“Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi

11 Jun


The good people at HarperTeen are beside themselves with joy over debut novelist Tahereh Mafi's dystopian novel "Shatter Me," which publishes in November 2011. Don't believe me? Check out this Publishers Weekly article about the book deal for Mafi's planned trilogy. And they're not the only ones keen on "Shatter Me." Movie rights have already been sold to Twentieth Century Fox, although, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this particular studio is owned by News Corporation, the same parent company that owns HarperTeen.

I was saying … ? Right, so there's already a whirlwind of buzz surrounding "Shatter Me," which I was lucky enough to read in ARC form with a copy obtained at Book Expo America. Should you believe the hype? Yes and no. This is a powerful dystopian thriller / love story that is written in a unique, if at times overwrought, style. It can be quite gripping and chilling, and the consistent pace makes the pages fly by. My biggest problem here is how much of the concept and plot of "Shatter Me" is lifted straight from the "X-Men."

We meet 17 year old Juliette in an insane asylum, locked away silently in a room with a tiny, murky window. Juliette has had no companionship — has not even spoken aloud — for 264 days. Suddenly, a new inmate is tossed into her room. Juliette, who has spent her time keeping a secret journal and counting tiles, meals, and steps, is frightened by the newcomer, despite his strange familiarity. Over time, we realize that the handsome boy is her old schoolmate Adam Kent, the son of an abusive alcoholic.

The asylum scenes are spellbinding. We completely understand Juliette's pervasive, all-consuming fear at her terrifying conditions and her depraved, unseen captors. We also share in her overwhelming sense of isolation and her bone-deep loss of humanity, both of which have resulted from her accidental killing of a small boy. The asylum and its murderous psychological effects constitute the very definition of terror. It's powerful stuff to read.

So is Juliette a monster, as she has long believed? Hardly. This broken, unloved, exiled girl is just profoundly different, somehow able to harm people through her mere touch. If you're a fan of the "X-Men" comics or films, then you may immediately think of the mutant Rogue, whose touch can drain the very life from another individual and who must, accordingly, always wear gloves and remain distant from other humans. In Juliette's future world, where a savaged, fractured society is being "reestablished," she is seen as both a threat to be controlled, and, later, as a potential weapon to further terrorize a frightened populace. (Like, ahem, Rogue in the "X-Men." Just saying.)

The brutal young dictator Warner, who seems to run a small fiefdom in this new world, takes on Juliette as his pet project, goading her into succumbing to the evil within. He and a battalion of soldiers — including, surprisingly enough, Adam — take Juliette to an opulent mansion within a protected compound. Here, Juliette's every need is catered to … while she is also constantly monitored, tested, and manipulated. I have to admit that I got a huge kick out of the creepy Warner. There's something intoxicating about his malevolence, something charming in the sick way he idolizes Juliette. Warner alone understands the part of Juliette that enjoys the rush and power of harming someone with her own hands, a feeling Juliette won't even admit to herself. Warner is handsome and thoughtful but also unbelievably cruel and violent, killing a soldier and torturing a toddler without a moment's hesitation. He is, above all, a deeply compelling character whose "love" for Juliette is striking and disturbing. Because so much of the ravaged society is never revealed to us, Warner must represent all the danger, violence, and despair of this future world. He does so, in spades. (Side note: For a dystopian novel, there is precious little worldbuilding in "Shatter Me." We are told about, but rarely shown, the infertile land, apocalyptic weather patterns, and decimated animal species that have so frightened people and led society to cede so many basic rights to this shadowy, militaristic government.)

The bulk of the novel involves a clandestine love affair between Juliette and Adam — c'mon, you had to see this coming — and the planning and execution of the pair's escape from the compound. Adam is one of those super compassionate, sexy, understanding, perfect guys who always show up in YA novels, dystopian or otherwise. If you're a fan of romances with lots of "I love you's" thrown into the mix, then you'll probably adore this relationship. I personally found the Adam / Juliette scenes somewhat repetitive — how many times can they secretly kiss and exchange whispered sweet words? — but I might just be jaded. 😉 Considering these two characters never sleep together, there is a surprising amount of steaminess in their makeout scenes. At least that part isn't boring!

By novel's end, Adam and Juliette — along with a young surprise character (I won't spoil!) and a fellow soldier named Kenji — end up in an underground lab that is, spot on, a ripoff of the "X-Men." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Juliette isn't alone in her unusual talents. A revolutionary force is amassing under the leadership of a caring, extremely intelligent leader (hello, Professor X!) who wants to harness these strange abilities for good. Yup. Bunch of kids with otherworldly talents, ostracized by society and now being led to stand with each other and save the world? If that's not the "X-Men," I'm not sure what is.

As I said, I found the entire concept here, despite its smart execution, to be utterly derivative. When you're simply repeating a story — even when you're doing it well and adding your own touches — it loses its freshness. As such, we readers can never really be transported away. That's a shame. What perhaps sets this book apart and saves it — though not fully — is author Mafi's writing style. Much of Juliette's narrative is told in a stream of consciousness style, with run-on sentences, evocative metaphors, and the regular use of strikethroughs for unwanted or unacknowledgeable thoughts. While Mafi can sometimes use one too many over the top descriptions ("My throat is a reptile covered in scales" or "I'm a cumulonimbus existence of thunder and lightning"), these literary devices wonderfully convey the rich, ethereal, and fractured world within Juliette's own mind. That's a powerful technique, and it helps further develop this captivating, wrenching main character. Does it compensate for the "X-Men" retelling? Probably not. But this writing style, coupled with a truly original concept, could create an absolutely groundbreaking novel. Maybe that's something to look forward to?

"Shatter Me" will be released in November 2011. I'm sure you'll see loads of promotion, since the folks at HarperTeen are geniuses at marketing a YA book. While I have my reservations, I think there's a vast audience of primarily teen girls — based on the main character and the love story here — who will eagerly scoop up this novel. In fact, one of my teen readers in Kinnelon, who also read the ARC, completely — and I mean completely — LOVED this book. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

PS – I have no cover photo to insert in this entry, since the cover art is still being designed. Check back to the Amazon page. I'm sure they'll post the cover image as soon as it's ready. Until then, enjoy the book trailer below!

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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


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