By Veronica Roth
There’s a sharp and jagged disconnect running through the heart of “Chosen Ones,” Veronica Roth’s first work of adult fiction, and it mimics the often harsh line between stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and the messier process of actually living them.
Her heroine, Sloane, equally sharp and jagged, is still trying — or failing — to put together the broken pieces of her life 10 years after she helped to defeat the Dark One, a generic evil overlord deliberately left offstage, who brought magic crashing into a recognizable version of our own world. That still-unexplained cataclysm is slowly receding into the past, but Sloane and her fellow Chosen Ones still carry the scars, prominent and imperfectly healed.
There are documents related to Sloane scattered throughout the book — scholarly articles, vile celebrity-vulture interviews, mothballed intelligence reports she’s managed to get her hands on. They’re all part of the storm roaring around her, providing readers with a sense she’s standing inside one of the Dark One’s deadly magical Drains, being pulled apart into her component pieces for examination. Roth wisely doesn’t directly show Sloane reading the documents, inviting us to build her reactions in our own churning stomachs. Her approach is to bring us inside Sloane’s bitter excavation of the past even while keeping us at arm’s length. Each small fragment of an answer is hard-won.
Still, piece by piece they come, until we’re hovering on the edge of understanding, with the feeling that there’s a door to revelation up ahead just starting to crack open that will let Sloane move forward. But before we get there, an unexpected trap chute opens, dumping her — and us — into an oceanic trench, both literal and metaphorical.
Here, Roth trades the world Sloane saved, the world we’ve begun to live in, for a parallel one swamped with exposition and a fresh case of mortal peril. All the characters we were starting to care about are put to one side along with Sloane’s relationships with them; new ones are quickly pushed into a prominence that feels unearned, especially after the slow build of the first half of the book. Among these is Matthew Weekes, perhaps the most significant loss — a hero we’re asked over and over to love, without quite being given a satisfying reason … until it turns out we don’t have to love him anymore! It’s hard to reconcile the Matt of the first half of the story with the quickly jettisoned dead weight of the second. This is further complicated by the narrative of racism surrounding his own position of savior-while-black, which veers between the painfully believable story of having to be the hero for a world that doesn’t quite want you in that role — a story thread I wanted to follow that fell by the wayside — and a melodrama of violent white supremacists, who pop up as cartoonish villains mainly to be punched by Sloane.
And yet Sloane does have to let Matt and the whole world go. She has to go into that trench so she can come out the other side with a life that can keep on going. The world itself becomes a sacrifice that ultimately goes into the Dark One, who steps back onto the stage, finally substantial, in the final act. I was reminded of watching a time-lapse of an artist working on a large piece: a sketchy stick figure in the distant corner that you didn’t think was going to be very important, suddenly coming into detail, color and prominence. It’s not an accident that Sloane begins the book by violently recoiling from the question of her relationship to the Dark One: It’s the question the whole story is answering, the question that she doesn’t want to answer, the question that, in the end, she saves the world by answering.
But the first half of the story tantalizingly dangles other questions: what it means to have been a Chosen One, what it means to be a hero after the battle is over or when you don’t measure up to your own idea of what that should be, how you pick up your pieces and go onward. And those questions can’t be answered in this novel, because it turns out instead that Sloane isn’t done with being a hero. She’s still the Chosen One, and ultimately the novel yields to the pressure of that established narrative.
It’s not wrong — it’s a true story for her, and Sloane is a strong enough character to carry you the whole way, to make you want to keep going with her into that second world and its new cast and come out the other end. But when you do, it’s with the slightly frustrating sense that you might have wanted the story that wasn’t told more than the one you were given: the one offered by the first part with all its ugly complexities, full of Sloane’s drifting and pain, the smirking hunger of the reporters and the public, the smaller but infinitely painful stakes. But even despite the disruption, that world stays with you the whole way through, and makes the final ending land on satisfyingly unsteady ground.