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REVIEW: The Registry by Shannon Stoker

Dear Ms. Stoker,

I can’t decide if all these dystopian YAs featuring young women as chattel are a reflection of current social anxiety about the state of womens’ rights or simply lazy writing. Not to say that oppressed young women finding freedom isn’t a story worth telling. It obviously is. I just think that a lot of what I assume to be intended feminist novels end up supporting established sexist narratives in the process, thereby negating the liberating narrative they’re meant to tell.

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In the stark future of The Registry, the United States has instituted a system segregating the sexes. Boys are raised to be soldiers, trained to protect their country at the cost of their lives. Girls are raised to be brides, auctioned off to the highest bidder — typically one of the former soldiers who survived their service to their country. As a result, girls are the desired progeny for the money they bring in. The boys? Often tossed out on the street.

The novel’s heroine, Mia, grew up wanting nothing more than to be a bride. It was her greatest wish. Then one day her older sister comes home broken and abused, and Mia’s illusions about the system she grew up buying into are shattered.

The Registry strongly reminds me of a younger, updated The Handmaid’s Tale. I think that’s to its detriment because how can you compare to what has since become a modern classic? It’s a lot of expectation.

I appreciated what the novel was trying to do, making a protagonist out of a sheltered, naive girl who was raised to be nothing more than a pretty showpiece on a man’s arm. But as I’ve said in the past, I prefer my characters smart. Not necessarily book smart; I appreciate a well-developed sense of street smarts and people smarts in my fictional characters.

Mia has none of these things. She is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and I wish I could say that was just because she was intentionally kept ignorant. In the world of The Registry, a girl’s worth is determined by her price tag so buyers fight over the expensive girls. The cheaper girls often never get bought and instead go into government service — they “marry” the government. As readers can probably surmise, the smart girls are given low price tags to make them look unattractive to buyers while the not-so-bright girls are given high price tags. Given that Mia is the protagonist, not only is she the most beautiful girl ever — apparently only tall, skinny, blue-eyed blondes are the epitome of hotness — she also has the dubious honor of having an extremely high bride price, which unfortunately correlates to her intelligence. Or lack thereof, as the case may be.

Now it would be one thing if she started off from a place of ignorance and worked towards a position of knowledge. But after the life-changing revelation that marriages can be abusive and the Registry’s system of marriage is little more than slavery, Mia doesn’t do much with that information. It drives her to run away, true, but does she prepare for it?

You have to understand. I come from a fantasy reading background. There’s this common storyline where a pretty young thing is forced to marry a horrible man. Now this “horrible” quality varies: he’s old, he’s violent, he’s abusive. Whatever the trait, the girl refuses to marry this man and runs away. And in almost all those cases, she doesn’t prepare adequately and bad things befall her. The thing that always bothered me in these storylines was that the girl never prepared. In the best case scenarios, she brought a change of clothes and maybe some bread but more often than not, she overlooks some basics — like a map.

Mia suffers from that same lack of foresight. Coupled with a lack of effort to learn more, I was quite dubious about this heroine. Now I guess you could say she did have people smarts. She intended to use her best friend — a smart girl who’s been on the marriage market for so long that her fate to become a government bride was all but guaranteed — to help her survive out on the road and a farmhand to guide them both to Mexico and freedom.

But see, that’s the thing. She intended to use them without giving anything back. That’s just crappy. There’s a point where Mia is called out for this behavior but because it comes from the slightly unstable farmhand, it loses its impact. The narrative needed to do a better job of criticizing this.

And that’s another thing. In a stunning turn of events, the farmhand, Andrew, becomes Mia’s love interest. I know readers are shocked. But unfortunately, he belongs to that all-too-common breed of YA love interest: unstable and violent. I know his character was meant to portray how the country’s system breaks its boys and turns them into unfeeling killing machines, but Andrew was a sociopath and one prone to terrifying flights of rage. Even I wouldn’t wish this fate on the dim, selfish Mia.

In some ways, I think most of my complaints could have been mitigated by better writing. The romantic subplot, such that it is, is executed in a clumsy, immature fashion. It’s a case of instalove for Mia, and I can only assume that’s because Andrew is the first young man she’s ever spent any amount of time with. When a second love interest was introduced later in the novel, along with the resulting love triangle, I almost groaned out loud. I dislike love triangles under the best of conditions. But these characters in their late teens were acting like kids who were much younger, and that made it so much worse.

The villain, Mia’s buyer and husband, is the classic mustache-twirling bad guy. How do you know he’s evil? He randomly shoots government agents. He randomly throws people out of helicopters. Why? Because they were annoying him and that’s what evil people do when they’re annoyed. If I were to be generous, I could say this was yet another example of how the country’s system destroys its boys. It makes them grow up orphans and if they survive their duty, they grow up to be homicidal maniacs. But given the novel’s other flaws, I’m not feeling too generous.

