JOINT REVIEW: The Wicked We Have Done by Sarah Harian
Dear Ms Harian:
Wicked We Have Done had a really well done blurb and the pre publicity chatter intimated that it was fresh and different. As I started the book I was hopeful that fresh and different meant a lesbian romance between the main protagonist and the other female lead, Valerie. Alas, it was not.
The setup for the book is that accused criminals have an opportunity to have their guilt and innocence judged by The Compass Rooms. A neurochip is implanted and a set of individuals, grouped by age, are let loose in a large computer monitored arena where they are exposed to moral dilemmas. If they survive, then they are free to go–judged morally upright by The Compass Room. Few make it out.
Evelyn, our narrator, chooses The Compass Room or rather it is chosen for her. I never really got a sense that she made a conscious decision about this. Her backstory is dribbled out through the “challenges” in The Compass Room but readers are clued in right away that Evelyn was involved in a school shooting. Throughout the book I wondered whether it should have been a young adult book. Disaffected youths might latch on to the story with more gusto than someone like me.
The major problem of the book is the set up. It’s supposedly set in the US and there is no watershed moment that led to The Compass Room. No political or societal issue births these rooms. They just are. The lack of explanation for why these existed nagged at me throughout the story, lending a very artificial quality to the narrative.
I see what you mean about hoping for a lesbian romance between Evalyn and Valerie. Based on their interactions early in the novel, I wished it had gone in that direction too. A bit of a missed opportunity, in my opinion. I’m not slamming the main heterosexual romance that does happen — and normally, I like older woman/younger man pairings, which is technically what we have here — but that’s not the type of fresh and different they mean. Sure, there’s a secondary lesbian romance but it’s not front and center.
As for the premise of Wicked We Have Done, it’s one that’s similar to a few seminal SF novels. Minority Report, for example. The idea that implanted chips can judge a person’s guilt and/or their violent tendencies isn’t new. To really make the set-up work, we needed more social context. When is this set? It’s extremely vague. Near-future or far-future? Depending on which it is, that affects the social impact and ramifications. What drove the US to adopt this system? It could be an event, an extremely influential Senator with the right backing, or even a series of key legislation but it’s never made clear. The perspective on these details is limited because we only see from Evalyn’s POV but without knowing which of those thing(s) it was, the premise collapses if you scrutinize the worldbuilding or are socio-politically savvy.
Jane: The worldbuilding is particularly lazy in the story. The Compass Rooms are designed to make you face your past demons but the science is handwavey. Don’t look too hard or question it too closely. For instance, how does The Compass Room know exactly what happened in the past? If it is based on the internal memories, how does it access those? And if you can access internal memories, then why do you even need The Compass Room? If it isn’t accessing internal memories then how does the computer system know what scenarios to feed to the brain through the neuro chip? Is it just testing for recidivism? Is guilt or innocence dependent on who is likely to repeat a wrongdoing (This is sort of the dilemma that is posed at the very start of the book)? Studies have shown that violent crimes like murder have a low rate of recidivism wheres as theft, sex crimes, and drug use has a really high rate of recidivism. Are the murderers more immoral or less?
In other words, what was the point of The Compass Rooms? What could it do other than to provide a place for the author to recreate The Hunger Games?
Another large problem with the book is Evalyn. Maybe it is because Valerie, the girl who killed her sister’s rapist and then spurned her twin when the twin decided to keep the baby born of the rape, was so much more interesting. Valerie is brash, outspoken, yet vulnerable at all the right times. She falls in love with a Prim like character in the story. Their romance and Valerie’s bright flame of a character overshadowed Evalyn who appears, for most of the book, reactionary. She rarely takes the initiative but instead is always reacting to people around her as well as the neural stimuli. You don’t see her actively fighting the process as you do with Valerie.
The romance, too, is predictable.
Jia: The Compass Room was definitely reminiscent of The Hunger Games arena. The book did read like it wanted to be an older Hunger Games at times. I can see the appeal of that for some readers but if you’re tired of that, it can be underwhelming.
Evalyn was disappointing as a main character. To pull off both the premise and Evalyn’s backstory, she needed to have been less bland and, dare I say it, more of a sociopath. The narrative makes a point to tell us that Evalyn is a passionate person, that her friendship with Meghan is more like that of lovers rather than best friends, that her participation in the shooting is an act of desperation to save her best friend’s life. The narrative doesn’t actually show these traits though.
For example: She hates her best friend’s boyfriend. Fine. But other than a few glares and one heated discussion with Meghan, that’s all it boils down to. She even wishes her own boyfriend would stop a controversial discussion with the guy! Are those the reactions of a passionate person whose relationship with her best friend might be a bit tangled? No. There should have been active disagreements with the boyfriend. There should have been fights with the best friend. There should have been her trying to monopolize the best friend’s time while excluding the boyfriend. There should have been attempts to make the boyfriend look bad. Something. Any one of these things would have gone a long way to showing me a highly emotional Evalyn, capable of losing her head and doing the unforgivable. Does it run the risk of making Evalyn unlikeable and unsympathetic? Of course. But she already participated in a school shooting and killed someone. We passed that point a long time ago.
Or the book could have gone the route of Evalyn only intensely loving her boyfriend, best friend, and little brother. If one of those three things were threatened, it’d be easier to see how she could be driven to kill a man for no reason other than he was the one she saw first.
