Book Review: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

Title: Poster Girl
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 18, 2022
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction/dystopian
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

WHAT’S RIGHT IS RIGHT.

Sonya Kantor knows this slogan–she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation.

Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives.

Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past–and her family’s dark secrets–than she ever wanted to.

With razor sharp prose, Poster Girl is a haunting dystopian mystery that explores the expanding role of surveillance on society–an inescapable reality that we welcome all too easily.

Most of the YA dystopian novels I’ve read follow a similar story arc. We learn about the society and all the ways in which it’s awful, we follow a plucky hero as they work to overthrow the government, and we end with a victory.

But what happens after the victory? When the bad guys are toppled from power, what takes their place? And what happens to the many people who lived under the old regime — not major evil-doers, but those who, one way or another, ended up on the wrong side of history?

In Poster Girl, marketed as an adult novel rather than YA, author Veronica Roth shows us one particular post-dystopian world. We meet Sonya Kantor, daughter of an influential figure within the Delegation, the toppled autocratic government. Sonya herself was deemed “mediocre” by the Delegation and never did anything considered particularly important… until her father asked her if she’d like to be featured on an official Delegation poster. Ten years after the Delegation’s demise, Sonya is still known as Poster Girl — and nobody means that as a good thing anymore.

Sonya is imprisoned in the Aperture, a former block of apartment buildings heading slowly toward decay, now a prison for people associated with the Delegation (but not having done anything quite heinous enough to get sent to a more formal prison, or worse). The outside world seems content to let the residents of the Aperture fade away, in shoddy living conditions and inadequate food, and absolutely no hope of anything other than remaining there until they eventually die.

But when a new policy comes into effect by which Children of the Delegation — those imprisoned while minors — can be freed, Sonya remains just the wrong side of the age cut-off. Initially imprisoned at seventeen, she’s now 27 and just a teeny bit too old to qualify for release… until a former acquaintance offers her a too-good-to-be-true deal: Find a long-missing child on behalf of the Triumvirate, the new governing body, and she’ll earn her freedom at last.

As Poster Girl moves forward, we see Sonya navigate the changed city outside the Aperture’s walls, learning what has changed (and what hasn’t) in the years of her incarceration. It’s hard to hope, but harder to walk away, even though the idea of freedom doesn’t necessarily offer her any promise of happiness. With no family or friends on the outside, what could possibly await her?

I found Sonya’s challenge to be quite intriguing. She’s not a straight-forward hero. She’s done some lousy things in her past, blithely went along with the Delegation’s rules, victimized others for her own benefit. And yet, the prospect of a hopeless life within the Aperture makes Sonya sympathetic. Despite her past, she’s clearly trying to help others in her present, and her complicated mix of guilt and remorse make her an interesting character, morally grey, but trying and hoping to be better.

For me, this look into a post-dystopian world presented a unique take on a disjointed imagined future. As I mentioned earlier, I’m used to dystopian fiction that ends right after the victory. Hurray, the evil government has been overthrown! But the question of what comes next presents more nuanced questions to consider. Is the replacement government truly better? What’s life like for average people in the new society? Are people better off? Who determines which people end up on the right side of history?

Poster Girl features fascinating characters in a thought-provoking situation. While some of the action and investigation sequences felt a little unrealistic, overall, I thought the storyline was well written. Fast-paced and never dull, Poster Girl is well worth the read!

Book Review: Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth

Title: Chosen Ones
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The first novel written for an adult audience by the mega-selling author of the Divergent franchise: five twenty-something heroes famous for saving the world when they were teenagers must face even greater demons—and reconsider what it means to be a hero . . . by destiny or by choice.

A decade ago near Chicago, five teenagers defeated the otherworldly enemy known as the Dark One, whose reign of terror brought widespread destruction and death. The seemingly un-extraordinary teens—Sloane, Matt, Ines, Albie, and Esther—had been brought together by a clandestine government agency because one of them was fated to be the “Chosen One,” prophesized to save the world. With the goal achieved, humankind celebrated the victors and began to mourn their lost loved ones.

Ten years later, though the champions remain celebrities, the world has moved forward and a whole, younger generation doesn’t seem to recall the days of endless fear. But Sloane remembers. It’s impossible for her to forget when the paparazzi haunt her every step just as the Dark One still haunts her dreams. Unlike everyone else, she hasn’t moved on; she’s adrift—no direction, no goals, no purpose. On the eve of the Ten Year Celebration of Peace, a new trauma hits the Chosen: the death of one of their own. And when they gather for the funeral at the enshrined site of their triumph, they discover to their horror that the Dark One’s reign never really ended. 

