Published by HarperCollins on January 17th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction, General, Fantasy, Epic, Romance
Fans of Star Wars and Divergent will revel in internationally bestselling author Veronica Roth’s stunning new science-fiction fantasy series.
On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?
Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.
Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another.
Warning: This review contains spoilers for the book as well as discussion of self-harm, scarification, chronic pain and violence.
There are certain issues I will not be able to discuss with the required authority when reviewing this book. Many before me in the recent weeks prior to the release of this book have analysed at length the questionable racial and ableist content of this book. I direct you towards Justina Ireland’s blog post on the novel as well as Jenny Trout’s post on chronic pain as plot device and a variety of Twitter users who have been vocal on this element of Carve The Mark and the fallout from the Roth interview with NPR. Their voices are crucial and the most in need of amplification on these complex issues.
Let’s talk about marketing.
Carve The Mark, the first in a planned duology from best-selling YA author of the Divergent series Veronica Roth, comes with a level of publicity that few books receive nowadays. On top of a national media campaign and multi-city US tour, the book has received extensive coverage across the internet, blogger events, social media and school and library media. The key selling points of the novel as listed on Edelweiss focus on Roth’s work’s incredible sales – over 35m worldwide – the appeal of the Divergent series’ “universal themes and gender equality”, and the world-building, particularly the concept of “currentgifts”. In the context of Carve The Mark, where an all-powerful force flows through the universe and all life within, these “gifts” are unique abilities drawn from the Current that define the characters in a variety of ways. Much in the same manner Divergent‘s incredibly savvy marketing relied on potential readers grouping themselves into one of the series’ defining factions (similar to the districts of The Hunger Games but with a more personality driven aspect like the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter), Carve The Mark‘s selling point focuses on how “the curentgifts… will have readers asking themselves—and one another—“What kind of currentgift would you have?””
It’s a clever strategy – and Epic Reads, who have been part of the publicity blitz – created a quiz for readers to figure out what their currentgift would be. It all seems relatively innocuous until you actually read the book, wherein the protagonist Cyra’s “gift” is chronic pain she endures every moment of her life, and can use as a weapon to hurt others.
Wouldn’t we all love that gift?
I prefaced my review of Carve The Mark with the context of the novel’s detailed publicity campaign because I think it’s important to talk about the myriad of reasons this novel is a catastrophic failure. Everything about it is bad, often in the simplest of ways, and it all boils down to that desperation for a Key Selling Point.
I struggle to describe the plot of the novel because one didn’t really appear until roughly halfway through. A world is introduced – with ambitions of space opera meets political drama – but the unnecessary details overwhelm any defining points and weigh the narrative down to the point where it’s often hard to discern what’s going on. The Current is described in both religious and scientific terms but has little grounding logic behind it. It “gifts” people with certain powers – Cyra’s ability to give out pain, Akos’s ability to stop the flow of Current to others, thus disabling their gift – and is the source of various prophecies given by ordained oracles, thus ensuring something resembling tension, yet it’s empty of threat. Using prophecies to propel your plot opens the door to plot holes and lazy writing if used poorly, which this novel does in spades. It is hard not to think of The Force from the Star Wars series whenever the Current comes up, in all its clumsy terminology. Indeed, much of the novel feels directly inspired by the series, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for how confused the whole affair feels about its own genre. This reader often forgot that the novel was supposed to be science-fiction, as the vocabulary and tropes feel more at home with old school fantasy, but now and then space-ships would be mentioned and that would remind me. Given how much of the book’s publicity centres on selling it as a must-read for Star Wars fans, I can’t help but be curious about this aspect.
As discussed in the opening paragraph, much of Carve The Mark’s release has been mired in controversy, with readers objecting to the racial coding of the Shotet people. Whereas the Thuvhe people – coded as white – are peace loving, loyal and loving to their families, the black coded Shotet people are aggressive, seemingly ruled by violence, their language is described as harsh, they engage in patricide, and force those they kidnap into a life of brutality and slavery. Cyra’s mother is described as having hair so curly that it traps her fingers. They are the brutes and enemies of the other planets. To call this problematic is the least I can do. It’s hard to overlook this coding (although clearly the publishers did), and is made all the more uneasy when combined with the eponymous mark carvings.
In the context of the Shotet culture, their people carve marks onto their arms with a knife whenever they kill someone. These marks are numerous on pretty much every Shotet person encountered in the novel, thus emphasising their “violent nature”. Setting aside the sheer oddness of a major publisher selling their most hyped novel of the year with a title and cover that sells something many will construe as self-harm as glorious and noble, let’s talk about the specific reference point I believe the author was going for.
Scarification was a common practice among many West African tribes. The act was used for a number of reasons: As rite of passage; as a marker of milestones; to emphasise ideas of identity; and as a means of beautification. It was a marker of pride, not shame. To see it applied in Carve The Mark to the black coded people as a means to record a number of kills in order to define them as inherently violent is fetishistic and wildly ignorant. It is this kind of unfortunate racial coding and appropriation of cultures that further reveals Carve The Mark’s numerous failings.
The use of chronic pain as a supernatural power in the novel and the possible ramifications of that characterization have been covered by more knowledgeable people than myself, particularly after an NPR interview Roth gave which many felt used ableist terms and ideas. Within the context of the story, Cyra does struggle sometimes with her pain, using strong medicine to keep it at bay as well as utilizing Akos’s currentgift. There are glimmers of an interesting story here but they’re muddled and applied seemingly only when the story needs to hit a specific beat. We are told of Cyra’s struggling with pain but it is seldom seen in action. The story doesn’t seem to know how to handle what could have been its most nuanced element. This is made all the more jumbled when Cyra’s own mark carving is discussed: Rather than marking herself whenever she kills, she prefers to mark herself whenever she causes pain to someone. The scene where this is revealed positions this act as noble and self-sacrificing. While I cannot conclude with any authority as to whether Roth romanticizes chronic pain, this particular scene does heavily evoke images of suffering as a noble act one must pay penance for. Remember, this “gift” is something the publishers see as a Key Selling Point to potential readers.
There are moments where ideas come close to working – Akos’s brother, a prophesised oracle, has the most interesting arc, but we are given little time to see it develop; the rebellion against Cyra’s maniacal brother has potential but hits too many familiar beats in the little time we get with it for the reader to build a real connection with the hastily conceived ensemble; and the final fifth of the novel builds real stakes for the characters and their worlds but is left to dangle as sequel-bait. Those glimmers fade quickly because everything surrounding them is just so dull.
Carve The Mark is straining to be everything to everyone yet ends up hollow and soulless. It is a novel seemingly comprised of editorial requests yet seems to have been untouched by the editing process. It begs to be unique in its world-building but falls so fast into the most derivative of tropes that parts feel like straight-up copying. It is devoid of any display of technical competence, with clumsy plotting, soporific pacing that only wakes up when it remembers it’s got a sequel coming, perfunctory characterization of an ensemble witnessed in countless sci-fi knock-offs, and dueling narrations nearly identical in style with nothing to separate them. It is staggering to this reader that such a hotly hyped work by an author who has sold over 35m books was allowed to leave the printers in this pathetic state. Being a well written book would not undo the real harm it does in its portrayal of the race and illness issues, but the ineptitude surrounding that only heightens the sheer size of the mess. Popularity does not instantly equate quality, but to see a work surrounded by such anticipation that is lacking in the simplest display of competence is confusing and just a little bit sad.