I had no problems with the romance but I agree that it was unexciting.
Jane: My main problem with the romance was that it was so predictable. When I figured out that it wasn’t going to be Evalyn and Valerie, I knew it would be Evalyn and Casey because the set up was so obvious. They strike antagonistic sparks off one another yet he saves her first in a dire situation. She doesn’t understand why. He’s large and attractive as opposed to the pale guys or the skinny guys or the serial rapist.
And I agree that the narrative didn’t go far enough with Evalyn. She did something to protect a friend but I wasn’t able to sympathize with her. Was it the school shooting aspect? Or was it that her backstory-the very bland one-didn’t create enough interest.
Throughout the book I wondered what I was being asked to do. Was I supposed to feel sorry for these young people who had taken lives, raped people, or did other “wicked” things? If so, their short backstories weren’t really enough to generate true sympathy. Was I suppose to see The Compass Rooms as barbaric? If so, then yes, that worked but why were they instituted in the first place? As the group tries to fight for survival in The Compass Rooms, they posit questions to each other yet none of the questions are adequately answered by the text and I don’t think that was intentional. I think we are supposed to see this group of characters as somewhat flawed but redeemable except for a couple truly evil ones but it isn’t The Compass Room that decides that for you? The author decides it for you by showing you that person A doesn’t have a good excuse for the wicked deed whereas person B does.
The moral ambiguity isn’t ambiguous at all.
Finally, let’s address the Chaos Theory because that’s the name of the series. The Chaos Theory says that events are unpredictable yet most of the story is truly predictable. We know Evalyn survives. We know that she has a romance with the most likely male character. We know that together they fight off the villains. We know that The Compass Rooms are doomed from the very start. We know that it is a youth against age dynamic. I didn’t think the Chaos Theory fit with the story that was told.
Jia: Yes, this is the sort of premise that depends on moral ambiguity. Evalyn killed an innocent person to save her best friend. Which is worse: killing an innocent person or letting your best friend die? That’s the question the book asks us.
But it never examines the nuances to the extent they need. Let’s take the Prim-like character. Her “wicked” deed is that she killed a family by driving while drunk. Bad thing, right? But the reason why she was intoxicated was because she was depressed and using it as a means to escape. Now, is this supposed to be an exploration about how society fails the mentally ill, especially those who are young? I would like to think so but the way it read is that she gets a free pass because it was a terrible accident. That is not how it works. That family is still dead. It leaves a mark. Does they not show those drunk driving videos in driver’s ed anymore?
I honestly thought Chaos Theory was picked as the series title for Rule of Cool reasons (because it sounds neat and is easily marketable) rather than having anything to do with the content. Yes, it’s the pet theory of the main orchestrator of the school shooting and I suppose it’s what kicked the events into gear but other than that, the connections are tenuous at best.
I was also frustrated by the last quarter or so of the novel. For me, that’s really where the book becomes predictable in an unbearable way. It’s not just that we know the Compass Rooms are doomed from the start. It’s the way that they show the flaws with their systems. I feel like anyone who’s watched a science fiction movie featuring A.I. within the last 30 years will guess what happens within the Compass Rooms and the systems controlling them.
Jane: When you told me you were reading the book and frustrated, I thought “oh boy, wait until she gets to the end.” The set up for book 2 is rather bizarre for me because these are criminals and we are supposed to believe that they’ll have some kind of agency and voice that will rouse the passions of the world? I just didn’t get it.
I suppose I should be grateful that there is something new within the New Adult genre but I actually felt that there wasn’t anything new adult about this. It had a very YA tone to it minus the explicit sex, although YA books are having more and more explicit sex these days so I’m not even sure that is the differentiation. I didn’t get a sense that these characters discovered anything new about themselves or about their past misdeeds. It’s as if by surviving they felt that they were absolved of their wrong doings in their own minds which, again, didn’t really fit the concept of The Compass Rooms.
In the end, I guess I’d give it a C-. It’s not terribly written but it is seriously flawed.
Jia: The ending wore me out simply because it reminded me of Return of the King where it seemed like there was ending after ending after ending. “What? There’s more?! What? Another chapter?!” That sort of thing. Never a good feeling to give a reader.
I can’t say the set-up for book 2 excites me. Like I said in the beginning, we have no social context. If it did, then seeing these criminals become rallying points or polarizing figures in the Compass Room debate, such that there is one presented in the book, would mean something. We don’t, though, so I’m left wondering why I should care what happens to them.
I was excited when I heard a non-contemporary romance NA novel was coming out. There’s lot of room in the category for other genres but it seems like non-romance ones have really struggled to gain a foothold. But other than Evalyn’s age, I agree that there weren’t any classic NA themes in it regarding self-discovery and finding your place in the adult world. Combined with the issues of morality and criminal angle, I think this could have been a very provocative book given the slightly-older-than-YA characters. What happens when you’re 21 and guilty of an awful crime? You’re young enough to have your entire life ahead of you but you’re old enough that everyone will hold you accountable for your actions. The entire world was open to you and now the door is slammed in your face. That is heavy stuff. That is NA territory.
For me, this is a C read with the caveat that I’m not especially interested in continuing the series. Some C reads, you keep going. Others, not so much. I liked the action portions of the plot and those were what kept me going through the book. That said, they’re not enough to mask the poorly thought out worldbuilding and social ramifications.