I recently read a new Young Adult novel by a fellow twenty-something woman writer (woo hoo!), who is doing an impressive amount of leg work on the marketing side of the book launch.
This YA sci-fi, cyber-punk epic, SocialPunk, is the first in a trilogy. It was a quick and generally entertaining read. While there are a several things I respect about the book and the marketing launch as whole, there are a few more things that are disappointing and concerning to me.
First, the good stuff.
Monica Leonelle has done a great job of creating a brand for herself – everything from her website to her correspondence with me about doing this review and the interview, to the way her book is presented – everything fits together, and you get a sense that you really know her point of view as a person and author. This is a great lesson to any writers (or other artists) out there: you are your own brand. So embrace it.
The book itself draws from a lot of obvious sci-fi influences, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer or the movie Blade Runner, and molds those inspirations to fit inside our social-networked world order. Leonelle has a distinct, colorful and unique vision of the future, especially when it comes to technology and its influences on human identity and relationships.
SocialPunk is a classic hero’s journey epic; like Neo or Harry Potter, we are given a hero at the center of it all that is thrust into the position of saving the world. The one hopeful and unique thing about this particular story? The hero is a woman. While there may be a few obscure female heros of that caliber (Joan of Arc being the only one that comes immediately to mind, not that she’s obscure at all), our epic heroes tend to be male. So it is a great sign when an author gives us a female hero named Ima – especially when the book is geared toward the YA audience, an audience that needs stories to connect to and learn from, at a time in their lives when they are finding their identities and creating their future reading habits.
Now, the things that bothered me.
Leonelle’s writing style was a bit inconsistent and puzzling to me; YA writing obviously has its specific stylistics in order to connect to a younger audience, but the SocialPunk style was over simplified. There was nothing in the language that would challenge a YA reader to think deeply about the world of the book or its characters. Ima, the protagonist, and her cohorts in the 16-18 age range, old enough to be sexually active and dealing with that reality in a somewhat nonchalant dismissive manner, but the language used to describe Ima’s observations and point of view paints a picture of much younger children. There is very little subtly in the point of view, very little that reflects the darkness and complexity of both Ima’s feelings and the world she inhabits. She is poor, lonely and a child of an abusive father; she lives in a world torn apart by ecological disasters; she is an outsider in all possible ways, yet we are given prose that, while making it easy to read quickly, spends little time reflecting this complex girl to us through the language.
Most things are told to the reader, rather than shown. We are told that Ima, the protagonist, is beautiful and brave and wonderful – we are told, in fact, over and over by many characters. Like most teenagers, Ima has to deal with an almost crippling low self-esteem – so the moment she finally hears something positive about herself from someone else should be a particularly important one… but it was watered down by a continued reminder of Ima’s worth by other characters. Partly, we need this reminder because Ima herself never seems to grasp a self esteem that is disconnected from outside opinions. Almost all heroes start off weak and flawed – but over the course of their journey they should become stronger, though still flawed. Ima’s strength seems tied haphazardly to the opinions of others; if forced to follow through on her own, she would crumble under the pressure. Some of this disposition could be attributed to her being abused as a child, particularly by her father – but halfway through the book we have forgotten about this point completely.
You must keep in mind that this is part one of a trilogy – so Ima’s journey is far from over, so I’m sure there is much more growing to be done by our hero. It would have been nice to have a few more hints of her growth in this installment.
Aside from this dependence on outside opinion, Ima’s point of view concerns me in another important more female-centric way: there is a great deal of emphasis placed on outward beauty, Ima’s self-worth and importance is tied specifically to boys liking her, and every other female character Ima encounters is either being abused/dominated by a man (her mother) or is fighting Ima for the attention of a man. In fact, her relationships with other women tend to ebb and flow at the whim of the male characters and where the sexual tension seems to lie at any given moment.
While romantic entanglements are certainly important both in storytelling and in teenage melodrama, it bothers me to have a rare female hero be judged almost solely on her physical appearance and how many male characters are after her (at least 3 if not 4 at any given point, if you include the guy she in pining after). There is one scene in particular that didn’t sit well with me. In an attempt to not give away spoilers, I’ll try to be as vague as possible: in a conversation with her new boss, she is told that she cannot be his new right hand man, so to speak, and be in a romantic relationship at the same time because he “can’t have [his] right hand serving two men.” The word “serve” is a very heavy word – to me it assumed an inferior position of a woman to a man in a romantic relationship.
Of course in any great epic, there is some point where a hero must choose between love and the work that needs to be done – and this may indeed be that moment for Ima. But to put it in those terms is troubling to me.
About the SocialPunk author:
Monica Leonelle is a well-known digital media strategist and the author of three novels. She blogs at Prose on Fire and shares her writing and social media knowledge with other bloggers and authors through her Free Writer Toolkit.
Ima would give anything to escape The Dome and learn what’s beyond its barriers, but the Chicago government has kept all its citizens on lockdown ever since the Scorched Years left most of the world a desert wasteland. When a mysterious group of hooded figures enters the city unexpectedly, Ima uncovers a plot to destroy The Dome and is given the choice between escaping to a new, dangerous city or staying behind and fighting a battle she can never win.