*A spoiler-free review of Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth. Yes, that Veronica Roth. I will talk about the controversy surrounding this novel as well, but not until the end. Stay tuned.
Are you a fan of young adult novels?
If so, then check this out:
Imagine you’re royalty. You are the princess of a proud people who are guided by centuries’ old traditions. Your position affords you respect, deference, power, and plenty of food to eat and medicine to heal your bumps and bruises on a world and in a land where that isn’t easy to come by. You’ve got it good.
Except being part of your family is more like living in a Stephen King novel—hello, psychological warfare.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot to mention: Your people are looked down upon by the entire galaxy of planet nations. And you’re almost always on the brink of war with the other people who share the planet you’re on.
Sounds like a heap of fun to be princess, doesn’t it?
Cyra is the princess, and she lives in a galaxy where people have “currentgifts” that give them special abilities. These currentgifts are celebrated and viewed as blessings. Cyra is “blessed” with a currentgift that is a lot less “I’m so thankful for this blessing” and a lot more “someone please make it stop.” Her currentgift is channeling the current (an energy force throughout the galaxy), but it causes her pain. So she is a chronic pain sufferer, and her gift is a curse. She can also cause others pain with just a touch.
Her brother, the ruling monarch, is everything you’d imagine from an evil dictator who prefers to be feared rather than loved. He manipulates and abuses everyone around him—including Cyra. He uses her as a weapon against those he wishes to inflict pain upon. He takes away her autonomy and discards her when she doesn’t suit his purposes. He prefers to drag her out for show-and-tell to intimidate and interrogate his enemies.
Cyra’s view and sense of her self and self-worth are fundamentally broken. Aside from the psychological abuse she’s suffered and the chronic pain she has to contend with, there is something more about her that is holding her back. Lucky for us, we eventually learn her secret.
She is selfless and brave, broken and resilient.
Enter Akos Kereseth
Akos is the son of a prominent Thuvhe leader. The Thuvhe are the other race of people who live on the same planet as the Shotet, Cyra’s people. Essentially, Cyra is considered to be from the “wrong” side of the planet, and even that is too simplistic of an explanation but I’m avoiding giving away too many details. And Akos is of the Thuvhe, a people who both fear and generally hate Cyra’s people.
Yes, this novel does clearly depict racism. More on that later.
Cyra’s brother and the ruler of the Shotet people ordered Akos and his brother to be kidnapped. And kidnapped they were in a heart-wrenching blood bath. Let’s just say their living room floor will never be the same. And neither will Akos nor his brother.
Akos is a fighter. He’s not giving up anytime soon, and he keeps growing and meeting the challenges before him head-on.
Akos and Cyra are pushed together—neither happy about it, of course—through circumstances out of their control (because really, nothing much is within their control at this point). Akos is fighting for his life and that of his brother’s, trying to defy his fate, and utterly alone in every pursuit. It takes quite a bit of time before he realizes Cyra is also fighting for survival, and she might not be the monster everyone has been made to believe.
And what would be the point of reading about a budding friendship if a growing rebellion wasn’t also in the works, eh?
There is a grassroots rebellion blossoming with the goal being to unseat Ryzek Noavek, Cyra’s brother.
My Take on the YA Novel
Veronica Roth built worlds, people, and layers on layers of culture complete with a complex, galaxy-sized political system that would make an interesting study for any political science geek. It’s clear to me that she borrowed from our reality (again, more on that later).
Her characters felt developed and real. There was one in particular who was so frustratingly flawed (you know, like you wanted to just shake them and ask, “What are you thinking?!”) that I found myself putting the book down in anger at the character at one point.
There is a scene in particular that made me want to yell at Roth a little, and I had to walk away from the book for a moment. Not because of something Roth did incorrectly or executed poorly, but because it mirrored an aspect of our reality so much that it triggered my outrage.
Roth presented a diverse cast of characters with a wide range of emotional motivation, values, traditions, and beliefs, and she effectively erased the line between right and wrong casting a permanent haze of gray over the entire story (and that gray cloud intensifies in book two, The Fates Divide).
Do I recommend it?
Mhm, yes I do, to mature readers. If you like dark YA novels, give this one a try. It’s not a typical YA, though, and it shouldn’t be treated like one.
Roth breaks a lot of “rules,” for lack of a better word, and this novel is a YA and sci-fi and fantasy and space opera and social fiction novel while simultaneously being none of these things.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of Cyra Noavek and the third-person perspective of Akos Kereseth. These differing views are separated by chapter and clearly marked at the beginning of each chapter.
