“don’t you dare tell me what death is,” she said. “I know.”
* * *
Carve the Mark tells the story of Akos from the Thuvhe people, captured by the people of Shotet and given to Cyra, a woman whose “currentgift” brings her only pain and whose brother, Ryzek, is a murderous tyrant. On the whole I enjoyed the lyrical prose and the characters. It is certainly a character-driven novel which suffers heavily from a lack of thorough world-building and reliance on unpleasant racial/religious stereotypes.
I was also massively attracted by the beautiful hardcover.
The characters. I expected Cyra to be like Lada from And I Darken – vicious, brutal and takes joy in killing. Instead I found Cyra to be less inherently violent than sorrowful and angry. Angry at her brother, at society, but mostly with herself. She makes certain foolish decisions, but they were not (with one exception) decisions which frustrated me. They were believable. Akos is gentle but tough, and is certainly a survivor. He is driven by loyalty to his family, most particularly his love for his brother.
The cast also benefited from a number of well rounded female characters – I often find that an author writes one main female character (looking at you Rogue One) and then thinks that that is enough, populating the rest of the supporting cast with men. I particularly liked Sifa, Akos’ mother.
The writing. Roth’s style makes it seem like the novel is going slowly even when lots is actually happening. This may not be a good aspect for some people, but I found myself enjoying the beautiful, fluid style. The novel is written in first and third person, first for Cyra and third for Akos, which really helps to give their respective chapters a different feel – hopefully something Ross learnt from Allegiant. I’ve read far too many alternate first person where I had to keep flicking to the start of the chapter to remember who I was reading. The novel is also nicely quotable if you like that kind of thing:
“so, throw honor out the window.” “honor,” I said with a snort. “honor has no place in survival”
She also gives Cyra a reasonable amount of snark without it being ridiculous and cringe-worthy (looking at you Rick Riordan and Throne of Glass).
“are you insane?” he said, his voice husky from sleep. “come now, you must have heard the rumours!” I said cheerfully
The world building. There’s about nine planets in Roth’s universe/solar-system – we see two of them, know hardly anything about any of the rest, and they’re all supposedly governed by The Assembly which I also know nothing about. Roth either mentions things and never explains them properly (Armoured Ones, The Assembly, etc.) or simply doesn’t give enough information for the world to feel fully fleshed out. There’s a throw away one line where she mentions that Thuvhe has floating cities! Tell me more! But alas…
The unpleasant racist stereotypes. Without these my rating would be much higher, because there was much of this book that I genuinely loved. I have heard many reviewers (some of whom don’t appear to have actually read the book?) saying that there is a savage brown-skinned race (Shotet) set against the nice peaceful whites (Thuvet) – obviously a problem. Having paid careful to character descriptions, it seems like both people are actually composed of varying racial groups:
Cyra has “medium brown” skin, dark eyes and curly hair like her mother. Her father and brother are white, with “fair skin” and Ryzek (the evil dictator) being described as “pale” at least three times. Various other Shotet people have fairly white descriptions – Teka has platinum blonde hair and pale grey eyes.
Akos is white, whilst his siblings are fairly undescribed other than to say they have “dense, curly hair”. Personal spoilery theory under the spoiler (view spoiler) All this leads me to the conclusion that both groups are racially diverse. Whilst it isn’t as bad as some kind of clear cut bad brown people against the peaceful pure whities, Roth is guilty of other things.
The Shotet people are clearly portrayed as “evil” (culture based around violence, they record kill marks on their arms – think society like An Ember in the Ashes but not actually quite so violent), whilst we actually understand/see very little of Thuvet culture. The Shotet also quite clearly have several parallels with Islam (something writers do A LOT when they want to make a group seem so obviously evil (sarcasm)) with forbiddance of certain substances, a pilgrimage aspect to their religion, etc. Their language is described as unappealing next to harmonic Thuvet. Whether doing so on purpose or not, the Shotet are clearly imbued with unpleasant racial and religious stereotypes in an attempt to make them seem uncivilised. Roth could have benefited heavily from some sensitivity readers. Or some critical thought about her own work.
I did like Carve the Mark. I enjoyed the plot, the characters, and the writing. I found Cyra in particular compelling, and I admire her strong, genuine character. I would highly recommend that Ms Roth, in future, employs some kind of sensitivity reader because I don’t think she has quite conveyed the message that she wanted to.