Fiction Reviews

Poster Girl

(2023) Veronica Roth, Hodderscape, £9.99, pbk, 272pp, ISBN 978-1-529-33102-8


‘Compelling, yet excessively dour’ isn’t the kind of review quote that finds its way onto the covers of novels, but it’s a fair summary of this short (sub-300 page) novel by Veronica Roth, best known for the 'Divergent' series of young adult novels and films.

Sonya is a political prisoner in a near-future West Coast America. For ten years, she’s been held both for her dead family’s connections to the previous regime, the Delegation, but also for her status as its titular ‘poster girl.’ That is to say, she appeared on posters encouraging compliance with the puritanical code by which citizens were meant to live.

This code was also subject to a game-ification process – every citizen had an ocular implant and recorder which rewards good behaviour with extra currency and punished infractions big and small with an instant reduction in resources.

The new government brought into being by the revolution is far from perfect – crumbling and corrupt, it might as well be shot in sepia – but it at least clears the low bar of being better than the Delegation.

Having been slightly too old to benefit from previous amnesties, Sonya is offered an unexpected deal by the new Government: in order to gain her freedom, she must find a missing child removed from her parents under the Delegation’s one-child policy. On day release in the city she grew up in, yet hardly recognises any more, she tangles with shady information-brokers and anti-technological terrorists while she investigates.

At this point astute readers may be asking why someone locked away for ten years would be asked to crack a cold case like this. They would be right, but there also Important Plot Reasons why this has to be Sonya, as becomes apparent as the story unfolds. And the fact that the official making her the offer is the brother of her deceased fiancé adds a whole layer of personal history and suppressed romantic tension to proceedings.

Poster Girl is a showcase in economy, packing in more action that you might expect in a novel this short. The characterisation and dialogue are excellent. Sonya’s prison in particular, with its parade of ageing officials, their widows and widowers and their angry grown-up children, its ecosystem of barter, repair and despair, is brought to life beautifully. If the whole book had taken place there then it would have been a remarkable piece of work indeed.

Once Sonya goes beyond the prison gates however then the novel did start to disenchant me a bit. The mood remains relentlessly sombre – and while our protagonist has every reason to be awash with sadness, there’s no contrast to this either in the other characters or in the world around her. It’s a good note, but the book as a whole is too one-note.

Poster Girl does have interesting things to say about the role of technology in oppressive systems of social control, the effectiveness of getting the community to police itself, and the awful complicity this can create even in its youngest members. This is of course not new – it’s been a cornerstone of the political end of the genre since 1984 – but the game-ification certainly puts a novel spin on it.

I’ve been back and forth on whether Roth is missing a trick or ensuring the book finds its audience by not explicitly tying the Delegation into Christian fundamentalism, but on balance I suspect the latter.

Despite the dourness, recommended for fans of Roth’s previous novels and dystopian fiction more generally with a qualified thumbs-up for everyone else.

Tim Atkinson


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