Tag Archives: dystopias

Common Mistakes YA Dystopian Novels Make

In MY first YA Dytopian novel, animatronic dinosaurs take over and people have to fight the robot dinos to survive. In Space.

I was talking to a friend the other day about all of the recent dystopian novels that have come out and tried to tout themselves as “The Next Hunger Games!” It’s a silly, but understandable marketing tactic, because people are always looking for the next big THING.

The Next Harry Potter or the Next Twilight or whatever THING is going to be the year’s newest break out money-machine. It’s impossible to predict, of course, and the fact that so many dystopian YA novels came out recently is less due to The Hunger Games than weird market trends and coincidence. Besides, the next THING is never the same as the earlier THING (Twilight was not like Harry Potter, really at all).

But it got me thinking about all of the Dystopian Books I’ve read in the last year or so, and why some work better than others. Obviously, this is a list of what didn’t work for me as a reader, and is no way meant to be universal. These are just the same gripes I tend to have with a lot of Dystopian Books (and, sometimes, in the whole YA market). I would love to hear what elements worked or didn’t work for you, especially if any of them are deal breakers.

Book One Lacks An Ending

This is the new biggest sin awful trend in the YA world if you ask me. Not only are lots of books coming out that are super short because they’re the start of a series that could probably be one novel, but they’re coming out with cliff hanger endings that don’t bother to conclude the first part of the story. There’s nothing wrong with leaving some loose ends and unanswered questions, especially in an intended series. I’m talking about books that literally lack an ending. They might as well print the last page with the words “DUN DUN DUN….” It happens a lot in dystopian novels, especially, and this is a problem there for one main reason (besides, you know, the fact that a book has no end):

Leaving dystopian novels with a million questions hanging in the balance creates the feeling of shoddy world building. It doesn’t matter if the author has maps and entire histories for this Awful Future charted out on their wall. When none of the reader’s questions about how, when, why are answered in the first book, it makes the book feel hollow and lacking.

Characters Raised in the Dystopian Society Still Oddly Shocked & Awed By It

This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but it comes up in so many dystopians that it breaks my brain. A character who’s lived their entire life under the Evil Overlord who makes everyone where Pink Sweaters on Tuesdays is not going to be outraged by the fact that mom set out a pink sweater for Tuesday morning. They just won’t.

And yes, anyone might be alarmed when something that happens all of the time to strangers–say, being arrested quietly in the middle of the night–happens to their own friends or family. But when someone is used to drills or spot checks or whatever has a Fit of Righteous Indignation during one of these, I get irked. As a writer, I think what these authors are trying to do is  show what a moral center the character is by detailing their outrage at the Bad Guys. But it often doesn’t jive with how the protagonist should react, at least until they have some larger revelation about the world they live in. Say what you will about Matched, but at least Cassia’s mindset made perfect sense given the world she was raised in.

Alternatively, you have characters who, by all rights, should be extremely genre savvy, like kids who have grown up surrounded by zombies/rebels/robots/random bad future thing and should know how to survive in such situations. Like, it’s probably taught in their schools (if they have schools). But then you end up with characters like Mary, from The Forest of Hands and Teeth, who literally cuddles a zombie baby and then taunts the zombies beyond the fence. TAUNTS THEM. I mean…. I just… That is Too Stupid to Live territory from a girl who knows better because she knows what zombies are and how they happen.

A Love Triangle Romance That’s Wedged in Is Really Not Necessary

I know, I know. Romantic tension is awesome and the love triangle thing has worked so well. But really, if it doesn’t happen naturally as you start drafting your characters, and even if it does, you have to ask yourself if it’s really crucial to the book. Because if no one cares whether Lucy ends up with James or Thomas, but are forced to read pages and pages of Lucy trying to decide whether she likes James’ aloof and quiet demeanor more than Thomas’ quick wit and sexy lips, they will toss the book out the window.

