Book Reviews

Book Review: Carve the Mark (Carve the Mark #1), by Veronica Roth

Carve the Mark (Carve the Mark #1)

By: Veronica Roth

Published: January 17, 2017

The Rundown: “Cyra is the sister of a 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 the son of a farmer and an oracle from the frozen nation-planet of Thuvhe.  Protected by his unusual currentgift, Akos is generous in spirit, and his loyalty to his family is limitless.  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.  Then Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, and the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable.  Will they help each other survive, or will they destroy one another?”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: You may have noticed that I did not include an image of the cover above my review.  This is because the cover of Carve the Mark is goddamn triggering.  It features a background of blue skin with three cuts oozing gold blood.  It’s pretty, and stylized, and tasteless.  When the publisher commissioned the cover art, did they specify that they wanted it to be horrifying?  Did they not realize that someone with a history of self-harm might react negatively to images of cut and bloodied skin?  Will the cover of the sequel be someone being violently raped?  I mean, the hell?

What a Wonderful World: So there’s a war going on—sort of – between two factions, the “savage” Shotet and the “gentle” Thuvhesits.  In this sorta kinda space opera, the two cultures share a planet.  The Shotet periodically send soldiers into Thuvhe territory and kidnap people.  They’re so savage, they carve a line into their left forearm for every person they kill.  If you don’t have a scarred arm, then you’re useless.  ‘Cause they’re supposed to be savage.

Also, everyone has X-men powers, for reasons.

The Good Guy: Cyra is the sister of Ryzek, who’s king? chancellor? emperor? (they don’t mention a title) of the Shotet.  Thanks to her brother’s propaganda, everyone views her as a merciless killer.  Not without reason; she tortures people to insanity by touching them.  But there’s more to Cyra.  Deep down, she’s a big ol’ softy.  In fact, we’re shown nothing but her soft side.  She’s constantly in pain, she hates hurting people, she wants to help the poor, and so forth.  She’s described as a “blade,” but there’s no sharpness to her, no bite.  This makes Akos’s “redemption” of her at the end anticlimactic, and, frankly, disingenuous.

The Bad Guy: Ryzek, president of the Shotet, is not a very good leader.  He plays the part of the cocky, brash prime minister, but at heart he’s a coward.  When someone needs to be tortured or executed, he hands the job off to someone else, usually Cyra.  On the few occasions where he has to do something awful himself, he forces the memory into someone else.  This is Ryzek’s power: the ability to swap memories.  It stems from the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and his desire to forget about it.  In the hands of a more skilled writer, this character could be really interesting.

The Guy in the Good Guy’s Bed: Dear lord, is Akos boring.  His main attribute is his compassion.  He’s the only person to see the good in Cyra.  He’s desperate to save his brother Eijeh from the Shotet, holding out hope even as Eijeh slowly becomes corrupted.  Akos is one of those people you describe as “nice,” because they have literally no interesting attributes.

High on Hushflower: The first couple of chapters are just an exposition dump about the world, but once you get past that, the universe of Carve the Mark is actually pretty cool.  Its mash-up of high- and low-tech, science and magic, is endearing.  It reminded me of the universe in the graphic novel Saga, except Saga doesn’t suck.

Flaying: In this book, members of important families get “fates,” which are just prophecies about them.  Early in the book, the fates of the central characters are released by the government and made common knowledge.  Here’s the problem: the characters only act on this information when it’s convenient to the plot.  For example, Ryzek kidnaps Eijeh, because he’s going to be an oracle, and Akos, because he’s fated to die serving the Shotet.   This makes sense.  Later, Cyra tries to assassinate Ryzek.  Now, Ryzek has been fated to fall at the hands of house Benesit.  During the assassination attempt, she does not attempt to include a member of the house.  Because his fate hasn’t occurred yet, and the murder doesn’t include help from Benesit, the reader knows Ryzek can’t be killed.  In a world where fates are a thing, Cyra should know that as well.  And yet…

Does it Represent…

Women: Just because a work is written by a female author and features female characters doesn’t mean it is good in its representation of women.  Carve the Mark lost any feminist credibility when the love interest’s mother casually makes a rape joke in the first chapter.  It’s even more galling considering that Ryzek does the fantasy equivalent of rape to Cyra when she’s a child, which triggers her painful currentgift.  You see, Cyra is so afraid of being touched, especially by Ryzek, that she instinctively causes pain to anyone who comes into contact with her.  In a book that deals with this, why would you joke about rape?