Unfortunately, her development of the cultures of the Thuvhe and the Shotet felt a bit info-dumpy at times. But much of it was necessary to paint a picture—a very gray picture, that is.
People are rarely ever simply good or bad, righteous or evil.
And this story with these carefully developed characters illustrates that beautifully.
Pros and Cons
The things I liked least about the book:
The beginning was slow and hard to slog through.
The pacing was off which took me out of the story and reminded me I’m reading a book. A book I now have to work at to fall back into the lives of the characters who I had just been immersed in until I was rudely interrupted.
The thing I liked most about the book:
The characters, of course! Otherwise, I wouldn’t have kept reading.
There’s a rather large number of people that are all vital to the story. Roth did a pretty good job juggling all of these people. The characters I felt were underdeveloped or underutilized don’t get their moments to shine until the next book.
Is this story right for you?
I don’t know, is it? There’s a couple of unexpected twists. One should have been apparent, but I didn’t see it coming. Roth gave us hints throughout the entire book, but I still didn’t believe it (and I continued to not believe it until book two). Aside from that, there is also:
- Blood, violence, and danger
- Sexual situations (these are not blow-by-blow explicit)
- Young love
- A kick-some-butt characterization
- Strong women
- Psychological abuse and manipulation
- Dysfunctional families
For parents: This is definitely not a book I would share with my daughter (she’s 11 at the time I’m writing this). I would save it for an older, almost-adult teen.
About the self-harm: The Shotet people are a warrior race of people (think Klingon, for my Star Trek friends) who value and reward strength, agility, and to some degree violence. Many Shotet have killed, and they honor those kills by marking their arms to record the life they’ve taken. They do this by cutting their skin and adding a pigment of some kind.
This carving of the mark to represent a death the recipient is responsible for is ritualized and part of the Shotet people’s belief system. I can see why some are saying that the scenes in which this occurs are promoting self-harm as a means of catharsis. So proceed with caution with impressionable readers and those who have a history of self-harm.
What’s all the controversy about?
If you look at online reviews on Goodreads for this YA novel, you’ll discover a lot of venom has been directed at Roth.
For example, here’s a small excerpt from a 1.5-star review from Goodreads’ user Emily May:
“Having a violently savage race vs. a gentle race without it being adequately addressed is arguably always problematic; it arguable always has troubling real-world connotations.”
And more from Emer who gave the novel one star:
“Oh dear!! Where do I start?????
Racial stereotyping and cultural misappropriations.
Unflagged trigger warnings.
And a romanticised depiction of chronic pain (something that is very personal to me).”
And one more from ambsreads:
“The cover itself is a representation of self harm. … On top of all this, there are racist stereotypes and ableist attitudes all through this book.”
This sounds like a really offensive book, right?
It does if you’re only reading reviews such as these.
“I’d like to put a disclaimer for all the controversy surrounding this novel. I read this before anyone and didn’t see the underlying issues everyone saw with the story … I did still adore this story … but I don’t want to offend anyone by liking this book.” — Chelsea, Goodreads
I read these reviews after I had already written mine. Once I saw these, I began to feel the same way as Chelsea. Am I so blind to the struggle of others that I cannot see the harm this book has the potential to cause?
After consideration, my answer ultimately is that we cannot stop telling stories that contain echoes of our own reality within them.
This book is flawed, for sure. It’s ambitious and filled with pieces I’m sure her editor tried to smooth out. But it isn’t flawed because it includes true-to-life issues.
There is a danger in effectively telling authors, “You cannot create fictional cultures that are similar to ours in reality. In your made-up world, depict cultures without the problems we face in reality.”
Ableism, racism, misogyny, nationalism, victim blaming—these are all present throughout this novel. Roth has woven elements of the faults of our society into her fictional society as well. And the presence of those issues influence every aspect of the story, including the way in which the characters see themselves as well as each other. Which is what happens in reality, isn’t it?
By depicting a galaxy that is fundamentally racist, Roth has (through one of her plot twists) highlighted the absurdity of racism against the Shotet.
By depicting ableism through calling Cyra’s currentgift a “gift,” Roth has highlighted the absurdity of this ableist idea for this character.
By including these themes, she is highlighting the wrongness of each school of thought.
How do we grow as a society if we cannot create works of art and fiction that draw attention to the growth we still need to achieve?
If you’d like to read what Veronica Roth has to say about the controversy, you can take a look at her own words on her Tumblr page.
After speaking with other authors about this book, I’m even less sure of my characterization of Roth’s novel. But how I now feel about the racial and ableist themes of Carve the Mark are this: Roth’s approach was clumsy, and because it was clumsy it lacks real impact.