Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Juliette can’t touch people.
She’s been locked away in an asylum by the Restablishment government for murder. Every time someone brushes against her, Juliette’s power causes severe pain, and if she doesn’t push them away, it can prove fatal. Left to the cruel isolation of the asylum, Juliette hasn’t spoken a word in 264 days. She’s been all but forgotten about. Meanwhile, disease, poverty and global warming are destroying the population outside of Juliette’s cell.
But all that is about to change. Now, the Restablishment have remembered Juliette and her abilities. Now they’re considering using her as a weapon. Now Juliette has to decide if she’s a pawn or a queen.
First of all, thank you to Netgalley for an e-book of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
The Shatter Me books are one of those YA series you can’t seem to help hearing about. I’ve never heard all that much about them, but I have been pretty aware of when the next one in the series is being released, and I know quite a few friends who are in love with it. Having not jumped on the bandwagon at the right time, I thought it would be nice to give the first book in the series a go, knowing fine well that I was likely resigning myself to breaking the book ban and ordering the rest of the novels in a gleeful splurge on Amazon.
Well, dear readers, I’m sorry to inform you [but not my bank account] that I was woefully wrong. From the first few pages, I could see that Shatter Me was just not going to be my kind of book. I probably should have done more research before offering to read and review the novel, but I was slightly put off by the first chapter taking place in an asylum. It’s not that I have anything against books about people struggling with mental health issues [especially when they are well-researched] but I also know there’s a bit of a trope of YA novels starting out in this setting. Most of them I’ve read haven’t been up to scratch. And unfortunately, neither was Shatter Me.
I wanted to like it, I really really did. But I just couldn’t. There were so many issues for me with this novel, and I came away from it feeling as though the book was quite problematic, in a way that I haven’t yet had too much time to explore. And once I began to notice that, any hope of me falling in love with the characters or the plot fell way way by the wayside.
First of all, there was SO much exposition which didn’t really do much of a good job of actually explaining things to me, even in info-dump format. I get that it was a pretty complex world to be hurled into, and I suppose some of what pulled this back from being a total disaster was the fact that the main character, Juliette, has been stuck in an asylum for quite a few of her teenage years. Lots of things have changed since her arrest, so I suppose it makes sense that she explains all the differences between the world as she knew it and the world that now exists around her. It’s just not that well done, as far as I can tell, and a lot of the exposition is either info-dumps about things like the Restablishment or rebels which could have been done with more show less tell [and don’t think I don’t notice every creative writer reading this and wincing] and then there’s a bunch of other quite cringe-worthy additions readers really didn’t need to have thrown at them. Things such as Juliette’s fascinating thoughts on en-suite bathrooms: “I’ve heard stories about people with bathrooms in their bedrooms. I guess they’re not exactly in the bedroom, but they’re close enough.” Maybe en-suite bathrooms aren’t a thing in Juliette’s world, but surely there are so many other things she’s more curious about? I mean, the girl has been stuck in a cell for three years. Most of it is so unnecessary, that after a while it just makes me want to put the book down and have a nap. My other favourite was the entirely pointless: “He doesn’t speak for 30 seconds. Then he does.” What exactly, is this adding to the story?
And it ultimately distracts from the world-building. Because there were bits that were told in info-dumps rather than shown, which meant I glazed over them in search of more interesting reading, and then there were things I actually wanted to know which weren’t addressed. Maybe that’s because there’s more books in the series, and Mafi can’t give away all the answers in book one, but it did leave me feeling rather frustrated; who are the Restablishment? What are they trying to do? What about Juliette’s ability? Why can some people touch her and some can’t? What about the rebels? What about Juliette’s family? What’s happening with the rest of the world when everything else is going on? I don’t even really have an idea on the geography. I probably skimmed over it, but even now, having finished Shatter Me, I couldn’t tell you where it takes place. If it is a fantasy-based world or a country we’re familiar with such as England or America but dystopian. And that’s pretty unfortunate, because I lost any kind of potential connection I had with the characters through the lack of information on offer.
