Matched, Ally Condie, Dutton/Penguin (2010)
Taking a step back from fantasy and leaping again into the genre of “how many ways can we imagine our future effed up world,” Matched is Dystopia 101. We are set up at the beginning with a perfect Utopian society. Everything bad about humanity has been scientifically engineered to a perfect, methodical pitch. There is no murder, no disease. You are assigned to the job that best matches your skills, and you are assigned—or matched—to the person that best fits both your personality and your physiology so you can produce the most efficient, healthiest babies. Girls grow up looking forward to their matching ceremony, where the Society informs them on a computer screen which boy they’ll spend the rest of their lives with. Yeah. What a dream.
There are a few things about our protagonist, Cassia, however, that make her unique. First, the Society messes up when showing her match, and for the smallest moment, shows her the “wrong” boy before the “right” one. (Intrigue!) And, she had a grandfather that loved poetry.
This may not seem like a big deal, but poetry, like all other art forms, has been destroyed and diminished to the point where only the 100 least-thought-provoking poems remain in existence—your Robert Frosts and snowy woods type of stuff. But before her grandfather dies—on the day that has been perfectly scheduled for him to die by the Society—he slips Cassia an old, forbidden poem, by one Dylan Thomas.
Cassia spends the rest of the book getting to know the “wrong” boy, who is as much of an outcast in the Society as one can be, and learning what it means to not go gentle into that good night. And slowly, the cracks in the Society’s perfect utopian image begin to show.
Matched is not as intense or violent as any of the other books included on this list. In addition, Cassia’s awakening to the wrongs in her society and of the power of her own mind is a more gradual journey than my next book, Divergent, or The Hunger Games, where the protagonists are ready to fight from the first chapter on. But we’re not all Katnisses, and we shouldn’t be, and seeing Cassia’s evolution to this quote is satisfying:
Then, the question I asked myself was: Do I look pretty?
Now the question I ask is: Do I look strong?
Even if Matched isn’t as fast-paced as the other novels, being one of those lover-of-words people, I couldn’t help being charmed by the poetry storyline, the timeless theme of fighting authority not just with your fists but with your mind, with the audacity of written words and daring thoughts. Matched would be a seamless introduction to George Orwell and Ray Bradbury for youth.
Like the rest of these books, Matched is the first in a trilogy; it was followed up with Crossed last year, and the final installment, Reached, will be released in November of this year.
Divergent, Veronica Roth, Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins (2011)
Divergent was voted Goodread.com’s Favorite Book of the Year for 2011, meaning favorite of any book, not just YA. When I finished it a few days ago, I thought, “Whoa.” And I understood why so many readers voted for it. Veronica Roth pulls no punches with getting right to the action in her story, and like The Hunger Games, the action never really stops.
This dystopian world takes place in a future version of Chicago where society is split up into five factions, each faction focusing on one of the qualities society leaders believe are the most important characteristics of humanity. Amity represents peace and kindness; Erudite specializes in intelligence; Candor is committed to honesty; Abnegation stands for selflessness; and Dauntless is for the brave. With each person in society committed to one of the five qualities, the other human characteristics of greed, ignorance, and aggression will be eliminated—or so the philosophy goes.
Our protagonist, Tris, is born into Abnegation. Yet every youth has the opportunity to switch factions when they are 16, after undergoing a mental aptitude test which determines the faction they’re best suited for. Tris’ results are unusual—she’s not fit for one faction, but for three—Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite. This makes her divergent—a word her test administrator reveals to her in a hushed voice, insisting that the truth of this result never be spoken to anyone. Being divergent—being more than one thing—is the most dangerous thing you could be. The possibility of being able to think outside of your one faction, of making decisions for yourself is a threat to society that could get you killed.
When it comes to Tris’ decision, she shocks everyone she grew up with by switching from Abnegation—the selfless, plain-clothed, polite faction—to Dauntless—the wild, tattooed, pierced, reckless one. The next step? Surviving Dauntless initiation. And I mean surviving. The Dauntless compound isn’t exactly the Hunger Games arena, but there are a few initiates that don’t make it an hour before being killed or failing a task and becoming factionless, a fate that’s often viewed as awful as death.
The Dauntless are brave, but they often take courage to ruthless, uncomfortable lengths, twisting the intention of the faction’s original founders. I was as freaked out by them and some of the violent acts they had to carry out as I was by events in The Hunger Games. And while Katniss and Katsa are protagonists who view their violent responsibilities with a type of reluctant acceptance, Tris tries to maintain a moral ground while also relishing in her developing strength, in her ability to surprise those who expect little of her; taking joy, for instance, in getting to beat the daylights out of another girl who was mean to her. In other words, while Dauntless first views her as that small chick from The Boring Faction, they soon learn that Tris don’t play.
While she heeds her test administrator’s advice and keeps her divergency a secret, the skills it gives her allow Tris to discover, as her initiation progresses, the dark rumblings that are afoot between some of the factions. Shockingly, the desire for power and other undesirable human qualities supposedly eliminated by the society are in fact not necessarily squelched by the faction system. These dark rumblings may lead not just to eventual war but to a very real, immediate threat to many people Tris cares about most.
Divergent is complex, thoughtful YA dystopia at its best, and the next installment, Insurgent, comes out on May 1st.
While each of these books features a heterosexual love story (bummer), the distinctive thing is that the love stories aren’t the most important part. While each novel has its own themes and meanings, a dominant point in each one is how strong, intelligent young women can help change their world for the better, often to the point of saving their society from destruction. I’ll take more of that on our school library shelves any day.
And I’ll be waiting in line at midnight on March 23rd for you, Katniss Everdeen.