Carve the Mark. Veronica Roth. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017. 480 pp.
In Carve the Mark, Veronica Roth generates an interesting science fiction / fantasy character Cyra Noavek who has a very real this-world challenge. She suffers from constant chronic pain. In the world of Carve the Mark we have a galaxy that is dominated by a supernatural force, not unlike “The Force” of Star Wars fame, called “the current”. Any aspect of this world that deviates from our world has its root in this “current”. Every person in this world is an expression of this “current” and possesses a “currentgift”. Cyra Noavek’s “currentgift” is constant and chronic pain. Furthermore, Cyra has the ability to share her pain with others and it is able to cripple and even kill them. This means that she is in possession of one of the most powerful weapons available in this world.
Cyra is a Shotet. This is one of the two major civilizations depicted in the novel. These are the Shotet and the Thuvhe. Essentially, these are science fiction versions of the Greek Athenians and Spartans. The Shotet are the Spartans. They embody power through strength and have mastered the arts of combat and war. Cyra’s “currentgift” is the perfect gift for a Shotet to possess.
The beginning of this story includes the events leading up to what is called “the sojourn”. Essentially, the Shotet people have nomadic roots. They do not actually have an original homeland. They currently share the planet called either Thuvhe or Urek by the Thuvhe and the Shotet respectively. With respect to these origins, they still occasionally make this “sojourn” to another planet, ostensibly, selected by reading “the current” to harvest from that planet what they need/want. Ideally this ensures that the Shotet is building a civilization for itself by taking the best of all cultures and combining them. At times, this means that they also take people. This is a practice this is not widely acknowledged, but happens none-the-less. The Shotet’s status as skilled violent actors appears to be what drives other cultures in this galaxy to tolerate what is essentially the pillaging of their planet.
The current leader of the Shotet is Ryzek Noavek, the brother of Cyra. He came to power with the death of their parents. He is a careful and ruthless manipulator who controls the Shotet by both force and cunning. His biggest threat is Cyra. The secret he holds over her is that she killed their mother who was beloved by the Shotet. If he were to reveal this, Cyra would be in immediate peril. He holds this card and Cyra does his bidding. Essentially, Cyra is Ryzek’s most powerful weapon. Ryzek is playing for keeps. Ryzek among others in the story including Cyra is considered to have his fate sealed. In this world there are three oracles; one falling oracle, one sitting oracle, and one rising. These people have the ability to see the possible futures of the individuals of the galaxy. Those who have only one possible future have a fate. Those that have a fate are special. They are favored. Ryzek is daring to challenge his fate.
Ryzek begin this quest by kidnapping a Thuvhesit, Eijah Kereseth who is the rising oracle. Eijah’s mother is Sifa Kereseth, the sitting oracle. Ryzek has it that by combining his “currentgift” with his ability to hold control over the oracle he will avoid being bound by his fate. Ryzek’s “currentgift” is the ability to forcefully exchange memories with someone else one at a time. The plan here is to strategically exchange memories with Eijah in order to know how to overcome his own fate. In the raid that captured Eijah, the Shotet also captured his brother Akos. Akos, along with Cyra, is the second protagonist in this story. The story is written in such away that you are moving back and forth between Cyra and Akos’ points of view. Akos entrance into the story is ultimately what challenges Ryzek’s plan.
Akos is also favored with a fate. He also has a curious “currentgift”. Akos is not actually attached to “the current”. He is able to, by touch, to interrupt “the current” in others. When captured, Akos is forced to be the servant of Cyra. This pairing is a natural fit. Since Akos interrupts “the current” he is able to, by his touch, relieve Cyra of her pain. Akos is literally and personally a drug to Cyra. She needs his touch to free her from her pain. Akos is a Thuvhesit. This is essentially the story of Athens. These are peaceful people. Where the Shotet combine brains with strength, the Thuvhesit combine brains with heart. Part of the Thuvhesit tradition is intertwined with a common plant on their planet called the hushflower. Hushflower is probably very similar to our poppy. A little bit of it mixed with other ingredients is a good painkiller for some and a recreational drug for others. A lot of it is a lethal poison. We see that Sifa Kereseth has painstakingly taught Akos to be quite the chemist/pharmacist. Akos is not only able to physically take away Cyra’s pain, but also engages in the work of teaching Cyra to make potions from hushflower that will allow her to manage it herself. In exchange, Cyra teaches Akos to be a better fighter.
What keeps Akos in line is his love and care for Eijah. Though, it is clear, that Akos can escape his captivity to the Shotet he does not. He will not abandon Eijah to Ryzek. Even though there will come a point the Eijah will no longer be recognizable to Akos because he has exchanged so many memories with Ryzek he will not give up on him. It is clear from early on that the fates of Akos, Cyra, Eija, and Ryzek are not independent. The capture of the Thuvhesit by Ryzek clearly twines them together. It is not hard to see that Ryzek is sealing his own fate by trying to undo it. Roth is not trying to hide this. She is using it as a vehicle to drive her story. You know that Ryzek is not going to succeed. You don’t know how the fates will play out.
What keeps this from being a mechanical plot line is the interplay between Akos and Cyra. Within a Greek tragedy we have a Romeo and Juliet-eque story as well. The physicality of the relationship between Akos and Cyra keeps them necessarily in close quarters. These two characters develop a close relationship. They are from two warring houses and yet as individuals they are falling in love. This love affair though is not simple. Akos’ loyalty to the relationship is consistently challenged by his fidelity to his brother. More than once in the story Akos must choose between Cyra and Eijah. Ultimately, these decisions cause some of the greatest stress in their relationship. The reader does not always understand these stresses, though, through the characters words, but rather when how Akos touches Cyra and how that touch is received is described. The relationship itself hangs in the balance of these touches. Cyra also, like Akos, has a secondary motive. Cyra want to be free of and see the fall of her brother Ryzek. Her love for Akos, at times, comes at odds with this goal. Cyra has been Ryzek’s pawn since the death of their mother. She almost needs to be free from Ryzek as much as she needs to be free from her pain.
