Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Carve the Mark

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. 

Disclaimer. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Star-crossed lovers? Check. Nature versus nurture? Check? Space? Wars? Intergalactic power struggles? Check, check, check! Then why was this book not half as exciting as it should have been? All the ingredients were there, this one just didn't come together for me the way it should have based on what it contained. You know when you're really excited to read a book? You expect it to be great. Your imagination is already spinning all the ways the story could possibly go. You lock the front door, put your phone on silent and start reading. and it quickly becomes clear that the book is not going to live up to your expectations.

I read and enjoyed most of Veronica Roth's Divergant series (as in, I liked the first two, and I don't want to talk about the third one). I wasn't blown away by them, but they were enjoyable enough that I would have picked up another book by the author. In terms of writing style, story ambition and storytelling, Carve the Mark is a definite step up from Divergant. That's not to say that Divergant wasn't good, it just feels like Veronia Roth's writing has matured. The switching povs - from first person for Cyra, the third person for Akos - was a bit jarring at first, but ended up being a nice twist on the usual switching third person or standard first person pov that I'm used to reading in most other books.

That said, despite the first person perspective, I couldn't connect with Cyra as a character, mainly because she was written so inconsistently. It felt like the author wanted her to be too many things, so she came across as more of a charactature than a character. She's supposed to be in constant pain from her currentgift (or drugged up on a nauseatingly strong painkiller), yet no one bests her in a fight. She's supposed to be strong and resilient, yet she's a complete slave to her brother's whims, immediately backtracking every time she stand up for herself and refuses to do as she's told. He tells her to torture and hurt people and, despite showing on one occasion that she can easily turn this "gift" on her brother if he pisses her off, and she just does it. Even if she doesn't believe the victim deserves it, and to the point where the lingering pain she causes leads them to kill themselves. Roth wants her to be a badass with an armful of kills, but seems afraid of going all in and following through on what that would mean, perhaps for fear of making Cyra unlikable. She wants Cyra to be vulnerable and suffering, but doesn't want to get too deep into the harsh reality of what it means to live with a truly debilitating condition. And it's that level of calculated cynicism when writing a character that stops me from reading them as a real person.

Akos fairs better in the story. His hate to love relationship with Cyra was a little by the numbers, but he was a much more believable character because he didn't suffer from the same "woe is me" backstory that Cyra was hobbled by. I liked that he wasn't a flawless, alpha-male, sweep-in-and-show-the-protagonist-that-all-she-really-need-is-a-man-to-sort-out-her-life, type of character. Instead, what we get it two flawed individuals who ultimately believe that they can be better than they are, and support each other to get there. No one is picking anyone up off the floor here, they're helping each other to stand up, and that element of the story, I was down with. I've never been a fan of stories where the supposedly strong female lead character is, despite what the author tries to tell you, ultimately rescued by the love interest, or simply swaps one guy for another as a means of clumsily demonstrating character development.
I think my main issue with this story however, was just that it never felt like the galaxy-spanning space adventure that it sold itself to be. This should have been YA Star Wars, but everything feels so oddly contained. At one point, Cyra says "this is a war" to Akos. But the problem is, it never feels like it is. The stakes never feel that high. The world - spanning entire planets - never feels that vast. Ryzek - the big bad of the story, never feels like a credible threat. It's all very well humanising your villains, but Ryzek comes across as a weasely coward, with no presence or charisma to speak of. I just couldn't believe that this man was the leader of such a fearsome people, much less that he had the Svengali-esque influence needed to rally support and overthrough governments.
There's been a lot of talk online about the racial undertones of this book, and whether it perpetuates the lazy and incredibly damaging stereotype of the dark-skinned aggressors. This is always a thorny subject, especially in a genre that's literally crying out for diversity (check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). When you read the first few chapters of this book with that in your mind, the peaceful, light-skinned Thuve people being constantly hounded and harassed by the decidedly darker-skinned Shotet does read a little awkwardly to say the least. Add in the Shotet's brutal nature - right there in the book blurb - grass skirts, face painting and tribal "kill" tattoos, and you find yourself wondering how this issue wasn't picked up by somebody, anybody, involved in bringing this book to publication.

However, I still accepted a review copy of this book, wanting to make up my own mind rather than dismissing it entirely based on other people's opinions. Did I see where people who suggested this were coming from? Yes. Would I have read it in the story had I not seen it suggested before? Probably not. There's certainly a vein of cultural supremacy at the beginning of the book that plays the more "western" culture/people/character as the good guy - something that's depressingly common in YA - but I have to admit, I wasn't absorbed enough in the book to read it this way as the story went on. I just wasn't envisioning the characters and the world the way I do when I'm really swept away by a story. Had I been, I may well have seen this as more problematic. The thing is, I do genuinely believe that the stereotyping here was unintentional, and, frustratingly, is something that could have easily been identified and remedied before this book made it to the shelves.

Ultimately, this was one of those reads for me where the sum of its parts was greater than it's total. All my "must read" boxes were ticked, but Carve the Mark just didn't grab me and the ending annoyed me more than it intrigued me. The story was wrapping up, and then there is quite literally a single sentence ending the book which dumps a completely random plot twist in out of absolutely nowhere, and further undermines an already pretty weak villain. All that said, I get why some people are raving about this book, just as I get why some people are ripping it to shreds. It has all the elements of a YA fantasy must read, and perhaps that's why it wasn't for me. I prefer stories that cover a few bases and cover them well to stories than try and cover all the bases and stretch themselves too thin.


  1. This is a book I actually never wanted to read and that's more justified after seeing some reviews for it. Great review!

    Carrie @ The Butterfly Reader

    1. Thanks Carrie! I probably would have actually bought a copy, even after the reviews I'd read, because the blurb made it sound like my kind of thing, but it just didn't come together. And, having read other people's reviews, I'm genuinely amazed that the issues around race and disability weren't picked up and addressed before the book was published.