Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: Carve the Mark

Carve the Mark Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

*sigh* Well, loyal Pinecones, the time has come for me to review Veronica Roth's latest, and unfortunately, as a Veronica Roth stan till my dying day, I confess myself disappointed.

Before I go into this, please note that I'll be discussing the book's issues with racism and ableism to the best of my ability, but for further reading, I'll direct you to important posts regarding said issues.

* Justina Ireland on racism
* Jenny Trout on ableism, chronic pain

Okay, so...here's my thoughts.

Carve the Mark, for me, is not unlike Suicide Squad in that it's heavily damaged by hype, hackneyed storytelling, and problematic content, but those are, to an extent, tempered by certain strong characters and positive themes. Veronica Roth promised us a sort of YA Star Wars meets Game of Thrones - but the thing is, I already read that book, and it's called Beyond the Red by Ava Jae. Jae's book is what CTM should have been, but wasn't, not by a long shot.

Let me start with the racism accusations. Ireland called the book out for dividing Thuvhe, the world on which most of the story takes place, between the Thuvhesit and Shotet people. The former are broadly coded like Europeans, and the latter like black people, with hints of Middle Eastern and North African in their culture, unless I'm much mistaken. The Shotet are said to be "fierce, brutal," reflecting the harshness of the land they live on, while the Thuvhesit are said to be gentler and more peaceful. The early parts of the book present this troubling viewpoint, but it should also be noted that for the first 40-50 pages or so, we're in the POV of Akos, a young Thuvhesit man, who winds up kidnapped and enslaved to the book's real protagonist, a young Shotet woman named Cyra. Being in Akos' POV is important because the two people, the Thuvhesit and the Shotet, are bitter enemies, so of course they're going to have negative views of each other. It should also be noted that Akos is himself part-Shotet, evidenced by him having light brown skin, a Shotet name, and a certain facility with the Shotet language.

The languages in this book are an example of a bit of failed world-building. I loved the Divergent series largely because of its world-building - relatively simple, but with enough complexities to make your brain work to process it all. Here, though, I think Roth might have gotten carried away with building a whole solar system, and two groups of people in particular to focus on, and neglected enough aspects to make the whole thing feel half-baked. Like languages. We're told, not shown, about the "hushed, quiet" sounds of the Thuvhesit language and the "harsh" Shotet language - but it's not very helpful to our imaginations when everything is written in English and we're left to assume that there won't be any known words of either language until David J. Peterson gets consulted for a film adaptation.

Slightly better-developed is the idea of "currentgifts" - that is, X-Men-style superpowers said to be gifted by the "current" energy field that surrounds the system. There's where the Star Wars comes in, the current basically being the Force. Some of these currentgifts have been done before, many times, but others are a little more unusual and unexpected. Unfortunately, Cyra's currentgift is the source of the ableist controversy surrounding the book - because her "gift" is no gift at all. She suffers from chronic pain, inspired by a number of women in Roth's life (and, as I understand it, Roth herself), and can subject others to the same pain, for which her cruel brother Ryzek, the book's main antagonist, uses her against his enemies. That's bad enough, but the very idea of chronic pain being seen as a "gift" was more than enough to set off the vast majority of that particular community. Just look at Ana Mardoll's "OH HOLY FUCK YOU DID NOT" Twitter thread in the wake of Roth's recent NPR interview for proof.

To Cyra's credit, though, she herself never sees her power as a gift, and is no less strong a heroine for her constant suffering. I wish the same - about her strength, that is - could be said for Akos. While Cyra gets the majority of the book's POV time, Akos's chapters are something of a distraction. Not only is this because Akos doesn't get the benefit of a first-person POV like Cyra (third-person being something of a pet peeve for me - I find it so much easier to not only read and relate to first-person narrators, but also to write them), but because his chapters tend to be quite long (like the first two, which swallow up a good ten percent of the book all by themselves before we finally meet Cyra), and because he feels underdeveloped as a character compared to Cyra as well. Though he's quite necessary to the plot - not only as a gender-swapping of the "damsel in distress" trope, but also because Cyra comes to depend, to an extent, on his currentgift of power nullification - his POV chapters feel like unnecessary filler inserted to pad the book to its nearly 500-page length.

