Riding off the success of the “Divergent” trilogy (and sadly not so much from the film adaptations), Veronica Roth returns to young adult literature with a duology that begins with “Carve the Mark”. Before I begin, I should mention that I have read the “Divergent” trilogy (save for “Allegiant” because by “Insurgent” I felt meh), even most of the film series. I find them entertaining for the most part and felt Veronica Roth did a…decent job. The characters were okay, the world was unique and is an average read.
Then “Carve the Mark” came out, and then came this controversy visible on parts of Twitter. Some are calling the book wonderful, others are calling it racist, some are calling it cluttered, and some are trying to either defend Veronica Roth, pan her or both. I’d only just heard about this controversy after beginning to read the book and…yeah there are some things I have to agree with and many things I do not.
So what’s “Carve the Mark”?
In a distant galaxy is a nation-planet in the midst of constant warfare between two different races. There are the Thuvhesits, a peaceful alien people who are nonviolent and prefer peace and harmony. On the other end are the Shotet, a brutal, nomadic culture who desire to have Thuvhe recognized as their new home among an intergalactic organization of planets called the Assembly.
After years (or ‘seasons’ as they’re called on Thuvhe) of conflict and bloodshed, a sudden change of fate occurs when a Thuvhesite boy named Akos Kereseth and his brother Eijeh Kereseth is taken from their homes by Ryzek Noavek, the Shotet people’s tyrannical leader who craves power.
What does the Shotet people want the two brothers though? Well—get this—it is discovered by their ‘fates’ that Akos has an unusual ability called a ‘currentgift’ (think the Force meets the X-gene from “X-Men”) that allows him to quell other currentgifts. Not only that, but Eijeh is discovered to have the potential of being an oracle and see into the future, something that Ryzek wants to exploit in order to lead him and the Shotet into recognition as a legitimate nation in the eyes of the Assembly (and eventually rule Thuvhe).
Our other main character is Ryzek’s little sister named Cyra, whose currentgift of being on constant pain and projecting it onto other makes her a weapon against her older brother’s enemies. After meeting Akos and learning of his desire to save his older brother from Ryzek’s manipulation/torture, both must work together—opposing enemies from opposite cultures—to save themselves and the ones they love. Will they be able to get along and survive with each other help? Can they take down the wrath or Ryzek and keep two warring people from destroying one another in an incoming battle to end all battles?
Is it racist for writing in a trope about dark-skinned alien warriors fighting a peaceful pale-skinned species into a novel?
Okay, why not we talk about the elephant in the room? Regarding the allegations of racism in this mentioned trope, I must mention this is not an editorial. I am not analyzing how Veronica Roth’s use of the trope makes her book potentially racist and I am not dismissing potential racism in literature. The reason I am saying this is because I’m just a simple bookworm who wants give my opinion on fiction, so all this is is a book review, okay? Okay.
However, I am going to keep an open mind on the book. Keep in mind too: white authors writing books with ethnically diverse people as the main characters is nothing new. I mean, remember my reviews of “God of Clay”, “Forest Gods”, “Genius: The Game”, “Everything, Everything”, “The Golem & the Jinni”, “Afterworlds” AND both “Proxy” and “Guardian”? Practically all of them are written by white-American authors, yet all of those listed have an ethnically diverse main character(s) who come from different cultures and backgrounds regardless of skin color.
Back to the review though, does this controversy interfere with liking or enjoying “Carve the Mark” overall? Well, let’s talk about what does work.
I will give Veronica Roth credit for trying something completely different from her usual works. It is interesting to see an author go from a science fiction series involving teenage angst and dystopias to an intergalactic fantasy duology. And based on the beautiful cover, I was expecting something good or decent out of another Veronica Roth novel. For some parts, it works, especially with creating a world where the main protagonists are two alien creatures—humanity isn’t known throughout this fictional world. After reading intergalactic stories involving humans and aliens, it feels refreshing to see a new twist in the genre.
