Fantasy in disguise

Fantasy in disguise

Carve the Mark

Veronica Roth
Harper Collins
2017, pp 480
Rs 399

Would you say the setting of a book determines its genre? The two are sometimes used interchangeably — westerns, for example, or science fiction. But genre is also dependent on the plotline of the book and the treatment of its characters. Veronica Roth sets out to mix all these up when she writes Carve the Mark.

Carve the Mark is a sort of futuristic Romeo-and-Juliet story set in a fantasy world with sci-fi trappings. Akos is one of the Thuvhe — a peace-loving people who live in extremely cold climate. Like all Thuvhesit, he hates and fears the warlike Shotet, a race that harbour ambitions of destroying the Thuvhe and conquering the planet they both share. The Shotet are well known for carving a wound onto their arm for every person they kill, as a memento. (Get it? Carve?)

A secret prophecy is made public, which says that Akos’s brother will be an Oracle who can see the future. This prompts Ryzek, the Shotet prince, to kidnap Akos and his brother and keep them imprisoned in his palace. Ryzek’s sister is Cyra, who is given to Akos as a personal slave. Cyra is Ryzek’s right-hand (wo)man in his court, though she doesn’t like him too much.

Oh, also: everyone in this world is gifted a sort of power. Cyra can cause pain with just a touch. Ryzek can exchange memories with others. Akos can suppress others’ powers. The source in all these powers is something called ‘current’, which flows through all things. Current is in fact used to power everything from door locks to spaceships.

In the meantime, Ryzek is using all the means available to him to consolidate his power over his kingdom, and gather enough support to conquer Thuvhe once and for all. Akos struggles to find a way to stop him. But before he can do that, he must rescue his brother, who is being turned into a Shotet loyalist using Ryzek’s power over memories. Cyra, too, is part of this game: she is an instrument of torture of state prisoners, used by Ryzek to terrorise potential dissidents and spies. But she suffers from her pain herself, too. Only Akos’s power of suppression can make her feel normal. As the two are thrown into close contact, they begin to understand that they are both victims of the system. A grudging friendship begins to develop between the two. But can Cyra summon the will to go against her own brother and the kingdom?

The book’s universe seems inspired from multiple sources. The different powers remind you of the mutants in the X-Men. The current is, of course, reminiscent of Star Wars’s ‘the force’. And there are other planets in the solar system which have other civilisations with their own specialities and culture — so, Star Trek. So all of the influences are sci-fi and fantasy. And to give credit to Roth, she merges them all skilfully into a large universe.
But her treatment of the characters heads off in a different direction. Every scene focuses on either Akos or Cyra, the latter’s scenes narrated in first-person. The subtleties of the world concern us only inasmuch as they affect our lead pair. The emotions of the characters take precedence over, say, rebel alliances, or planetary politics. Several scenes are devoted to how terrible Cyra’s gift of pain is, and how strongly Akos wants to save his brother.

This closed, intimate narrative will lose readers who are used to more complex works. World-spanning sci-fi and fantasy stories typically have multiple parallel strands of plot, often moving in dramatically different directions before converging (or not) towards the end. Politics and long-term arcs are standard there. All these are missing here. For all its ambition, Carve the Mark is a teenage romance and plays out like one: initial dislike between the lead pair, resentment for past crimes, grudging respect, companionship, acceptance, friendship, and so on.

I should add that this book is not standalone: it’s the first part in a series. Several plot threads are left hanging at the end, and unless you’re a regular YA Fantasy reader, you’re likely to be annoyed.

If you are one, though — and I stress on the YA more than the fantasy here — you’re likely to enjoy this book, all 460-plus pages of it. The language flows well without too many flourishes. Roth handholds you as you enter the world; the lead characters chat and squabble like typical (Western) teenagers; the action scenes are clear and well-written. The romance arc plays out as expected.

So, a qualified recommendation: did you like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, or Divergent, and also like The Fault in Our Stars? If yes, you will like this one.