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One highly opinionated feminist YA nerd's twisted, snarky and informative journey through the genre's perils, pitfalls and sparkles.

Review: "The Pledge" by Kimberly Derting.

The Pledge”

Author: Kimberly Derting.

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry.

Pages: 320.

Summary (taken from GoodReads): In the violent country of Ludania, the language you speak determines what class you are, and there are harsh punishments if you forget your place—looking a member of a higher class in the eye can result in immediate execution. Seventeen-year-old Charlaina (Charlie for short) can understand all languages, a dangerous ability she’s been hiding her whole life. Her only place of release is the drug-filled underground club scene, where people go to shake off the oppressive rules of the world they live in. There, she meets a beautiful and mysterious boy who speaks a language she’s never heard, and her secret is almost exposed. Through a series of violent upheavals, it becomes clear that Charlie herself is the key to forcing out the oppressive power structure of her kingdom….

Cover impressions: The more YA books I see being released amidst the continuing dystopia trend (a fad that seems to have a lot more mileage than I originally anticipated, although the sales figures are a more mixed bag), the more I find myself questioning what makes a book dystopian. With “The Body Finder” author Kimberly Derting's latest, the first in a planned trilogy, I hesitate to call it, for lack of a better term, pure dystopian since it mixes more fantastical elements into the story. This discussion aside, what elements that the book uses that are clearly in a dystopian vein are unsuccessful.

The setting, the country of Ludania, is frequently described in terms of its oppressiveness and constant threat of danger but neither of these things were shown on the page. For a supposedly highly guarded society, there was a lot of freedom allotted to its residents. There seemed to be no real adult supervision of the secret club visiting teenagers, except for a few guards now and then, but when one of the characters is described as using heavily guarded security check-points as an opportunity to practice her flirting techniques, it sort of detracts from the sense of fear and urgency. This is an issue I've had with a few dystopian YA novels in recent times. We're frequently told of the dangers and need for constant vigilance but what we are presented with is a series of plot convenient instances and loopholes that detract from the atmosphere needed to create a truly tense story. A strong sense of urgency and fear is a must for dystopian set stories, in my opinion. On top of all this, Derting includes a more fantasy oriented element that is the driving force behind the central premise of the story. Charlie can understand every language, a dangerous skill in a world where social groups are broken up by which language they speak. As a student of semi-dead languages, this premise was a potential gold-mine for me, and I think there is a genuinely interesting world to be built from the idea of using language as a device of socio-political matters. Unfortunately, this book isn't it. The strong idea is never fully built upon, a matter made all the more frustrating thanks to the complete lack of detail given when it is used. The book was a step away from saying “It's magic, we don't have to explain it”, which is never a good answer.

The characters are as shallow as the plot, in particular the heroine Charlie and the first designated love interest Max (there are at least 3 men in the story who I thought could be potential love interests because they are constantly described by way of their handsome looks and enticing aura by Charlie. She may have claimed that her friend Brooklynn was the boy crazy one but she seemed just as single-minded). Neither rises beyond the stock YA romance traits, with Charlie's passiveness being extremely grating but not as much as Max's frequently rude, condescending and smug behaviour being written off as okay because he's so enamoured with a girl he's known for barely a few weeks – the book has a very short time-line – and makes her so weak at the knees I'm surprised she could perform basic human functions. It's yet another YA where the breeding pair fall into the typical gender roles. Maybe it's because I'm jaded and I've been reviewing these sorts of books for what feels like an era, but when the romantic hero, who has only personally known the heroine for a couple of weeks (there are references that he's had his 'protective' eye on her for longer), and he says “All I want is to keep you safe... it's all I've ever wanted”, alarm bells go off in my head. His case isn't helped by his frequent grabbing of Charlie as if he's allowed to do this because we all know they're going to end up together.

The Pledge” is a slow, mediocre book that shows a glimmer of promise for the rest of the series in the final few pages, but it's not enough for me to feign further interest. To see such potential wasted is a disappointment, made all the worse by the continuing trend for the sort of romances that make me want to pull my hair out. While the prose itself is serviceable, the constant switching of narratives from Charlie's 1st person to several characters's 3rd person points-of-view felt unnecessary given the lack of distinguishing features given to them. My biggest issue with the book is that it's so shallow. Nothing is given the depth required to make the story fully engaging – the world building is slack, the characters are stock, the romance is tired and predictable and the much needed tension is nowhere to be seen.


"The Pledge" will be released in USA on November 15th 2011. I received my ARC from Simon & Schuster's Galley Grab programme.

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Yael said...

This review sounds like you could apply it to half of the YA dystopias out there, because, honestly, this novel doesn't sound any different from most of them. World-building centered on a high-concept "what if?" Check. Special snowflake heroine? Check. Totalitarian rules that can somehow be evaded by sneaky teenagers? Check. Lack of romantic development? Check.

If you're looking for a good dystopia, I recommend Paolo Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker." It's really good at creating a feeling of "oh shit, this character could actually die at any minute." (Although the romance was also very hurried and not quite believable.)

Veronica Roth's "Divergent" had decent romantic development. (Well, up until the last five-ten pages, at least.) I wouldn't exactly call it a good book, but that was one of its better qualities, and I do think it's worth reading.

I'm also curious to hear your thoughts on Marie Lu's "Legend." Apparently, it's supposed to be *the next big thing.*

Anonymous said...

I am becoming rather put off by the author choosing a single societal construct to outlaw. It's a trend I've noticed in a couple of the books you've reviewed, as if the author is going I know! Languages should be outlawed! Wait wait, love should be a bad thing! Oh I am so edgy! I just don't think societies are built that way. Nevermind that I think it is almost impossible to build any kind of lasting society on something as strict as never, ever making eye contact lest you be killed.

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