I just finished reading a YA book that, because of the harsh criticism I am about to heap upon it, shall remain nameless. I don’t expect greatness from my YA (though in the case of books like Feed, The Hunger Games, and Graceling, they can still accomplish it). You have to judge a book by what it’s trying to accomplish. Someone could come along and read this blog post, for example, and say ‘Jordan totally failed at getting her point across’ or ‘Jordan totally failed at catching a fish.’ The first would be completely fair, if that’s what you thought. The second, though true – no fish have been caught this evening – is sort of stupid, because I wasn’t trying to do that, so of course I failed.
So looping back to books. I can only guess at the goals of this particular book I just finished. I think it’s a safe assumption, however, that the author was trying to a) craft a world that was not so absurd it prevented the reader from engaging with the story, and b) write a plot that made some kind of logical sense, where the progression from A to B to C was understandable.
These are sort of basic storytelling things, unless you’re doing some crazy surrealist nonsensical stuff, so I feel pretty safe in these assumptions.
To set the stage: This book takes place in modern day. Frequent references are made to pop culture icons, including Scarlett Johansen, Jon Stewart, and others. However, at some point in the history of this version of our world, a professional league of modern day gladiators was founded. This league is overseen by a kitschy Roman theme megacorp that enforces an infinitely long list of rules and regulations not only on the contracted gladiators (who operate not unlike boxers or MMA fighters) but also their wives and their families. You don’t just have to do what Roman Megacorp says if you’re a gladiator, you have to do what they say if you’re a gladiator’s wife or a gladiator’s son or daughter.
If the book had done a more artful job of crafting this Megacorp or the gladiator fighting league – modeling it more closely after actual ‘blood sports,’ for example, only with ‘possible death’ tacked on, maybe I could have rolled with it.
But there’s a fine line between ‘too far’ and ‘just far enough.’ And this book shot way, way over that line.
First, the Megacorp is painted early and often as some sort of fickle, evil manipulator of all in its domain, and almost always in a way that would result in a) bad press and b) completely negligible monetary gain. Do I believe there are, if not evil, at least morally bankrupt companies out there who will crush the happiness and well-being of individuals for their personal gain? I haven’t been under a rock all my life, so yes, that’s pretty feasible. Will these companies do this kind of crushing willfully when it gets them pennies and raises the ire of their customers and employees? Maaaaybe, but they probably don’t realize that ire thing is going to happen, and when it does they’ll back off a bit.
For Roman Megacorp, it isn’t so. When Protagonist’s gladiator father dies, Megacorp says he cheated in his match, strips him of his honors, takes the pension that they owed Protagonist’s mom, and sent her a note saying btw, we’re reclaiming your house and all your worldly possessions because you owe us some money for some arbitrary reason. PS, Protagonist’s mom can’t remarry, which has been her money making strategy for her adult life thus far, because it’s a rule in her contract as a gladiator’s wife.
There’s also an incident in which Megacorp sends a scissors-wielding, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father into the arena against his son, and some similar things that any idiot could see are a bad plan. I don’t know who’s running Megacorp’s PR division, but they need to fire him, grab a plucky young intern, and let common sense go to work.
But enough about them. Let’s get into my other big qualm with this book: The Rules.
As I mentioned, this book takes place in modern day. As such, readers are going to come in with certain assumptions about how the universe, society, the law, and people operate. You can tweak some stuff – if you couldn’t, there’d be no such thing as good alternate history, and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is proof there most certainly is – but you can’t go so far off the rails that the ‘alternate’ you’ve crafted isn’t immersive. And I say immersive (which spellcheck tells me I made up), not believable, because plenty of sci-fi, alternate history, steampunk, etc, isn’t ‘believable’ in the ‘could this really happen’ way. But many such books are immersive, in that they craft a convincing enough universe that when you enter a book’s logic bubble, you are willing to accept that people fly around on genetically engineered whales filled with hydrogen.
This book is not immersive specifically because of The Rules it heaps on the reader, often, to eliminate Protagonist’s logical courses of action and force her into a completely bizarre, illogical solution. The first instance of The Rules is her father’s money being taken – Megacorp creates some random new rule on the fly after he dies, and that allows them to take all his money. A Rule also says that Protagonist has to marry her father’s killer, that her mother can’t remarry, and that they all have to behave in a very particular, restrictive, and self-defeating way. As soon as a sensible course of action to overcoming her problems presents itself to Protagonist (or, more often, when the author senses the reader is going ‘but why doesn’t she just…’) a new Rule is instituted or remembered to eliminate that option and steer the plot in another direction.
I’m fine with rules in theory. Rules define organizations, societies, and the structure of a written universe. I’m not okay with rules that pop up when convenient, seem counter to the profit-making not-inducing-public-hatred goals of a for-profit corporation, and that no reasonable person, living in our universe with our legal system and societal norms, would ever agree to abide by.
Are there crazy pockets of society such as cults and other insular communities that have these kind of restrictive rules that run counter to an individual’s self-interest, but that people nonetheless doggedly abide by? Absolutely. But the key word there is “insular” – these kinds of rigid rules work because the people obeying them are isolated from other people and other options. Protagonist lives in Boston, goes to a public high school, regularly interacts with people who are not part of this culture, and is making an active effort to separate herself from the gladiator life. If they lived out in rural nowhere, if Protagonist only knew gladiator people, didn’t know how to function in normal society, didn’t have a job, and would never be able to speak to anyone she knew and loved again if she disobeyed these arbitrary rules, I’d go for it. But it’s made abundantly clear that’s not the case, and it’s even mentioned that Protagonist has a family lawyer. So I say, WTF. Not only are the Rules written and timed in such a way they were clearly made up on the fly to advance the plot, it makes no sense that our otherwise intelligent, plucky Protagonist would abide by them.
Seriously, this book could and should have been over by page one if Protagonist or her mom just hired a good damn lawyer.
In conclusion: don’t force it. Craft your world however you want, whenever you want, with whatever rules and social mores you want. It doesn’t have to be believable when measured up against the real world. But there needs to be enough internal logic that readers can accept that how things are and how things progress makes sense for the universe you’ve crafted.