Surprisingly, the lore of the galaxy is unique by my tastes, from the nation-planets that make up the Assembly, the politics that govern them, the history of how the Shotet came to Thuvhe, to the ‘current’. Influenced off the Force from “Star Wars”, the current is different in that it gives everybody in the galaxy an ability that can range from being useless as breathing to being compared to a WMD.
Some of the traditions of each side are fascinating as well. For example, the book’s title of “Carve the Mark” comes from how, in their culture, the Shotet people take a currentblade (why not calling a knife?) and place a visible cut on their arm whenever they take somebody’s life. Whether it be friend or foe, they must do it. Add in some alien wildlife and mentioned architecture, and the setting is rather interesting to read about.
Unfortunately, this is the weakness of the book. Besides the trope mentioned above, “Carve the Mark” has the problem of constantly shifting between too much exposition, too little exposition, long chapters, short chapters, not much character development, rushed character development, and so on. And all of it revolves around how boring the characters are.
Don’t get me wrong: they’re believable and their struggles have potential to be looked into, but I couldn’t identify with Cyra or Akos based on their decisions and (lack thereof in) personality. And they should be interesting, Cyra is a teenage girl whose brother uses her as a tool. There’s a billion different ways to work with this idea, but we’re not given as much depth into her character. We don’t know much about her likes, her dislikes or anything that remotely gives her character. We only know about her relationship with her mother and even that’s not as focused on. Akos and his personality isn’t given much attention as well, and I get that he’s nice with a good heart according to the narration, but there has to be more to him than that.
Ryzek is, in some respects, intimidating in some scenes as a young, inexperienced tyrant with a chilling presence. He’s especially a touch intimidating given his currentgift of being able to forcefully swap memories, which makes it even more heartbreaking how he uses it on his little sister and Eijeh to get what he wants. Outside of that though, he acts less like a leader in control and more like a leader that wants to be in control. He’s basically a watered down version of Ramses from the tale of Moses.
Based on these problems, it feels like “Carve the Mark” is more focused on the world around the characters as opposed to the characters themselves, with the only interesting aspect of this being when our two characters interact with the others’ culture. What the author is doing is like writing an extra 100 pages of “The Hunger Games” to talk about Panem history; it can be welcoming but that’s not what we want to read about! In fact, the more I look at it, “Carve the Mark” spends more pages talking about exposition rather than on the characters interacting.
The main characters seem likeable and could be interesting, but the author’s lack of interest in the characters make them bland and forgettable. And based on what their story arcs are, they shouldn’t be forgettable. There’s so much untapped potential looking to get out, but didn’t. The only character I felt was given a pinch of justice had to be Eijeh, and his struggle with being manipulated under Ryzek’s currentgift. Sort of like watching Laughing Dog manipulate his brother Great Ram in Ryan Campbell’s “Forest Gods“, but with more of a physical than a mental manipulation. Like I said though, it was only a pinch, because what made it work in “Forest Gods” was how Great Ram relied on his little brother to protect their village from dark forces, and didn’t call out on Laughing Dog’s deceit and change of behavior due to not wanting to lose another sibling after their father’s death. With Eijeh’s case though, we are not given much of a base to work off of.
Overall, I can’t say much about how well this book works. It is obvious the morals of “Carve the Mark” are about unity, self-identity and overcoming prejudice between different societies. So, it’d be a huge stretch to say Veronica Roth is racist, but…yeah the problems I’ve been talking about are what actually make the book fall flat. It’s that there are no creative ideas to offer, but instead too many ideas that overshadow what matters.
While Veronica Roth is a talented writer and has good ideas for story, characters and settings, “Carve the Mark” is not one of her best works. The characters aren’t given enough time to focus on, the exposition is too much, the action is slow and predictable. If you’re just looking to read a book that pays homage to “Star Wars” or a novel full of quotes (okay, the quotes in here are actually poignant), you’ll get it here.
But for my case, “Carve the Mark” doesn’t leave a mark on me.
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