I think this is a sign that I need to take a break from dystopians. At the very least, I need a break from books featuring depressing futures in which girls are reduced to little more than property. Even if this trend is meant to be a reflection of present-day social anxiety, that doesn’t mean I need to read about it in my fiction. D

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

14 Comments

  1. DB Cooper
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 09:04:07

    Funny. Reading the setup you presented here, my first thought was Oh, that sounds like The Handmaid’s Tale.

    By the time I got to the end of the book, I was thinking that’s not like The Handmaid’s Tale at all.

    I suppose, yeah, being compared to THT is kind of a tough position for a book to be in. To be fair to the author, I could totally see it if they were influenced by Atwood’s book and decided to take a left turn down the road and write a “what if we did it this way”. Set it up as a YA (NA?) Sure! A more familiar love interest setup? Sure!

    …but it’s sounding like it’s lacking some nuance in its characterizations here (throwing guys out of helicopters? really?). Alas.

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  2. Patricia Eimer
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 10:00:06

    I was thinking Handmaid’s Tale as well but apparently not. This sounds…interesting

    ReplyReply

  3. Crista
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 10:46:53

    I keep waiting for a dystopian YA/NA where women are in charge and men are basically sperm donors.

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  4. LauraB
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 10:58:20

    @Crista:

    You might find Wen Spencer’s “A Brother’s Price” http://www.wenspencer.com/a-brothers-price/

    Not quite a sperm donor story, but it turns notions of polygamy completely upside down.

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  5. AmyW
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 11:51:07

    The smart best friend sounds like a much more interesting character.

    ReplyReply

  6. Jia
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 12:11:57

    @AmyW: She has more potential than the protag, yes, but the hamfisted writing keeps getting in the way. The moment they’re on the road, she falls to pieces, becomes obstinate, and wishes she could get married.

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  7. Jia
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 12:12:53

    @Crista: Alas, not there yet.

    ReplyReply

  8. Isobel Carr
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 13:39:18

    @Crista:

    I keep waiting for a dystopian YA/NA where women are in charge and men are basically sperm donors.

    Except I fear the “lesson” would likely be deeply anti-feminist and enraging.

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  9. Samantha
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 14:05:40

    @Crista

    Not NA/YA, but The Shore of Women is a post nuclear world where the women live in walled cities and men roam the outside and only come in contact with the city when summoned for procreation. It’s been forever since I read it.

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  10. Darlynne
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 15:15:57

    @LauraB: I agree and would also recommend A Brother’s Price. It’s not dystopian, but boys, because they are so rare, are prized in a society ruled by women. For all that they are prized, they are also treated as currency and everyone assumes they are less able and capable than women. Wen Spencer is one of my favorite authors and this book did a nice job of turning the tables.

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  11. AmyW
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 15:31:45

    @Jia: Ew.

    I haven’t read it but there is a popular comic/graphic novel called “Y: The Last Man” where are males (human and mammal) on Earth have died except one. As you can tell from the title, it’s about the man… I would love to know what the DA crowd thinks if anyone has read it.

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  12. WordSpinner
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 15:58:21

    @ Crista,

    I’m fourthing the recommendation for “A Brother’s Price”. It isn’t–quite–a dystopian, but men’s position is really terrible. What makes it kind of interesting is that the women in the book (and there are a lot of women) are not (all) portrayed as all villains, even those who profit from the arrangement. Eldest Whistler is really awesome. I have a crush on her, and I’m straight.

    I think genderflipped oppression, when done right, can really work. The other books I’ve liked that take place in a matriarchy–though also not dystopian–are the Books of the Raksura, that I know other DA readers have read. The bit in the third book with Ember really shows how crappy being male can be, even when you have rank.

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  13. wikkidsexycool
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 17:50:28

    @Crista:

    Well, I hope it’s okay to recommend my book coming out at the end of July, where women take over rulership of earth. I’ve filled it with political intrigue, romance and action. However, since parts are pretty dark I couldn’t go the YA/NA route, though I have flashbacks of the heroine as a pre-teen prior to the start of a world war between males and females. Oh, and I had to have a multicultural cast, as that’s part of my reason for writing. Here’s a link to read an excerpt:
    http://goo.gl/VGGiw

    ReplyReply

  14. CD
    Jul 04, 2013 @ 06:17:39

    @Crista:

    Well, Tepper’s THE GATE TO WOMAN’S COUNTRY is an interesting and intentionally provocative SFF with a feminist portrayal of a matriarchal society after a devastating nuclear apocalypse. I have issues with it but it’s still a thought-provoking read. Here’s a review:
    http://speculativebookreview.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/review-gate-to-womens-country-by-sheri.html

    I do think it is a real shame that feminist SF/F seems very much thin on the ground nowadays – books like THE HANDMAID’S TALE and WOMAN’S COUNTRY, and authors like Tepper, LeGuin and Norton, that use the genre to explicitly explore ideas of gender and society.

    ReplyReply

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