Characters in general are a major failure of this book. There are many of them, like in Divergent and its sequels, but unlike in Divergent, Roth fails to develop most of them properly. It doesn't help that most of them have seriously alien-sounding names - again, like Star Wars, but whereas many Star Wars names are at least somewhat recognizably terrestrial in origin, Roth seems to have gone out of her way to cobble together consonants and vowels in whatever exotic order she could have, heedless of sense. Thuvhesit names, like Eijhe, are particularly guilty of this. But even if the characters could have easy-to-remember names, they themselves would still be quite forgettable, with the exception of our protagonist (Cyra), deuteragonist (Akos), and antagonist (Ryzek). Everyone else - again reminding me of Suicide Squad - fades into the background and leaves me scratching my head when I look at other reviews and think, "Ori who?"

I think all the world-building failures, again, stem from Roth getting carried away and biting off more than she could chew. We're supposed to only be getting two books in this series. I mean, can you think how shallow Star Wars would feel if they only made two movies and then stopped? But while Roth was at least able to give us a pretty solar-system map (in the book's front pages, and nicely, if somewhat illegibly, etched into the hardcover binding too), it's painful knowing that two books will never be enough to really appreciate this whole solar system. And unlike me with my Red Rain books, or Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, both of which start relatively small and expand their scopes over time, Roth tries for a grand, epic, system-wide scope from the get-go, and while the world of Thuvhe gets a lot of focus, none of the other worlds do. Which begs the question - how much bigger can things get from here?

Even if there were no other worlds than Thuvhe in this book, though, the underlying - and, I'm sure, unintentional - racism would still rear its ugly head. On the one hand, the situation doesn't seem quite as cut-and-dried as Justina Ireland's call-out post suggests. The Thuvhesit and Shotet aren't uniformly and/or respectively light-skinned or dark-skinned - the Shotet, in particular, have a pretty wide range of skin tones among their people, and even within families - like, for instance, Cyra and Ryzek. In fact, a general rule in this book is that the lighter the skin, the weaker the moral fiber. This, I think, might be another explanation for why Ireland and others reacted so strongly to the book - because the idea of oppressive, aggressive white people would dredge up painful historical memories of European imperialism, which, being written by a white woman like Roth, could easily come across as insensitive and tone-deaf. In addition, the Shotet custom of scarification as a reminder of kills - the source of the book's title - feels, to some, like a perversion of real-life scarification traditions among many African tribes. Going back to the call-out of Jay Kristoff's Nevernight (now one of a Taboo Trifecta in most Book Twitter circles, along with this book and The Continent) it's another classic example of an author stepping out of their lane and appropriating a tribal custom, but not really developing it beyond the surface of "this is unusual and exotic, how curious!" Though Cyra's quick to point out that this scarification is not meant as a symbol of pride, other readers have said that it feels as if Roth is glorifying or romanticizing self-harm, which of course can be just as triggering for some as racism and ableism. I'd like to think I do a better job of writing self-harm (outside my lane) into Red Rain, neither romanticizing nor condemning it - Laura Lam's complimented me for weaving it into the story, but then she's only read two chapters so far.

It's a shame about the severely problematic undertones, really, because they do have a way of undermining one of the book's central themes. Remember, the negative first impressions of the Shotet come from the first part of the book being 40-50 pages in Akos' POV. Both Akos and Cyra, as part of their character development, have to learn to overcome their differences and their peoples' learned mistrust of each other in order to work together. That thematic element, I think, is the main reason why I don't outright loathe this book. Like Suicide Squad, there's just enough of a good message to keep me from completely, unreservedly condemning Carve the Mark to the Trash Heap of Mediocrity.

All in all, a long, plodding, and ultimately exceedingly disappointing return from Veronica Roth. Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant are still among my favorite books ever, and I'll stan them and their movies forever. (I'm still bummed that Ascendant isn't happening. Fight me on this.) Harry Potter made me a reader, but Divergent, and Veronica Roth having written it instead of doing her homework (kind of like how I'm writing this review instead of doing my homework right now), made me a writer. But hey, this book? I'm flummoxed that the same life-changing author of Divergent and its sequels actually penned it. I trust one day Veronica Roth will return to that level of awesome, but this is not that day.

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