supporting Adelina on fire.
Adelina reaches deep inside and tugs on her powers. Suddenly, the bright blue sky turns dark. The clouds turn black, then morph into locusts and swarm towards the crowd and the Inquisition officers. As they get closer, Adelina realizes they are illusions. While pandemonium erupts, a masked boy in silver and blue appears on the platform near Adelina. He begins to defend Adelina against the Inquisition officers, injuring a few of them with his sword before attacking them with fire. At this time Teren identifies the masked boy as an infamous Young Elite called “The Reaper”. Before the Inquisition can capture the Reaper, he uses his powers to free Adelina and carries her to safety. Before Adelina faints in his arms, she notices a silver dagger insignia on the boy’s armband.
The Young Elites is set in a time and place reminiscent of 14th century, medieval Europe. The blood fever and its sociopolitical effects seems to be modeled after an epidemic like the Black Death, which devastated the world population and resulted in much social upheaval. The added fantastical element of superpowers puts a fresh spin on this historical event. Furthermore, the treatment of malfettos by non-malfettos, particularly the Inquisition, is highly reminiscent of real life racial and religious oppression that people of certain identities face. Even the name of the group the Inquisition Axis brings to mind the Spanish Inquisition against those not of the Catholic faith. These various historical allusions add richness to the story.
Though it is early on in the novel, we can already see Lu incorporating some of the book’s major themes. For example, when Adelina describes how her father dotes on Violetta because “she was his investment”, the groundwork for the investment theme and “kindness with strings attached” motif are being laid. Or, when we see the vicious way Adelina is being treated by her own father and most other people she encounters, it becomes clear that the trials and tribulations of being a marked person will take center stage in the Young Elites. And of course, the line between reality and illusion is already blurred, as Adelina herself does not immediately realize the phantoms and locusts she created are illusions.
We are also introduced to our central characters in these first few chapters. For most of them we receive a fair amount of information about them. Adelina we learn is pessimistic and full of human frailties, which is refreshing in young adult fiction. While she loves her sister, she admits that she is resentful of the care and attention Violetta receives from their father. She is also angry that Violetta bore witness to her suffering in silence. These are all reasonable reactions for someone in Adelina’s position and shows humanity.
Violetta and Teren are also fleshed out a bit. Despite Adelina painting her as the perfect obedient daughter, Violetta shows there is more than meets the eye when she helps Adelina run away. Her naivety is on display during Adelina’s arrest, but so is her genuine love for her sister. It would be easy for Violetta to mock and hate Adelina like their father does, but instead she loves her malfetto sister in spite of societal pressures to reject malfettos. This shows that Violetta may indeed have a mind of her own, that she perhaps is not the perfect obedient daughter. As for Teren, while we don’t get as many details about him as we do for Adelina and Violetta, we do catch glimpses of his religious zeal, hatred of malfettos, and devotion to the crown, all of which are central aspects of his character.
The exception is Enzo Valenciano, who despite having a chapter told from his perspective, remains shrouded in mystery. In part this is because Enzo’s chapter is told from the third-person omniscient view. Unlike Adelina’s chapters, which are in the first-person, the reader is not privy to Enzo’s thoughts and emotions. This prevents us from getting a clear picture of him, something that does not change greatly throughout the book. As the book progresses Enzo’s ambitions, desires, and motivations do become clearer, but somehow opaqueness around him as a character persists.