Author: Veronica Roth

Since 2011, Veronica Roth has been a single-franchise name. From the core Divergent trilogy and Four’s short story collection, to the accompanying movies/TV-show-whatever-it-is, she’s been deeply entrenched in the dystopian Chicago that put her name on the YA map. Carve the Mark represents her first major work that is wholly separate from the Divergent world and, as with any artistic venture that follow a mega-franchise, the big question is…does it measure up?

My thought? Mmmmmostly.

Carve the Mark represents an ambitious break from Divergent, which is easily lampooned for being drawn from the same post-apocalyptic dystopian America vein as series (usually trilogies!) like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Selection, The Darkest Minds, Shatter Me, Legend, Delirium, Matched, Uglies, The 5th Wave, do I really need to keep going? And before you lampoon me, please realize that just because I can recognize the cookie-cutter traits of LOTS of YA books doesn’t mean I don’t devour them like a starving man. Because I do.

Not only does Carve the Mark not take place on Earth, it’s not even the same solar system. Roth has created a whole new set of planets, each with their own extreme environment lest we think she’s not going in whole hog. But don’t worry – there’s really only one you need to worry about, and that’s Thuve. It’s icy.

Thuve is home to Akos and Cyra. Akos lives in the frozen north, where nobody goes out looking any less bundled than this:

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His mother is one of Thuve’s oracles, tasked with monitoring the ever-shifting possible futures and detecting Fate-favored individuals – people that have an event that occurs in every single one of their potential futures.

Cyra Noavek is part of the Shotet people, who live on Thuve but want to claim the planet for themselves and get rid of all those nasty peaceful Thuvesits. Her brother Ryzek is the sovereign Shotet leader, though the term “conniving brutal dictator” can also be used. When Akos and his brother are kidnapped and taken to the Noavek stronghold as part of Ryzek’s grand plan to become king of the world, he and Cyra and thrown together in an unwilling partnership that is largely centered around them trying to not punch each other in the face.

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Well maybe there’s a little bit more to it than that. If this review seems like it’s really heavy on the world-building, there’s a simple explanation for that: Carve the Mark is really heavy on the world-building. With entirely imaginary planets, religions, languages, plants and the Force ahem I mean the Current to introduce, it takes about a third of the book for things to start rolling along of their own volition.

Now, about the Current. It’s basically the Force, but visible, and everybody gets powers. Think “magic-granting Aurora Borealis” and you won’t be far off.

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But unlike Jedi powers, everyone in Carve the Mark has a unique ability. It’s these currentgifts, combined with the notion of Fates, that drive the plot of Carve the Mark. Cyra’s currentgift allows her to inflict unbearable pain through touch, making her a particularly useful tool for Ryzek to wield. Unfortunately, it has the nasty side effect of inflicting Cyra herself with chronic pain, which is where Akos comes in. Akos blocks the current, which means he can help Cyra manage her pain through super awkward hand holding as ordered by Ryzek.

Carve the Mark is all about power struggles – sibling to sibling, race to race, planet to planet. The characters’ constant maneuvering to gain an advantage is one of the most interesting things about this book, since none of them can get what they want on their own. Ryzek wants to maintain an iron hold on his people but abhors the notion of pain, so he twists Cyra into inflicting it for him. Cyra knows Akos’s presence is her best pain relief, but her desire for self-sufficiency make her reluctant to accept his aid. Akos wants to survive captivity long enough to break out with his brother, but his quiet upbringing is ill-suited to living among an aggressive, power-hungry people. And the Fates hang over them all, foreboding and unchangeable pronunciations that haunt their every step.

Where Carve the Mark really steps up to the plate is in the depth of its issues. Cyra’s chronic pain is the most obvious, and I thought it struck a successful balance between being ableist and downplaying her condition. Her pain physically incapacitates her, and the fact that she passes it on to others through her currentgift severely damages her sense of self-worth. That being said, she isn’t some doe-eyed maiden who throws herself on Akos’ ability to relieve her. She makes herself as strong as possible, lest people forget that a vulnerable body does not indicate a vulnerable spirit.

The notion of how memory forms a person is another key point. Ryzek’s currentgift allows him to trade memories with people, so he plants his worst memories of his cruel father into others in exchange for more placid ones.But can ridding himself of past scars really change who he is, and can falsely implanted memories twist an innocent into something unnatural? Questions like these are clearly meant to be further developed in following books. Unlike a lot of YA dictator types, Ryzek is absolutely not a sadist. You feel regret for his supremely unhappy upbringing, and wonder what he might have been under different circumstances, but it in no way excuses the choices he makes – especially when other people choose to break free of what the world has pigeonholed them into.

While it’s slow to start, by the end Carve the Mark has set up broad interpersonal and cultural battles that promise plenty of future tension between old enemies and unexpected allies. There’s a nice blend of supporting characters that have plenty of room to grow into the spotlight, and lots of fascinating planets that we have yet to see. I hope Roth takes us to a least a few of them, because the cover of this book has a swag map of the universe imprinted under the dust jacket. Very fancy.

Overall, I liked Carve the Mark, but based on how much I liked the Divergent series (yes, even Allegiant), it wasn’t as exceptional as I was expecting. To give that some context, a casual re-read of Divergent kept me up until 2am,* so that’s a pretty tough act to follow. Carve the Mark is good, but it didn’t completely sink its claws into me to the point where I couldn’t put it down. I think the next book will have a distinct advantage over this one, since readers won’t be coming into a fresh new world that needs explained from the ground up. I’ll definitely be back for #2, whenever that is, and hope that it takes the best of Carve the Mark and makes it even better.

* Though by 2am, I think that no longer qualifies as casual.

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