Furthermore, there were a ridiculous amount of coincidences in Shatter Me. I know, I know there are probably at least half of the people reading this shouting at their screens that lots of YA books are mired in circumstances, luck, and coincidences. But even so. If Shatter Me was a cake, and coincidence was a flavour like chocolate, then not only would there be chocolate sprinkles on the top, but the cake would be made out of chocolate, the icing would be chocolate. There’d be chocolate chips hidden in the cake, chocolate buttercream between each layer and when you cut into it, it would bleed chocolate. Which is fine if you have a sweet tooth like I do, but at some point it’s going to hit you that you’ve eaten about a month’s worth of calories in one go and the cake is actually so chocolate-y sweet that you’re feeling a touch nauseous now. Again, maybe this is just me reading book one and getting confused, maybe there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything that goes on, but it isn’t in Shatter Me, so I don’t feel too guilty complaining about it [especially because I know a few readers who will kindly tell me I’m barking up the wrong tree if I do]. My main irk with this is the really big and largely unaddressed coincidence that occurs in the book: the fact that Adam [the love interest] and Warner [the enemy guy] both just happen to have the rare ability to touch Juliette. Perhaps it is some kind of special ability [I’m sure it is] but that doesn’t really cancel out the fact that there’s a huge bloody coincidence that the two people in the world who claim to love her [or to be obsessed with her] happen to be the only two people who can lay a hand on her without being in total agony.
There’s another good example too, the moment when Adam leads Juliette to a radioactive field in order to cancel out the tracking technology in his bloodstream. When she asks why the radiation hasn’t killed them, his response is on par with most of the wince-worthy bad fanfiction I’ve read over the years: “What about me?” I ask. “Can’t this radiation kill me?” “Oh– no.” He shakes his head. “One of the reasons why Warner wanted me collecting these samples? You’re immune to it, too. He was studying you. He said he found the information in your hospital records.”
Which um, okay? It raises many more questions than it answers though: Why would Warner care if Juliette is immune to radioactive landscapes [unless a large portion of the country is radioactive, in which case maybe we should be informed of that somewhere?] And why on earth does Adam happen to be also immune, which just so happens to become incredibly helpful since radiation just so happens to be the one way of making sure his tracker no longer works. It seems like a very simple solution to a problem that should be much harder to fix, and it leaves me feeling pretty cheated.
I have two more issues with this novel before I get to writing about some of the positives I’ve found. Both of them are kinda connected, in a sense. One of them is another, very over-done YA trope; the romantic relationships in Shatter Me. Firstly, we have a wonderful and awkward example of insta-love, AKA two characters who fall in love far too quickly to seem realistic, and then we have that dreaded love triangle between Juliette, Adam and Warner.
Let me talk about the insta-love first. I suppose you can argue that it isn’t insta-love exactly since the two characters happened to know each other at school and then were separated for many years before being reunited, but it’s kinda beating around the bush a bit. Juliette and Adam fall in love when they’re kids, right? They go to the same school, and there Juliette is treated like an outcast because nobody can get close to her, and they think she’s crazy, and Adam is bullied for standing up for her. He’s trying to gather up the courage to talk to her when she’s arrested and carted off to the asylum, but he never gets a chance to talk about his feelings until a lot later. Which would make for a kinda cute story, if not for the fact that she doesn’t even know who he is when he spends days in her cell. It’s only when he tells her his name that she starts to inanely point out to herself that she would have known him because of his beautiful eyes, and how they’re so unique to him. Yeah, she had her suspicions that she knew him, and I suppose she would be a bit stunned if a guy she once knew turned up in her cell, but even so… I just wasn’t sold on it. And it only gets worse. From there there’s talk about how she longs to touch him, how when she does it’s a ridiculously big coincidence that he can touch her, and despite being unsure if she should trust him or not, before they’ve even gotten round to kissing [or maybe they have and I didn’t notice] she’s making plans to run away with him and professing her undying, eternal love to him. She didn’t even know him that well at school, and it’s been years, and it JUST. ISN’T. REALISTIC. Later on, she even talks about how she’s not sure if he’d been shooting at soldiers with the intent to injure or kill, and to be honest, if you can’t be sure if your soulmate is the kinda guy who is willing to murder people for you even if you don’t want anyone to get hurt, maybe it’s time you stopped kidding yourself.
