Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that the latest trend sweeping the teen/young adult section is dystopia. Bye, vampires! Happy trails, werewolves! So, as we enter the holiday shopping season, I thought I’d give you my quick and dirty run down of the genre, as well as my top picks.
According to trusty Merriam-Webster, dystopia is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” It is, essentially, the “anti-utopia,” a world where civilization has run amok, and things are, generally, pretty bleak. Why on earth would I want to read about that, you ask? Because it is the perfect environment for plucky, brave, intelligent protagonists to rise from the ashes, that’s why! And take heart, grownups–this genre tends to accommodate adult readers quite well, thanks to the political and philosophical implications of the setting. But enough teacher-talk. Let’s get down to business…
The One That Started It All (Sort Of): Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press)
Let’s go through our dystopian checklist. Iron-fisted dictatorship? Check. Brutal, warlike society designed to squelch any thought of rebellion? Check. Resourceful, loyal heroine? Love triangle? Trilogy? Check, check, check. Sure, dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 have been required reading in high schools for years. They’ve appeared in children’s lit, too (see The Giver). But we have Suzanne Collins to thank for their explosion onto the pop culture scene like never before. And even with a rabid fan base and a movie adaptation on the way, allow me to say: these books are excellent. Awesome, even. Collins’ characters are incredibly compelling, and she knows how to layer on the action like nobody’s business. If you haven’t read these yet, DO IT NOW. You won’t regret the decision. Just be warned that you may not be able to sleep until you’ve torn through all three novels.
The Kinder, Gentler Introduction to the Genre: Matched by Ally Condie (Penguin Books)
Not drawn to epic, expansive scenes of battle, blood, and gore? No need to miss out on the dystopian genre! This is the book I recommend for younger readers who want to check out Hunger Games but probably aren’t quite ready, or those who just aren’t sure about the violence. In the Society, marriage matches are made scientifically. The process is streamlined, and Cassia hasn’t once heard of a mistake being made. But at her own matching ceremony, she sees two boys on the screen that is to reveal her future husband. Confused, Cassia embarks on a quest to discover exactly what happened in her case, and discovers more deeply hidden secrets than she could have imagined. Matched focuses heavily on the societal/political implications of dystopia and for the most part keeps away from scenes of intense violence, while gently developing the various character relationships. Watch out for book two, Crossed, which will be out November 1st.
The One That Gets You Right Into the Action: Divergent by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins)
I’ll admit, my expectations weren’t high for this one. It was, I thought with disdain, a debut novel. Everyone wants a piece of the dystopian pie, but can anyone really expect a hit on the first try? The answer, in Veronica Roth’s case, is a resounding yes. After reading Divergent (another one that cost me sleep, I was that breathlessly glued to the page), I was ready for a slice of humble pie. Roth’s story is gripping and unique, and I couldn’t wait to see where it went next. Set in future Chicago, society is divided into factions based on various essential character traits. Upon turning 16, teens go through a series of diagnostic tests to determine which faction they are best suited for. Typically, this is a simple, logical process, but for Beatrice it is anything but. Instead of fitting neatly into one faction, she is suited equally for more than one, a trait that makes her “divergent” and possibly dangerous to the methodical system that has been established. I loved that Roth didn’t waste time with exposition–we as readers are thrown right in with Beatrice as she struggles to figure out her situation, and we can only hang on and enjoy every moment of the exhilarating, heartpounding ride! Book two (it’s a trilogy) is set to be released in May 2012, and I, for one, can’t wait.
The Thoughtful, Dreamy Romance: Wither by Lauren DeStefano (Simon & Schuster)
Let’s slow things down a bit and take a breath. As gung-ho as I am about the guerilla warfare and subversive rebellion of dystopia, all that combat can be taxing. Apparently Lauren DeStefano agreed with me. Don’t be fooled, though, there’s plenty of action here. But it’s punctuated nicely by gentle scenes of character development. Set in a world where disease claims all females by the age of 20 and all males by 21, Rhine knows she doesn’t have long. But when she is kidnapped and forced into a polygamist marriage (the gentry’s desperate attempt to continue their bloodlines), she is determined to spend what time she has left formulating a plan for escape. What she doesn’t expect, though, is to find friendship, sisterhood, and even love inside the walls of her palatial prison. The uniqueness of the plot intrigued me, and I was most definitely not disappointed in the choices the author made. DeStefano’s characters are engaging and unexpectedly sympathetic–relationships between the three sister wives are especially compelling. There are moments of frantic speed, but for the most part the tone of this novel is dreamlike, which makes it a welcome departure from some of the more stark offerings of the genre. Like every other book on this list, it’s the first in a trilogy–the second installment will be available in February 2012.
My New Favorite That You Absolutely, Positively Must Read: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press)
I’ll shout this from the mountaintops: I LOVE THIS BOOK! My fellow bookseller Amanda always recommends it, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. Boy, was I rewarded for my effort! I could only wonder how long I had survived without experiencing the brilliance of this title. And guess what? For the first time on this list, we have a male protagonist (don’t worry, ladies, there’s a prominent female here, too). Todd Hewitt has only ever known the presence of Noise. It is all around him–coming from the men of his village, from his own head, even from his dog, Manchee. It expresses the hidden thoughts and emotions of every man and animal in Prentisstown. But when Todd finds a void in the midst of the Noise, he stumbles upon a being he has never before encountered–a girl. Suddenly, his world is thrown upside down, and he is forced to flee his home in hopes of finding refuge from those who are determined to capture both him and Viola, his mysterious new companion. Please know: this description only scratches the surface of how excellent this book truly is! Ness expertly examines the difficult choices that must be made when the lines between good and evil are confusingly blurred. Yes, you guessed it, this is a trilogy, and, no, you won’t be able to quit until you’ve read all three books. Which I emphatically encourage you to do as soon as humanly possible!
There’s a lot more to this genre, but these are the stand-outs in my mind. I’m an unapologetic fan of dystopian novels, so I’m always on the lookout for the next winning title. Stop by our front desk and ask for our latest favorites–we’re always thrilled to talk books!
Miss Megan G.