Review: Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Reading books is an absorbing experience for me.  I find it very hard, in the middle of reading a new story, to put it down and return to the real world.  Reading new books usually involves sneaking off to my room to avoid interruptions, nights of “just one more chapter” insomnia, and doing all my daily task and human relating through a fog of other-worldliness.

So as much as I love diving into new fiction, I have to pick and choose when is the right time to do it.

Walking through the seaside town of Lorne on holidays, I walked into a bookstall and saw Veronica Roth’s new book “Carve the Mark”.  It had been on a list of “Most anticipated YA books of 2017”.  That was enough for me to get it, and my family had spacey-other world Belinda for the next day and a half.

I had enjoyed Veronica Roth’s first ever novel Divergent, though the subsequent novels in that series had lacked a bit of the originals spark.

But Carve the Mark is a much more complex, clever, and entertaining than her previous books.

Carve the Mark takes place in space, on a series of planets that are part of the “current”.  The “current”, which appears as a visible coloured line in the sky, runs through people and is viewed as almost a spiritual essence.  It can power ships, it can be used in weapons, and it even causes flowers to bloom at the right time.

When every child in the galaxy comes of age they receive a “current” gift, an super-natural ability that comes from the current and continues with them for the rest of their lives.

The book follows two main characters, shy Akos of the Thuvhesit and Cyra of the Shotet.  They are two people groups, living on the same planet, and great enemies.  When Akos and his brother are kidnapped and held captive by the Shotet royal family, these two characters are forced together and must decide if they will remain enemies or will work together.

Cyra’s  current gift that doesn’t feel like a gift at all.  The current exists as pain on her skin, she is in constant agony and whenever she touches a person that pain get’s past on to that person.  This “gift” would be terrible enough fate, but as the sister of the tyrant ruler of the Shotet, her gift is used as a means of control and torture.

But Akos’ own current gift could prove to be the solution she has been craving.

I loved Carve the Mark.  It is such a creative, different world.  The concept of character’s developing magical skills when they come of age is not new in Fantasy stories, but the idea of the current’s role and the sheer scope of unusual manifestations is one of the highlights of the book.

The two main characters come from warring enemies, with negative views of the cultures they have observed from afar.  But as the two observe each other, they see a different side to the culture they have loathed, and to take a more critical eye to their own deep-seated prejudice.

A key example of this is the “mark” in the title.  The Shoet people carve a tattoo to mark every life they have taken.  For Akos with his preconceived notion of this “warrior” race, he viewd this as an aggressive boast.  Yet as time goes on, he learns to appreciate it, as he sees the appropriateness of having a physical and ceremonial acknowledgement of the cost of taking a life.

The highlight for me was the unique cultures of the book, how their histories informed their practices, and particularly how each had such a different take of the role of the current in their lives.  The book has faced some criticism of racism based on some misunderstanding of the basis of the two main races.  Veronica’s response is worth reading not only for her humble, thoughtful reply, but also for the insight into her process of creating the languages of the people.  Her post has helped me think more carefully about the way I create cultures within my own series.

My bug-bare is that while this book is the first in a series, there was no indicator on the book that it wasn’t a stand-alone book.  It is frustrating to get to the last page of a book and say, “Wait a minute, you mean they are not going to resolve that?” The ending would have been much more satisfying if I had been prepared for it.

It is very much a young adult book, filled with teenage hormones and complicated romance.  I found those aspects of the Divergent series not particularly subtly done, and while Carve the Mark was a step up, it still jarred occasionally.  The concept of two enemies learning to respect and then care for each other is not new, but the way Veronica uses their gifts and cultures in their relationship is entertaining and new.

As someone who has friends who struggle with chronic pain conditions, it was helpful to get a window into the life of Cyra and to see the impact of her “gift” on her.  Veronica even acknowledges her friends with chronic pain at the end of the book as the ones who inspired her to write of Cyra.  But I did have some hesitation about this connection.  Chronic pain is a difficult thing for much of the community to grasp.  I worry that some of the story elements of the gift (that it is somehow ‘chosen’ by Cyra and the ‘romantic’ source of relief), makes trite  a very serious and debilitating reality.

If you liked Divergent, or if you just like Young Adult/Teenage books with a little with a fantasy and/or space thrown in, then I recommend Carve the Mark as an entertaining example of the genre, and a very enjoyable way to loose yourself for a few days.