Yet it was the love triangle that I found hugely problematic. Not necessarily because it exists, but because it is truly and utterly creepy. On the one hand you have Adam, a soldier who abandons his job to rescue Juliette and help her escape from becoming a reluctant torturer. Cool. And on the other, you have Warner, who is very clearly the villain of Shatter Me, since he wants Juliette to become his toy torturer. I suppose what I found most problematic about this is that his creepy obsession with Juliette really isn’t necessary, and while some people might argue it adds an interesting dimension to his character, I feel like his whole characterisation is something that is really overdone in YA and needs to stop. We’re living in 2018 and if we want to show a female character as being powerless and weak and a male character as being in control, we don’t really need an almost rape scene to show this. Warner’s whole character seems to be about causing other people discomfort and pain, either by physically harming them or by getting Juliette to do things she’s not comfortable with, such as wearing skimpy clothing so lots of her pain-inducing skin is on show. He’s in charge of a lot of people, and he has a lot of power, and I can get on board with him being interested in Juliette’s abilities as a potential weapon, but the extra element of his sense of ownership and abusiveness just seemed like overkill to me. I’m always a bit concerned with books with either rape or almost-rape scenes in. It’s sometimes a necessary evil, and it can be done to great effect, but when not done right it comes across as problematic or a ridiculous way to show powerlessness. And the one in Shatter Me was very much problematic. Some people might point out that Juliette deliberately led Warner on and pretended to seduce him in order to get hold of a weapon and kill him, but he still essentially forced himself on her and talked about how she might as well consent and try and enjoy it, implying it would happen with or without her permission. Again, I need to stress that sometimes these kinds of scenes are necessary to plot in books, but pretending it is acceptable or has a purpose because Juliette used his rapey-ness to her advantage is pretty gross and I found it churned my stomach and put me off wanting to continue to the end. And at no point is it really addressed either, except by Juliette telling herself that it would be very bad for Warner to realize he’s immune to her touch. There’s no real conversations about it, there’s no coming to terms with it, there’s nothing except the plot moving on. Really wasn’t okay with that.
A very small additional problem I found [before moving on to the positives] is the numbers thing. I get that it is meant to represent Juliette’s state of mind, but the numbers being written in numerical form [so 3 rather than three like it is in almost all fiction] bugged me. Especially because Juliette seems to count everything. Like this one: “You found me.” 3 syllables. 1 whisper of astonishment.” And this one: “My eyes open to 2 eyes 2 lips 2 ears 2 eyebrows.” I don’t think it adds anything to the story, and it just ended up annoying me more than anything, almost as if I was beta-reading a rough draft of a first novel for someone who didn’t know what they were really doing. It might be experimental, but it was also sure as hell stupid.
Okay, so on to the small positive that I can add to this very critical review. Juliette’s character. She came across as very interesting, and I like that Mafi spent time showing her flaws as well as her strengths. I don’t think I could have gotten to the end of Shatter Me if Juliette’s difficulties weren’t addressed well. After all, she’s never had human contact [at least by touch] before, not without causing a huge amount of pain. She’s also been locked up in an asylum without any company for three years, so I’m glad in a way that Mafi addresses a lot of the trauma that would result in. I also liked that, despite her power, Juliette was essentially a very good person, wanting to always do the right thing in spite of all the awfulness life has dealt her. It can’t have been easy, and I think this speaks volumes about her personality. She’s not at all weak either, and she shows this inner-strength over and over again by standing up for herself. “They think I’m a doll they can dress up and twist into prostration. But they’re wrong,” she complains, which just goes to show that she’s not a helpless princess trapped in a tower and in need of saving, but a relate-able human being who is sick of being told what to do. If there was anything that rescued Shatter Me from being irredeemable in my eyes, it was this. I wasn’t keen on anything else in the novel, as you can probably tell, but Juliette was a pretty cool character who was fairly well developed and seemed to have a sense of purpose.
In conclusion, I’m giving Shatter Me a 2/10. I found the novel confusing, problematic and cringey, so I won’t be picking up the rest of the series. If I was still in my 13 year old Twilight days, I might have given this a go with different results, but right now I just want my good world-building, a lack of romance triangles and maybe some chocolate cake.