Fantasy books are filled with Chosen Ones — seemingly ordinary people plucked from obscurity to fulfill some great destiny — oh, say, like saving the world. But after the world is saved, what happens next?

It was a strange thing, to know with certainty that you had peaked.

In Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, life after saving the world is filled with paparazzi, celebrity appearances, and Instagram fame… or for our main character Sloane, a daily existence avoiding the spotlight whenever possible and struggling with the severe nightmares and PTSD that still plague her.

Sloane is one of the five teens who defeated the Dark One — a mad, magical being who created gruesome havoc through Drains, magical forces that obliterate everything in their path, leaving behind uncountable death and vast swaths of destruction.

Ten years after defeating the Dark One, Sloane is still not at peace, and her co-Chosen are having varied levels of success. Sloane’s boyfriend Matt has always been the Golden Child of the group — the super handsome, super nice, charismatic leader who organized the team and led them through their battles. Then there’s Esther, glorying in her Insta fame while caring for a sick mother, Ines (who, honestly, didn’t get much time in this book and therefore remains mostly a blank for me), and injured, fragile Albie, who shares a bond with Sloane based on the worst day of their lives.

Things go horribly awry for the group after the 10-year-anniversary commemorative service, and suddenly, Sloane, Matt, and Esther find themselves literally in another world, facing a new set of circumstances — and quite possibly, a new manifestation of their nemesis, the Dark One.

Oh, this book is complicated! There are parallel universes and magical artifacts, a whole new (and totally rad) system of magic, strange equipment and sources of power, and even an undead army. On top of that, Sloane, Matt, and Esther are no longer the teen Chosen Ones, unjaded and fresh and ready for a challenge. Instead, they’re adults, world weary and mostly resentful as hell that anyone would try to push them into fighting again. It’s just not fair — they’ve already defeated their Dark One!

I loved the characters and the totally odd world-building, which involves our version of Chicago as well as an alterna-Chicago set in a magical version of Earth. (Like I said, it’s complicated). The magical system is pretty cool, involving sounds and frequencies and funky devices called siphons that focus magical intent and energy.

The author includes nods to all sorts of fantasy fiction tropes. Obviously, the idea of a chosen one, prophecies, teens saving the world, a nameless Dark One… we’ve seen these before in many variations.

There’s also this, about the origin of one of the powerful magical artifacts:

He therefore places his soul inside an object that is nested in other objects; for example, he places it in a needle, then buries the needle in an egg, then hides the egg inside various creatures or, in some stories, a trunk. He is unable to die if the needle that contains his soul is intact.

So… a Horcrux?

I also had to laugh at this line — an homage to Stephen King, perhaps?

So tragic that he was able to bring his recently deceased pet cat back to life only for the act to kill him shortly thereafter.

And again, a reference that reminds me of Diagon Alley and the various establishments there:

Maybe it was like the movie-set feel of the Tankard — all their magic stories were set in old-timey fantasy worlds or eras so ancient the magical acts were associated with old gods and angels and demons, so they reached backward to figure out how to be magical instead of forward.

I raced through this book, completely invested in the characters (well, mostly Sloane, who is prickly and difficult and stubborn, tormented and strong and fierce), and so loving the parallel worlds and the strange magic of the story.

I probably could have done without the romantic element that comes into play toward the end of the book, but fortunately that wasn’t the main focus, so it didn’t become too distracting.

I’m not sure that I completely understood all of the villain’s motives and machinations or that the ending totally made sense to me, but I think reading back through it or at least skimming the last several chapters again will help me puzzle it all out. And that’s okay! I love a story that’s not obvious, and where there’s always something else to discover.

Chosen Ones is the first book in a new series. It has a great ending, and while much seems resolved, I can also see how the story has plenty of room to continue. I’m not usually wild about first books in series, especially when they feel like they leave me hanging. In this case, while I definitely want to know what happens next for these characters — especially given the mind-blowing finale — I also feel like this part of the story wrapped up really well.

I’ve never read anything by this author before (and don’t particularly intend to). The blurbs describe Chosen Ones as the author’s first book for adults. Honestly, it reads mostly like YA, but I suppose it’s considered adult fantasy because of the heroes’ ages (roughly 30). Otherwise, I don’t see much of a difference between the content here and in many of the YA fantasies I’ve read, in terms of so-called age-appropriate subject matter.

In any case… I totally enjoyed Chosen Ones, and can’t wait for the next book! Check it out!