People of Color: There’s been a lot of outrage about the racial implications of Carve the Mark.  One of the most common complaints is it pits a ‘good’ group, coded white, against a ‘bad’ group, coded black.  This isn’t quite accurate: while Cyra and her mother are coded black, there are also several blond-haired, blue-eyed Shotet running around.  I got the impression that Thuvhesit and Shotet were less like races and more like cultures.  Nevertheless, it’s never a good idea to write a story pitting a “noble” group against a “savage” group.  There’s also some weirdness about Cyra’s natural hair.  When she first goes out into society, Cyra’s mother has her style it in braids, because she doesn’t want people to think her “uncultured.”  Given all the politics surrounding natural hair, I have no idea why Roth decided to include that line in the novel.

The most offensive part of Carve the Mark was its appropriation of scarification.  In cultures that practice scarification, it is done for religious reasons.  In Carve the Mark, it’s done to show off how many people a person has killed.  Cyra has a little speech about how it’s actually a mark of loss, but come on; they’re referred to as kill marks.  Ryzek even tries to make himself seem tougher by cutting himself for every execution he’s ordered, when he’s only supposed to mark people he killed directly.  Look: if you’re going to borrow elements from indigenous cultures, you need to be very careful to do it with respect.  This book isn’t respectful in the slightest.

LGBT People: Akos’s sister, Cisi, is in love with the female chancellor of Thuvhe.  Cyra’s male cousin has a husband.  LGBT characters aren’t given a prominent role in the story, but homosexuality seems universally accepted in the worlds of Carve the Mark.

The Disabled: Cyra’s currentgift causes her chronic pain.  Roth’s descriptions of this pain are inconsistent.  For example, due to her pain, Cyra wears loose-fitting clothing and doesn’t bother styling her hair.  Even simple tasks take twice as long to complete.  But she also spends a good chunk of her time in the gym, doing intensive combat training.  Huh?

Okay, I get that people who suffer chronic pain don’t spend all day, every day, in bed.  On good days, maybe Cyra does make it to the gym.  But the way her pain is described, on most days she would be incapable of intense physical activity.  But we can’t have a tough female character without making her a warrior queen, so…

Also, there’s an icky bit toward the end of the novel where Cyra comes to accept her pain as a gift.  She says, “the gift is the strength the curse has given me… I can bear it.  I can bear pain.  I can bear anything.”  This is melodramatic, infantile, and insulting.  Pain isn’t something to treasure.  It isn’t a learning experience for abled people.  It just sucks.

Memorable Quote: “You want to see people as extremes.  Bad or good, trustworthy or not.  I understand.  It’s easier that way.  But that isn’t how people work.”

Recommended for: Nobody.  This book is culturally insensitive, patronizing towards disabled people, and has weird messages about rape.  Furthermore, it is poorly written, with an exposition dump at the start and virtually no plot.  If it weren’t for all the outrage, this book would have attracted no attention whatsoever.  It’s just boring.

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Carve the Mark (Carve the Mark #1), by Veronica Roth

  1. One other thing I’ve seen about the POC rep is that it uses an old trope of one POC “rising above her nature” to be the hero. Cyra is “better than” the savagery of her people, who are mostly POC. It allows the portrayal of the book’s main characters of color as brutish and it’s an old, racist idea.

    Liked by 1 person

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