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Carve the Mark by Veronica RothOne star
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Young adult readers are some of the most dedicated and passionate readers I’ve ever come across. So it’s heartbreaking that they’re so often poorly served by the publishing industry. So much of what is most successful in YA feels like formulaic story product to a degree you don’t see in almost any corresponding adult genre, including SFF. Publishing treats YA fiction the way Hollywood treats summer tentpole franchise movies, as cash cows to be milked as quickly as possible before the next trend. And even though a particular YA writer, having achieved success, may attempt to move beyond the stories that secured their initial popularity, they often drag their worst impulses and laziest habits along with them. Sometimes they pick up some new bad habits along the way.

Veronica Roth rose to fame with the Divergent series, one of those near-future fight-the-power teenage superhero stories calling itself a dystopia. With Carve the Mark, the first in a duology, she has expanded what is reportedly a story idea she originally came up with prior to writing Divergent, in an effort to sculpt a sweeping and complex space opera of rebellion and love conquering evil. Or, to put it more simply, she’s turned in a half-assed knockoff of Star Wars that reveals her to be a third-rate talent who puts as much cogent thought into her worldbuilding as Donald Trump puts into one of his 3 AM tweets. Also, like Trump, the book was apparently done no harm by charges of racism that surfaced prior to its release, and spent its first month on sale comfortably nestled at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. As we see, in YA, the cream doesn’t always rise to the top.

The story is set in a system called the Brim, containing multiple “nation-planets,” one of which, Thuvhe, is inhabited by two warring cultures: the Thuvhesit, a bunch of clannish, flower-worshiping space hippies, and the Shotet, a belligerent nation of former spacefaring nomads now transformed into a low-rent version of George Lucas’s Empire. Over all of this flows the current, which is the Force except that you can see it, glowing in the sky like an aurora and spreading throughout all living things in all inhabited worlds. The current bestows a “currentgift” upon people when they come of age, for some reason, and depending on whether you’re naughty or nice your currentgift may be a boon, or dangerous and harmful. This little detail suggests the current has intent and purpose, if not actual sentience, but Roth doesn’t dig too deeply into the matter. It’s all just magic space stuff.

This habit of introducing potentially compelling concepts and then not following through with any substantive development plagues Roth’s worldbuilding. It isn’t enough to come up with ideas like the current, or flowers that heal, or planets of ice and planets of darkness. They all need to fit into a constructed fictional universe with internal logic. But sadly, the reams of text that Roth devotes to explaining things only serve to make their clichés more glaring.

Anyway, there’s a story, and it’s a dull affair all about a boy and a girl and another very bad boy — in other words, YA Formula One. The girl is Cyra Noavek, the brother of the Shotet’s tyrannical ruler, Ryzek. He’s the bad boy. The good boy is Akos Kereseth, the youngest son of one of the Thuvhesit’s prescient oracles. Akos has been kidnaped, along with his brother, Eijeh, by Ryzek’s thugs, because Eijeh has inherited their mother’s oracular gifts, and Ryzek is desperate to escape his fate. You see, some people are “fate-favored” by the current, which means their futures are known with almost absolute certainty to all oracles throughout the Brim. The Oracles, in turn, share these fates with the Brim’s ruling Assembly, who are based on some spaceship flying around somewhere. We don’t learn much about them beyond that, or really, any details about how the politics of the Brim actually operate. When you’ve read the kind of space opera — say, John Scalzi, for instance, or The Expanse, or Jack Campbell — where spacefaring civilizations have their political realities, their laws and ruling structures clearly thought out and explained, you really notice what a failure of worldbuilding it is on Veronica Roth’s part for her novel to be so singly lacking in this. Even Star Wars, archetypal and simplistic as it is, nailed this. It had to, otherwise there’d have been no star warring.

For reasons never explained and no one bothers to ask about, the Assembly have broken protocol and publicly revealed the fates of all the fate-favored. Now that everyone’s been doxed, Ryzek wants to avoid his own fate, a predicted untimely downfall. Cyra’s currentgift, the ability to absorb and inflict extreme pain, has her being used by Ryzek as his personal torturer. But Akos’s gift can negate others’, and so he alone can help manage Cyra’s terrible pain. Once Akos and Cyra are put together, we know how this is going to go per YA formula. They’ll start out hating each other, then grow into a kind of grudging respect, and eventually start falling for each other as tensions mount — which they never actually do in this book, but it’s the thought that counts.

