The extremely heterosexual anime. Yeah, you know the one. I enjoyed it. Dogkeeper was fucking awesome.
“I feel disgust when I think of how we climb our little hills when the Officials say the word. How we hand over our most precious items at their bidding. How we never, ever fight.”
Matched by Ally Condie starts off with eight full pages before the book technically starts.
The first page is a pretty cool image of our brown-haired heroine clutching her pale green dress while words float around her. They’re the sort of blurbs that are usually on the back of the book, but they’re fine where they are here. Then we get one and a half pages back and front of praise for the book. Cool, go ahead and set my expectations really high. Then we get a snippet of a scene that happens in freaking chapter three of the book. And the way it’s cut just doesn’t work. The writing skips like a scratched CD in its flow and sounds awkward because you can’t just cut out two hefty sentences from a paragraph and expect it to sound okay. Then we move on to title page one, which just says “Matched” in an admittedly cool font toward the bottom of the page. There is nothing else on this page or the one opposite it. Then, immediately after that, is title page number two, which has the book title in larger font and centered with the author’s name above it. This is our proper title page; why bother with the other one? Then we get our copyright information and dedication page. After that comes another bloody title page, the same as the first one. Why?
The point I want to make with all that, right off the bat, is that Matched is a very ambitious work. It takes itself very seriously, and it wants you to know that. I’ll get into whether this works or not later, but for now just now that it doesn’t quite carry the depth it wants to. If it sounds like I’m being harsh, I don’t mean to be.
I feel like I should mention that I read this book continuously for six hours on a plane. My eyes started to burn and I wanted to put it down, but I couldn’t. Not because it’s a page-turner by any means, but because I knew if I stopped at any point I’d never finish.
“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was not the first Dystopian YA book, not by a long shot. So why am I measuring all of these other YA books against it? Why not use something older, like The Giver by Lois Lowry, or, hell, why not measure against Uglies by Scott Westerfield? That series is solidly Young Adult, and in fact came out three years before The Hunger Games.
Because neither The Giver nor Uglies have sold 10 million copies or made $155 million in their opening weekend as an incredibly popular movie adaptation. That certainly doesn’t make The Hunger Games better than either of those two books (popularity does not equal quality, no?) but it does make The Hunger Games more well-known as of right this moment. Time will tell what books end up being the most influential, but for now its pretty easy to see how a behemoth like The Hunger Games started something of a trend.
For the most part I’ll be using TVtropes definitions for things, but in this case I’ll look at a couple sources. A dystopia is basically the opposite of a Utopia, which is a place that is absolutely perfect and everyone is happy. A dystopian setting can take many forms, but is most well-known as a Utopia taken to its logical conclusion, where things look neat and perfect but in reality are not at all. Often times this is done by taking a societal issue today and expanding it as much as possible. For example, if you feel that today’s society idolizes the young, dumb, and pretty too much, you might create a dystopia where everyone is young, dumb, and pretty. And then show why that is bad. In extreme detail.
The genre was kicked off (not born, mind you) with We, a 1921 novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin. While I wasn’t alive in 1921 to know how people felt, it is a pretty common fear to be treated as a number. In We, citizens of a totalitarian police state called “One State” are each assigned a code (the protagonist, for example, is named D-503). They are referred to as numbers and treated as such. A reasonably important part of the book is the idea that anyone can have sex with anyone else. I don’t know that time period very well (Soviet Revolution, right?) but I’m going to assume sex with anyone whenever sounded great. Overall, it questioned what was more important, happiness or individuality. It’s a pretty big question, and one that plenty of other books (dystopian or not) have posed over time.
So, because this probably looks like a wall of text, let’s break down what exactly I’m going to mean when I say “this is dystopia.” For one thing, I’m going by what genre Wikipedia (or Amazon, or the inside of the book’s front cover) tells me something is. If the book claims it’s dystopian, then let’s find out why. What fear or political issue is the book taking to an extreme? What paradise is it deconstructing? But it’s possible that what we’re dealing with isn’t a dystopia at all, but really something more akin to a post-apocalyptic story. I haven’t read all of the books I plan on talking about yet, so I have no idea whether that will happen or not. Should be interesting.