I started this section with love triangles, but really it applies to all romances that feel forced or weird, especially when they come at the expensive of actual plot/interesting things happening around them. I’d really rather read about the Robot Army laying seige to the Dragon Lord’s castle than why Sir Allen has the best hair and tastes like strawberries due to his love of fruit gum.

And I say this as a pathetic, full-on shipping fangirl who will sink with the Good Ship Tamani in the world of Wings before I ever accept David might have been the right dude. I like romance! I even like good love triangles! But not when it feels forced in for the sake of having one.

The World Building Does Not Exist or Makes No Sense

Look, a book set in a future where Alien Unicorns have taken over the world and burned all of our technology except digital watches and make us grow rainbow colored hay to ward off the evil SeaHorses who are allergic to the color red might be the Best New THING to hit book shelves. But if the reader can’t believe how the Alien Unicorns took over without opposable thumbs (let alone built space ships), it won’t work. And yes, that’s a ridiculous example, and this goes back to the first point, but seriously. Leaving the entire world situation vague and unexplained does not make it suspenseful, it makes it frustrating.

Eve does this: a generic “plague” decimates the populous and a strange government with a King of America is set up in under 30 years. Despite the pointless years Eve spends in school (until she’s 18) she never even gives the reader the government’s official version of events, and we’re left wondering what happened. (Maybe Once, its sequel, answers more questions, I haven’t read it yet.)

It also has to make sense. Pledge is set hundreds of years in the future and we’re never given so much as a hint about why the only acceptable government leader is a Queen, or how America became divided by class languages. Even just a few lines about the ancient past of our present day would make the experience so much richer, rather than plunking down the system and saying “Eh! It’s in the future. Who knows how it happened?”

The best books, regardless of genre, have detailed and thoughtful worlds built into them to give the story depth, but it’s so important in a dystopia to show how the world of present day got to The Evil Awful Future.


So now you have some of my thoughts. And I am out of thoughts. Time to watch The Glee Project and see if I can avoid crying when whoever is sent home has to do the Sad Walk Away.


Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Just a warning: because this is the sequel, there are spoilers for the first book, Divergent, in this review. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you do.

How do I even start this? Yes, it was an awesome follow up to Divergent and I continued to love Four, Tris, and even Caleb to some extent. So, when we rejoin our heroes, the Dauntless are divided into two camps: the traitors who are now with the Erudite, and the ones who are really ticked off about how they were used as robotic soldiers in a simulation.

Spoiler free thoughts: I was very happy with it. War is dirty and hard and deadly and I like that Roth does a good job making it realistic. This is especially true in Tris’ case, whose trauma after shooting someone in the last book leaves her unable to hold a gun without vicious flashbacks. She has some serious PTSD and no wonder: she almost died many times, lost loved ones, and killed someone. It’s not an easy thing to recover from.

Four was awesome. I was just as frustrated with Tris plowing head-first into danger time and again as he was, so I related to him and his anger about her carelessness for her own well-being. Team Four, FTW.

It was intense and stressful (in the way that good books are when you care about the characters and their fates are uncertain) but I enjoyed it. I found the reveal at the end pretty predictable pretty much from the get go, but that didn’t bother me because there was enough other plot happening to keep the book engaging.

Very good follow up to a very good novel. I look forward to the final book in this trilogy.

And now! Spoilers! (Including some questions I have.)

Continue reading

Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Right off the bat, I have to say my favorite thing about Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies is that Tally is so normal. So many dystopias feature the special/quirky/unique girl who is immune to whatever or super strong or super smart or super perfect–tee hee–(Eve I’m looking at you). Or they’re chosen by the Evil Government to be part of an experiment (Matched, so far as I can tell). I love Divergent but there are a slew of similar books about how the main girl is a special snowflake (Variant comes to mind) and that’s what causes the downfall of the evil regime or the start of the revolution.

Not Tally. She is literally in the wrong place at the wrong time and winds up being a catalyst of change just because she’s a decent human being who finally learns some of the evil truths about the world she used to believe in.

Uglies is the first in a series about a future in which humans have perfected an operation to make everyone Pretty. It can’t safely be done til the age of 16, so Uglies attend school and bide their time until their magical birthday. After that, they go to live in New Pretty Town, where everyone drinks and parties until they’re assigned a job years down the road. Tally happens to have a late-in-the-year birthday, so she’s one of the last of her class stuck waiting as an Ugly, when she meets Shay, who shares her birthday but not her excitement about the operation.

Shay wants to run away and live in the wilds and stay “ugly” (or “normal”) forever. After Shay vanishes, Tally is brought to Dr. Cable, a scary mean-looking Pretty who wants to find and destroy the outsiders. She sends Tally to find Shay and the others so the government can round them up. Once Tally arrives, however, fellow Uglies start to look.. normal. She likes the people in the camp. All of them work hard. And then there’s David, who isn’t bad looking for an Ugly. She’s forced to decide whether to betray them and turn Pretty or live as an Ugly in the wild forever.

Westerfeld manages to make this future society both appealing (who wouldn’t want to be pretty and free to party your teen years away?) and terrifying. He also gives hints as to what destroyed modern civilization (whose inhabitants are refereed to as “Rusties” for our love of metal and the remains of iron sky scrappers we left behind) without it ever feeling like an info-dump. I’m curious to see what else we learn as the series continues. It’s also nice we get to meet some of the “rebels” and find out where they began and why. Rather than just being told there’s a vague threat of rebellion somewhere yonder. And even better–they’re not even rebels! They’re just trying to live their lives free of the Pretty Surgery and Society’s Control. But of course, no evil government can allow that.

It’s a fast, fun read. The characters are great, as is the world-building. And there are hoverboards. That’s awesome, right? I’ll definitely be finishing this series, asap.

Recommended if: you want a dystopia that manages to make the government evil and scary without taking itself too seriously.

Review: Eve by Anna Carey

Not gonna lie. I picked up Eve by Anna Carey all because of the cover. It’s gorgeous and has what looks like (and turned out to be) The Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily, I enjoyed it. I grew up in South Lake Tahoe, so it was awesome to read a dystopian novel that takes place there for a bit. It was especially fun to see characters try to survive in the forests surrounding the lake, because I could picture it so clearly, having imagined myself trying to do the same a hundred times.

In Eve, America has fallen victim to a plague that lasted for years and killed insane amounts of people suddenly, leaving the government in chaos approximately 20 or so years before. We learn from older people that the New King of America started as a politician who promised to rebuild during the worst of it, before totally taking power, making it frighteningly realistic, especially in the wake of recent “How to Begin a Dystopia” legislation that’s been getting through congress. (I’m not going to get all political, but the first step to a 1984-esque Police State is stripping right away from suspected “terrorists” and legally being able to hold them indefinitely with little or no evidence. /politicizing over)

Eve is about 18 and has just “graduated” her all girl’s school, set up by the New King and organized for orphans of plague. She thinks she’s going onto to a life in a trade. Classmate Arden tells her otherwise and escapes. Eve discovers that all of the graduates will be impregnated artificially and tied to beds to pop out as many children as they can to be sent to the “City of Sand,” the King’s new country. She manages to escape, but troops are sent after her. She finds Arden and they head toward “Califia,” where there’s help for rebels. They stumble upon a camp of boys on the edges of Lake Tahoe, escaped from work camps (where orphan boys are sent instead of schools). Arden gets sick and Eve, despite her education concerning the evils of men and love, falls for a guy named Caleb. But troops are after her, because she was chosen to be the old King’s new bride.

It’s a fast-paced, interesting book. I like to imagine how weird it’d be to wander through abandoned houses and cities after a cataclysmic event, so I enjoyed reading about characters doing the same. I like that we get some history about the plague, since some dystopians take “the event” for granted and don’t go into how things played out. We’re also shown this, in rows of rusted cars in parking lots of looted big box stores. But we don’t get details, or even how the plague was stopped. What romance there is–and it’s not a lot, it’s nicely metered out–is convincing and sweet.

I did have trouble wrapping my brain around the timeline. I realize that something as catastrophic as a plague that kills millions is going to change the world substantially, but it seems almost.. too fast? Even if Eve’s mother died at the tail end of the plague, that means it can’t have started more than 22 years prior, and even that’s a stretch. Yes, lots of government officials died, the world fell into utter chaos with people looting, rioting, trying to escape a disease, but it’s odd that the new government has sprung up so efficiently in a short time. It seems like there would be more factions of rebels and small communities, but then the narrator is a young girl who doesn’t know much about it. She was never given that kind of history, just propaganda, so she can’t tell the reader. If it’s a series (and I believe it is), I hope future books go into more detail about the timeline.

I also didn’t understand the point of creating this elaborate lie about the school system. Keep the girls occupied until it’s time to strap them to the bed and make them push out babies? Sure. But why the lies and intense schooling, if that’s all the girls will be doing. It didn’t quite add up.

Otherwise, I enjoyed it. I liked how all encompassing the government was and how difficult it actually was to escape, rather than Eve simply being able to run to the woods and find safety.

Recommended if: You liked Delirium, Divergent, and other dystopian books.

Review: Legend by Marie Lu

Legend, the debut novel by Marie Lu, has been hyped like crazy, which would normally make me wary. But an early review by The Space Pirate Queen included an interview with Day, the fictional protagonist (as written by Marie Lu) and I just knew I was going to be waving a Day Flag. (Don’t worry, Team Tybalt, you’re still my number one.)

I wasn’t wrong. Day is a flirty, confident troublemaker with a serious Robin Hood complex. He likes to make trouble for the evil government and is their most wanted criminal because they don’t know what he looks like and he evades their intelligence (fans of The Lies of Locke Lamora will appreciate his disguise skills).

In the dystopian world of Legend, plagues keep popping up in the poor neighborhoods, while the rich are automatically vaccinated each year. When Day learns his family’s door has been marked with the “plague house” X, he attempts to steal the cure from a hospital. That altercation is why June, a fifteen year old government prodigy and new detective, is assigned to hunt him down. As she tries to find him and Day tries to save his family, they find themselves in a large conspiracy that’s bigger than either of them thought. And they aren’t necessarily on opposite sides.

I really like Legend. Its premise isn’t wholly unique but the way the story progresses sets it apart from both the story that inspired it (Les Miserables) and all of the other dystopias crowding the shelves right now.* The narration is first person and alternates between June and Day. That same thing drove me bonkers in Crossed, but Lu manages to distingish each character’s voice so there’s no confusion as to who is speaking when you pick it up in the middle of a chapter.

It reads like a tragedy at times, especially when June and Day discuss their pasts and lives without knowing who the other is. Again, a trick that only works when it’s done well, and it is. You can sense the tension that even they themselves can’t sense. It’s heartbreaking. The world building is extensive and no doubt we only got a glimpse of the things Lu will reveal as the series goes on.

Day is a player. Seriously, the guy’s got game. I admit, I swooned a few times. So if there aren’t enough awesome guys in your YA, you need to meet Day. *ahem* Thomas, June’s brother’s friend and fellow soldier, plays the role of Javert, the unquestioning enforcer of his leader’s orders, although unlike Javert, he seems happy to take matters into his own hands when he feels it’s necessary, which makes him scary.

I also like that Lu doesn’t throw punches. The government is evil and militaristic and she’s happy to show it, rather than trying to tell it. It makes for a haunting but realistic story. I’m chomping at the bit for the next book already.

Recommended if: you like dystopias and books about conspiracies that feature realistic characters. Even if you’ve been disappointed by recent dystopias, you should give this once a chance. You won’t regret it. Fans of The Hunger Games and Divergent will probably love this.

*For the record, I dislike how people are ranting about being sick of dystopias. Trends come in waves. Many of the authors who fall into this category didn’t set out to fit into a trend – the timing just worked that way. /rant