So what about all this racism? I’ll be honest. Carve the Mark has 99 problems, but that’s hardly a significant one. For those of you who missed it, the critic Justina Ireland has pointed out that the storytelling traditions Roth is drawing upon in creating the cultures for her novel are rooted in long-standing racist stereotypes. Despite ostensibly being an SF novel, Carve the Mark is really a fantasy, as both the Shotet and Thuvhesit are cultures defined not by science and technology and intellectual enlightenment, but by belief, tribalism and ritual. The Thuvhesit are really really big into their flowers, while the Shotet have a rite of passage called the Sojourn, where young people board a spaceship and follow the current stream to some random planet and then land to salvage trash, which, somehow, keeps them faithful to their nomadic traditions. Roth in fact goes into so much detail explaining the Sojourn that several times it stops the book dead in its tracks, and much of it seems to be about assuring us that #NotAllShotet are evil and murderous, and may be just as much sinned against as sinning. But how the Shotet went from a culture committed to “renewal” to a fascist autocracy never gets the exploration it deserves.

The Shotet also do scarification, again a practice associated with some indigenous African cultures, and one that is here meant to show what evil badasses the Shotet are, because “carving the mark” on their arms is how they record their kills. (If this were a real science fiction novel, there’d be an app for that.) Cyra, being the Nice Shotet, feels guilt for the violence she inflicts in her brother’s name and carves her marks as an act of penance.

Now there has been plenty of fantasy and SF written over the years that is gross and overt in its racism, and I can say that I have read many, many worse offenders than this novel, whose racist content, if it’s even there, is so subtextual as to be virtually invisible. Contrary to what you might have heard, this book is not in fact about rampaging dark skinned savages massacring hapless white innocents in an orgy of uncontrollable bloodlust. But it still manages to be offensive by the way it tries so hard to be the opposite of that kind of book. Both the Shotet and Thuvhesit are described, loosely, as being of “mixed blood.” Cyra has “medium brown” skin, favoring her mother, but her brother Ryzek is tall, thin and pale. Akos and his brother — and I guess this is a spoiler, but so what, as it should be clear by now I’m recommending a hard pass on this book — are revealed also to be Shotet, kidnaped in their youth, and they’re both light-skinned and brown-haired.

The problem here is that it all feels as if Roth came up with the main characters she wanted first, and then sloppily kludged together a bogus “culture” to justify her choices. Because Cyra is the female romantic lead, but at the same time the story’s only prominent PoC character, her brownness feels a lot like tokenism. It’s as if Roth just made Cyra dark-skinned to earn a diversity cookie. But tokenism isn’t diversity, and it isn’t representation.

As for Ryzek? He’s tall and pale because Adam Driver is tall and pale. And if you start from the premise that Veronica Roth isn’t so much a malicious racist as she is merely a tedious hack without an original idea in her head, it’s quite easy to imagine her watching The Force Awakens, taking one look at Kylo Ren, and thinking “That’s my bad guy!” Because Ryzek is a carbon copy, so much so that it’s hard to read his portentous villain dialogue and not hear Adam Driver’s soft, emo voice. As a villain he’s got all the depth of a sheet of printer paper, and as for other characters, well, some exist just to drop backstory exposition, and others are introduced solely for Ryzek to have tortured and killed, in case we’ve forgotten in the last five minutes that he’s evil.

It’s entirely justified to look askance at a book when it’s facing credible criticisms of dealing in racist tropes. But Carve the Mark is honestly so dull, so dramatically inert, so lacking in compelling conflict, with such shallow, unengaging walking clichés rattling off so much stiff and awkward dialogue, that it’s hard to imagine any reader developing enough of an investment to get emotionally worked up about any of it. It’s arguably too boring to get pissed off about. Unless you look at how long it’s been sitting at #1. Seeing such undeserving work reap so much success — yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark.