Book Review: CHOSEN ONES by Veronica Roth
Veronica Roth is back with an adult(ish) SFF offering, taking the Chosen One trope to the next level.
Title: Chosen Ones
Author: Veronica Roth
Genre: Speculative Fiction/Science Fiction
Publisher: John Joseph Adams / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: April 2020
Hardcover: 432 pages
The first novel written for an adult audience by the mega-selling author of the Divergent franchise: five twenty-something heroes famous for saving the world when they were teenagers must face even greater demons—and reconsider what it means to be a hero . . . by destiny or by choice.
A decade ago near Chicago, five teenagers defeated the otherworldly enemy known as the Dark One, whose reign of terror brought widespread destruction and death. The seemingly un-extraordinary teens—Sloane, Matt, Ines, Albie, and Esther—had been brought together by a clandestine government agency because one of them was fated to be the “Chosen One,” prophesized to save the world. With the goal achieved, humankind celebrated the victors and began to mourn their lost loved ones.
Ten years later, though the champions remain celebrities, the world has moved forward and a whole, younger generation doesn’t seem to recall the days of endless fear. But Sloane remembers. It’s impossible for her to forget when the paparazzi haunt her every step just as the Dark One still haunts her dreams. Unlike everyone else, she hasn’t moved on; she’s adrift—no direction, no goals, no purpose. On the eve of the Ten Year Celebration of Peace, a new trauma hits the Chosen: the death of one of their own. And when they gather for the funeral at the enshrined site of their triumph, they discover to their horror that the Dark One’s reign never really ended.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in The Chosen Ones series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Remember 2011? A time when one could leave one’s house without fear of contracting a fatal contagion, sure, but also a time when YA dystopias were in full swing, and Veronica Roth emerged in the YA SFF scene with her addictive debut novel, Divergent, and its faction-based vision of the future.
2011 seems like a long time ago now–Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant and their film counterparts tales from a distant past–but having read and reviewed all of those books (and yes, even the first film), I was excited to learn of Veronica Roth’s foray into adult SFF with a brand new series. (And given lockdown, why not escape to a parallel universe with a group of superheroes struggling with their past choices, and a resurgence of evil threatening their future?)
Chosen Ones begins with a solid hook: the year is 2020, and the world is safe from the threat of the Dark One. That’s thanks to the fact that back in 2010, five then-teenagers (Sloane Andrews, Matthew Weekes, Inez Mejia, Albert Summers, and Esther Park) stopped the Dark One’s increasingly powerful chaotic attacks. Since then, the world has returned to normalcy, safe from the threat of Drains (the Dark One’s preferred method of destruction) though the scars of the past are still very visible–not only in cities like Chicago, where Drain sites remain a terrifying power-void, but also for the five heroes who used their magical gifts to save the day. Sloane Andrews, one of the so-called “chosen ones” hasn’t had the easiest time adjusting to being a public figure and hero after ten years–a large part of that is PTSD from having been abducted by the Dark One prior to their final battle (and the choices that she made, which become gradually unveiled to readers over the course of the novel). But a large part of it is self-denial and self-preservation; take, for example, the fact that Sloane lives with her boyfriend and fellow Chosen One, Matthew Weekes, whom she knows she is supposed to love and confide in, but with whom she has nothing in common other than their traumatic past.
Then, the unthinkable happens: one of the Chosen Ones dies. Albert Summers–Albie, to his friends–commits suicide by way of drug overdose, following the ten year anniversary celebration of the Dark One’s defeat at the Chicago Drain site. The remaining four friends are heartbroken–Sloane especially suffers with the loss. Albie was the only other person in the group who understood her, who was by her side when they were captured and tortured (though, once again, more of Sloane’s memories surface throughout the book especially where the Dark One and Albie are concerned).
At Albie’s funeral–a small affair to spread his ashes at the Chicago Drain site, per his wishes (every Chosen One has an “in case I don’t make it” contingency plan)–another unthinkable thing happens. One moment, Sloane, Matt, and Esther are standing on dry land; in the next, they are sputtering lake water in a parallel universe. The Dark One wasn’t defeated, you see. The battlefield, and the stakes, have just jumped across dimensions.
There’s a lot to love about Chosen Ones, pushing the validity and entirety of the “chosen one” archetype, while asking important questions: what happens when you grow up and you don’t have all the answers? What happens when you are a supposed hero, but don’t have any other battles to fight? Why doesn’t the world ever stay saved? Roth’s strength lies, as it did with the Divergent trilogy, with her protagonist. Sloane grapples with these big questions, while presenting a front for the outside world and even towards her fellow chosen ones, which becomes especially fraught when her relationship with Matt buckles under pressure. Who the world thinks Sloane is, who Matt thinks Sloane is, who Sloane thinks she herself is–these are big, soul searching revelations that drive the novel’s narrative. While Sloane grapples with her own sense of identity and power, there’s a parallel secondary storyline that unfolds through classified documents and news articles. Sloane has been trying to reclaim her past, and as we readers go through these different epistolary interludes, we–like Sloane–gradually understand the larger picture, and the depth of the exploitation of the chosen ones by their authority figures.
While the depth of Sloane’s character and the nature of the revelations she faces are undeniably powerful, other aspects of the story are less well-polished. For example, while I love the surprising shift from Part One to Part Two, Chosen Ones feels like two books that have been fused together–there’s the slower burn of Sloane’s search for meaning and identity, which then becomes an interdimensional portal story, which then becomes a showdown with an archnemesis. All of this is super rad, but the delivery is pretty remarkably uneven.
Also uneven were the other characterizations, beyond Sloane–Matt and Esther have a lot of potential that never really feels realized, as these other two chosen ones fail to rise beyond supporting cast status. (Also, Inez is in the book for like four chapters, and gets a pretty bum deal.) It was also slightly frustrating that–of course!–a predictably dull love interest twist pops up in the book’s second act.
These criticisms voiced, though, Chosen Ones is still a hell of a ride. I loved the imaginative scope of the story and its ultimate resolution–Roth takes the chosen one trope and subverts it again and again to pretty awesome effect. I’m excited to return to this strange new world.
Rating: 7 – Very Good