Reviewsday: The Dystopian YA Novel

Another book I was never assigned and read outside the context of school.

The dystopian novel seems to be the book du jour, with everyone trying to jump on the coattails of the wildly successful Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. (Remember when the book du jour was vampires? Aren’t you glad those are finally tempering? Yeah, me too.)

Now this is not a new genre. Science fiction (and most of these novels could (and should) definitely be labeled as science fiction) has been exploring dystopian societies since the genre was invented with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In fact, a lot of these books are often assigned as reading material in schools. There were several books that for whatever reason or another were skipped over me. I’ve been trying to go back and read them, because sometimes you just need to read a book outside the context of school to truly understand why it has persisted the test of time and is considered a classic. Some of these books have made it on to my personal favorites list (such as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) and others have left me unimpressed (i.e. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott).

Please Note: Not to say I don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. On the contrary, I can usually walk away and say “I understand why this is important to read, but I particularly did not enjoy.” When I say personal favorites, I mean there is something in the book that resonated specifically with me as an individual.

One such book that I have finally read:

thegiverThe Giver by Lois Lowry

I am literally writing this just minutes after I finished because my head was buzzing I just had to write something to capture some of the more fleeting feelings. I was never assigned this book while in school, and I am sad for it. This was such a simple but powerful novel. And what makes me even more sad is that I know why I never picked this book up until now. It was totally the cover. I, as a young girl growing into a young woman, was never drawn to the cover with the weary-looking old man. And now I realize that I was depriving myself of a truly enriching story.

(I did, however, read Lowry’s Gathering Blue, which had a much prettier cover. I did not know that it was technically the sequel to The Giver, which probably explains why I remember so little of it. I will probably go back and reread it now that I have a better sense of the world it is set in.)

It focuses on a lot of the similar themes that you see in other depictions of a dystopian world: the loss of the individual, censorship, suppression of identity, etc. But it did so in a way that was so simple and clear and that’s what makes it so beautiful.

(Also, the trailer for the movie based on this book looks terrible. Seriously. Not even the idea of a Meryl Streep performance makes me excited for this movie. Because based on what is selling (i.e. action packed movies like The Hunger Games or Divergent) they are going to completely miss what makes this story so thought provoking and impactful. If you are going to see the movie, do yourself a favor and read (or reread) the book first.)

hungergamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Nowadays you say “dystopian novel” and the first book/series that pops into everyone’s mind is The Hunger Games. I remember picking up the first in the series during a study break and ended up reading it in one day. What can I say? It sucked me in.

And this is the series that I will hold up as an example of how you do film adaptions. Catching Fire (The Hunger Games‘s sequel) in particular just blew me a way. (And I have feeling that both films’ (that have been released by the date of this blog entry) successes are in no small part due to Collins being one of the producers. I really wish this would happen more. *cough*PercyJackson*cough*) And aside from phenomenal casting (I mean, Jennifer Lawrence, really) and loyalty to the original material is what it adds to the books. I often sell the books along with the movies, saying that they both necessary to receive the full experience. The books give you Katniss’s inner monologue and why she makes certain choices, whereas the films color in the behind the scenes that you don’t get from the books’ limited perspective.

Now I can understand why someone wouldn’t like this series. Maybe dystopian novels aren’t your thing or maybe you find Katniss’s personality a little grating. But what makes this series so good (and why I think it will last much longer than many other books in the dystopian field) is that the world Collins created is consistent with the characters’ personalities and choices and makes (I feel) very relevant commentary on today’s society.

divergentDivergent by Veronica Roth

Now that I’ve praised the last two books, you must be expecting me to continue to do so with Divergent. And I get to tell you gleefully, Nope! I have a lot of rage towards this book and its sequels, mostly because I do not understand why this is such a popular series.

While you can find holes in almost any plot, what makes a dystopian novel so powerful is that it reflects contemporary society and while it might not ever escalate to something that severe, but you can definitely see it going in that direction. What makes me so angry about Roth’s series is that the whole world she based the story in is so ridiculously flawed that it should have never gotten past a drunk “what if” conversation.

Basically the society revolves around factions that value a single characteristic over everything else and each faction is in charge of a different part of the city (i.e. Abnegation (the faction of “selflessness”) is in charge of government; Erudite (“knowledge”): teaching doctors; Divergent (“bravery”): protecting the city; etc.).

This is not a good system. At all. And should not have been up and running past the trial week. But you know what? That’s not even my biggest problem with this system. It’s that the book does not commit to the system it set for itself. And when I feel smarter than the people that prize knowledge over everything else, something is wrong.

I could probably write an entire blog post on why I hate this series and why it flummoxes me that this series is popular, and maybe one day I will. But for now, I didn’t like it. I thought that the world was poorly constructed, the main character is dumb and only made smart because the rest of characters are made to be dumber, and the romance is the most boring romance I’ve read since Twilight. There! I said it!

playeroneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

I almost ended with Divergent, but I couldn’t stop on such a sour note, so I’ll go one more. Ready Player One was an impulse buy. (A lot of my book purchases are impulse buys.) And overall I was… entertained. I did not rush through this, because it was a bit dense reading. It followed very closely to what I call “video game format” which goes as follows:

Information Dump > Action > Information Dump > Action > Information Dump > Tedious Action


And the cycle goes on. But it’s an excellent concept and as someone who has grown up with video games (at least next to a brother who owned video games) I recognize a lot of similarities between our society now and what we might become.

My only other critique is that there are A LOT of 1980’s references. And by a lot, I mean 75+ percent. I know enough about the 80’s, so I held my own, but when it got to the more obscure references, it just went my head. And I’m afraid that’s going to date this book more than anything. And I look forward to a movie of this (because it’s right up our current trends’ alley) and how they’ll adapt it.

And on that note, I am ending my review on some dystopian novels. You can totally blame me reading The Giver, it was my inspiration for this post.

4 thoughts on “Reviewsday: The Dystopian YA Novel

  1. I like dystopia…most of the time. If you choose your books right, it comes with strong characters, creepy and innovative worlds and lots of action. The Giver has been one of my favorite books since I read it in 4th Grade (although I was never able to complete Gathering Blue) and I was one of the first to start reading and worshipping the Hunger Games series (despite some of it’s obvious problems).

    But at the same time I get your problems with Divergent. I really do. I couldn’t really wrap my head aroung the weird faction system. Divergent was a fun read but it was not at all realistic.
    I’ve written a few reviews on my blog about dystopia. In fact, originally I focused on post-apocalyptic and dystopian young adult books for book reviews but somehow, after maybe 30 books or so, the dystopian books all seemed to merge together with similar plots, characters and ideas.

    If you ever feel like giving Dystopia a chance again, try Unwind by Neal Shusterman. It’s probably a dystopia classic. And is my current favourite book ( I say current because when it comes to choosing just one book, I’m kind of fickle).

  2. I love books set in the future. Dystopia, utopia, um… topia? I like them all.

    Of these I’ve only read the Hunger Games books. While I loved the setting, story, and characters, I didn’t like the narrative style at all. Thankfully, they were all easy reads, so I could breeze through them quickly and let the ideas sit there and percolate a while.

    Ready Player One sounds like I’m the target audience for it. 80’s references, here I come!

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