TL;DR: are we looking at a dystopian society, or merely a depressing one?
A couple years ago, in the wake of the Twilight monstrosities, there was a huge surge in the amount of paranormal romance books in the Young Adult section. This made sense because Twilight was a real behemoth with a massive fanbase that would eat up anything remotely vampire-related. It saw the establishment of series like House of Night, Vampire Academy, and Evermore. I only know this from passing by the YA rack in Barnes and Noble on my way to the Science Fiction section, certainly not because I was an avid reader of sexy tantalizing paranormal romance books that catered specifically to lonely people who thought they were too smart for friends. I’m just a good observer, is all.
However, I have taken an interest in the newer trend hitting the Young Adult racks -dystopian series that always follow very specific patterns in their delivery. I realize I’m pretty behind the times here, but it was only recently that I decided to put my three-year-old gift cards to use and actually purchase some of these sure-to-be-classics. After a quick read-through of a few of these novels (and in some cases just the blurbs on the inside cover) I’ve realized there are quite a few obvious patterns showing up in each of them.
Before I divulge my findings, let me quickly get to the heart of this matter: uh, yeah, The Hunger Games. If you didn’t find this from The Hunger Games tag I put, then you probably assumed that’s what this whole post was about. Congratulations! You’re half-right. I’d like to take a bit of your time to discuss this recent trend in YA. Obviously, The Hunger Games is a huge part, so that will more or less be the benchmark for the other books I discuss. Not because it introduced new concepts to the YA section, but because it popularized these concepts beyond belief. Whether you liked The Hunger Games or not, it’s really not fair to say it hasn’t influenced this trend in a massive way.
I plan on discussing quite a few of these books. I’ll try not to put too many spoilers, but you never know. I doubt many people will read this anyway.
I will look at these books in a couple different ways.
1. Writing: mainly, can the author write? I’m just a random person on the internet -I don’t exactly have a degree in Language Arts- so this section should really be taken with a grain of salt. Is the author showing or telling? Do they repeat words often? Do they use the same phrases to describe the same things over and over again? This is a pretty simple section, too. If the writing is purply I’ll point it out, but from what I’ve seen most of these authors are pretty capable. I’ll also make a note of strange conventions, like if an author loves semicolons or never uses quotation marks.
2. How dystopian is it? This requires a whole different post to adequately describe what I mean here, but basically what this section is looking for is how closely it follows standard “dystopian” tropes. It’s not unusual for a book to be pegged as a certain genre and actually have very little to do with it. So, in a way, what I want to know here is if the setting is actually dystopian.
3. How is our plot? Since I’ll mainly be looking at the first books in a series, one pattern we’ll probably see often is the “training plot,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Our hero(ine) isn’t tough enough! Make her stronger! So most of our plots will be more like introductions to the series than proper, rise-and-fall arcs. Still, is the story coming along nicely? Does it meander a lot? Do we actually care about what happens to this world and its characters?
4. How are our characters? We’ll talk a little about “likeability,” and of course try to spot the (not so) elusive Mary-Sue. We probably won’t focus on more than two or three characters, for fear of the post being ridiculously long.
5. How “trendy” is it? This is basically the whole point of the review/post. Does the book follow the patterns other recent Dystopian YA books have? The specific patterns I’m looking for are as follows:
6. What are the implications, or what is the message? What is this book trying to tell us? What is the underlying theme or moral?
This is just a pretty basic list. If I find other common patterns I’ll, of course, point them out. They won’t all fit everything, but most of them will likely fit most things.
Along the way I’ll make some sidenotes, where I focus on a specific book or short story that did not come in the wake of The Hunger Games, but perhaps might have influenced it. Yes, that’s where I’ll get to Battle Royale, which apparently must be brought up in any online discussion about The Hunger Games.
Please, please keep in mind that this is all just my random thoughts and observations. I’m writing all this for fun. If I have some typos or errors, eh, whatever. I hope you’ll join me on my journey through Dystopian YA. It should be pretty interesting.