There are two sets of interlopers into the story that create the twists necessary to propel forward a novel of this length. First, there is a group of revolutionaries that are bent on using their own “currentgifts” to challenge and even, possibly, overthrow Ryzek. Cyra and Akos are both sympathetic to this group for their own reasons. If this group is able to succeed Cyra will be free of her brother. If they suceed Akos has a chance to win back his, albeit damaged, brother. The revolutionaries don’t care how or when Ryzek is challenged, they care that it happens and that it happens sooner than later. This is a group that forces Cyra and Akos to be at odds. Akos is fine with killing Ryzek so long as Eijah lives. Cyra is essentially okay with the now damaged Eijah being collateral damage in the battle against Ryzek.
Second, there is Sifa Kereseth. Sifa is not a dumb actor in this story. Perhaps the one whose scheming rivals Ryzek’s to the greatest level is Sifa. From her seat as oracle she has done much to manipulate the scene that we are watching unfold. Sifa has raised two of the scene’s actors Eijah and Akos and has trained them each to play a certain part. They have been given the tools they need to do their jobs. Sifa has motives for her actions and may be just as much a part of sealing the fates of the four main characters as Ryzek himself. Sifa is not above using her own children as pawns in her designs.
There is no lack of drama or conflict in this text. There are a few themes that are recurring. One central one is about how strength is shown through the willingness to take another’s life within the Shotet culture. Taking another person’s life live is visible and indelibly remembered in this culture through the carving of marks into the flesh of the victor’s arm and then staining the wound a blue color. A Shotet person who has many marks on their arms is clearly someone not to be trifled with. Another central theme is that of the purity of one’s race. It is clear that the races depicted in the book can “intermingle”. It is also clear that you can not necessarily tell the difference between a Thuvhesit and a Shotet by sight. The Shotet have a language that is not learned. It is actually acquired from ones parents and it is something that they speak innately. Akos during his capture by the Shotet is exposed to be a speaker of this Shotet language. This alone makes him part of the Shotet in their eyes. Akos during his early encounters with the Shotet takes Shotet lives. In short order, he is branded with the aforementioned mark. Cyra has a number of them. She keeps them covered. Of them she is not proud. Throughout the story we get the hint that Cyra is not all that she seems either. She has a certain weakness that makes her empathetic and compassionate in a way unusual for a Shotet. She is not a blind follower of the fiercest leader. She lets her emotions play a part in her decision making, sometimes to her detriment, and is very curious about the worlds that are explored when the Shotet are on “sojourn”. Cyra also is very invested in the history of the Shotet and Thuvhesit. She is aware that the Shotet did not start off as a war-faring people. The turn to warfare was about avoiding being abused by other people. Cyra is a piece of Thuvesit within the sea of Shotet and Akos is the piece of Shotet in a sea of Thuvesit. Not only are these two characters physically linked by their “currentgifts” they are also not exactly centered in their own cultures. These themes the carving of the marks and the sense of belonging and not belonging are not so much plot vehicles, but rather are part of the world that Roth has created for these characters to live within. There are layers upon layers in this story. It can be a bit complex for the reader to invest in, but ultimately Roth is generating the world that is rich enough in detail that is required to support the story’s complexity. The layers mesh well and all have purpose. In this sense it is an attractive read that may be slow at times, but keeps you in.
On the whole this is a good read. The book starts a bit slow. There is some confusion as you settle into the world that Roth has created. The book, though, takes on some significant issues in its science fiction/fantasy world. Most obviously Roth has written a character with chronic pain and has delved into how that pain affects her decision making and relationships. With the introduction of the hushflower there is certainly a commentary about the ambiguity of drug use in our culture, in particular, the medicinal necessity of painkillers and their massive potential for abuse. The idea of discussing prejudice and racism is not far from the surface here as characters from different planets and different cultures struggle to relate successfully. Finally, there is a discussion of identity. The exchange of memories between Ryzek and Eijah definitely shows how our past encounters shape who we are. The bleeding of Thuvhesit and Shotet that we see in both Cyra and Akos speaks to how much of a hold genetics has on us. The supernatural is also part of the discussion here. “The current” definitively has a “hand” in shaping the people it does (or in the case of Akos doesn’t) touch. In this story Roth has it that the combinations of these factors can actually predestine a pathway. Whether just a literary device or not, it is clear that Roth is presenting her readers with the possibility that fate may be real.
This story is an attempt to mash-up some of the greatest stories in the literary canon and put it in an off-Earth theater. The book is a tale. It neither suffers the details of or gets bogged down in the “how” of the world. Much of the technicalities are left unexplained by the use of broad stroke settings that are to house the plot. Several significant characters are rounded out and are enough to engage. Interestingly enough one of the “big four” in this text, Eijah, is largely mute and for the most part spoken of only in the third-person. He is notably flat for such a critical character to the plot. The text was very readable and could be a good text to work through with a middle school or high school reader. Be advised, however, that it may be a bit long in the end. The episodes that follow the development of the relationship of Akos and Cyra can grow a bit tiresome. The text, probably, could have done with an editing of about fifty pages or so. That said, it’s a solid story and a good entry point into themes that readers will find in more serious texts in high school and college. It will provide good fodder for discussions when students ultimately wrestle with those texts. Pulling out the allusions to Athens and Sparta, Romeo and Juliet, and the Greek tragedies would be great for a child-parent discussion on this text. Not to mention there can be a serious discussion here about opiate and heroine use in the United States today.