Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth
Hodder and Stoughton, pb, £7.91
Reviewed by John C. Adams
Veronica Roth is a New York Times bestselling author of young-adult fiction, so when I received my advance-review copy and saw that she had entered the adult fantasy market I couldn’t wait to get started.
As readers, we become incredibly attached to those authors whose work marks our childhood and young-adult years. While I return time and again to my favourite writers in both market segments and still enjoy their work even as a mature adult, there is a particular pleasure in seeing an author produce writing that changes with you as the years pass. This is precisely the gift that Roth’s novel offers her army of loyal fans.
It’s fifteen years since five ordinary teenagers were singled out by a prophecy to challenge the Dark One. In the years that followed, celebrity status attached itself to them unrelentingly and their lives became public property in a way that only the social-media age could make possible. The action begins a decade after their eventual victory, when a member of the Chosen Ones dies.
Sloane has had the hardest time in the intervening ten years. She’s her own woman, in a world that seems uniquely determined to define her in terms of the man in her life (boyfriend Matthew Weekes, also a Chosen One) or in the opinions of male strangers who write newspaper columns about her of the kind that open with the grotesquely offensive observation, ‘I don’t like Sloane Andrews. But I might want to sleep with her’. As a sexual commodity in a world that seeks to control her, Sloane’s perspective on whether she’d want to sleep with that particular journalist is treated as irrelevant.
The existing connection between the surviving Chosen Ones through shared trauma makes for a rich-seam of character backstory, delivered gently and non-intrusively via in-text memories. These contrast jarringly with the unsympathetic and often ill-informed assumptions of others, even experts in their field, which are presented to the reader in the form of meta-documents such as reports, interviews and memos. I liked the way that the novel sensitively explored how trauma unites its sufferers, bonding them in ways that those who have not endured such challenges can never understand. Roth dealt with this in an incredibly humane way.
Meta-material is now frequently utilised in mainstream fiction. It has long been popular in horror and science fiction, although it is used much more sparingly in fantasy where immersion is still central to suspension of disbelief, so genre fiction has a good pedigree when it comes to employing it. From the writing perspective, the articles, comments, official reports and transcripts, produce flawed narrators even when the individual is expressing a supposedly expert opinion. The only people who truly know are those with the lived experience, but their voices are drowned out by official voices regarded as more objective.
Utilising a feminist perspective, the novel also reflects upon what happens if a central woman character eschews the societal expectations of female fragility in the aftermath of facing down real danger. The simple truth is that there is no right way to respond to trauma of the kind that the Chosen Ones survived, and every individual’s response is valid in its own way. I liked and admired Sloane for refusing to bow to pressure to respond in a gendered way. Naturally, the public and the media give her boyfriend, who experienced the same trauma but responded differently, an easy ride.
The transition from young adult to mainstream fiction has been deftly managed by one of the most talented writers around. Readers familiar with Roth’s existing books are likely to experience a comfortable transition in that this novel owes much to the features and tone of young-adult fiction for the backstory, but moves on to consider the consequences of trauma. In doing so, it confidently expands beyond the issues and themes common to that market to embrace the very different concerns of a general adult audience.
A large part of my pleasure in reading this novel came from discovering Roth’s versatility in entering a new segment of the market. The exploration of the nature of a heroine from a feminist perspective, together with the excellent use of meta-material as described above, were the two aspects of this thought-provoking novel I enjoyed the most.
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