I’m not really sure how to start this review. I was pretty excited to read Possession, but I was ultimately very disappointed by it. I feel like I got tricked into reading Twilight under the guise of a dystopian novel.
The premise of Possession involves a 1984-ish dystopian future, where everyone is controlled by the government’s “Thinkers”, down to their jobs and who they will marry.
We link to the transmissions, work the jobs we’re told, marry who They match us with. In return, we’re provided with a good life. Or so the Thinkers wanted us to believe.
It’s not immediately clear, but the Thinkers control people with their minds. Violet Schoenfeld is a teenage girl who gets arrested for breaking the law by being alone with her match, Zenn, and meets a rebellious dude named Jag in prison. She and Jag hatch an escape plan together, go on the run, discover they both have secret gifts, and of course, fall in love.
If that sounds relatively gag-inducing, well, it is. I generally love dystopian YA because the books feature themes of rebellion and people fighting against their oppressors. If there happens to be some romance involved, that’s cool. But in Possession, the actual conflict ends up being which boy Violet should choose. She’s not really concerned about what it would mean if she chose Zenn and became a Director and had to control the population of the city. Violet never thinks about what’s best for everyone and whether controlling people is right or wrong, and she only rebels against that system because Jag teaches her about things like sleeveless shirts and kissing and spiked hair, all of which are too fun to turn down. But Violet never considers what duty she has to her family or to the population in general, which in my opinion makes her a pretty lousy hero.
One of the big problems with this book is that the author doesn’t describe ANYTHING. I thought it was a style choice in the beginning – sometimes authors will throw you into a new world and let you figure things out as you go. I’m thinking of books like The Golden Compass, where Pullman never explicitly explains what daemons are or why people have them or what they mean, but you figure it out before long because he is so skilled at describing how his characters feel about them. Johnson does not do this. She throws you into a vague dystopia made of of shiny skyscrapers and hovercopters and “tech”. She sometimes describes the function of the tech, but she almost never describes in detail what anything looks like or how it affects peoples’ lives.
It’s frustrating because I never felt like I had a concrete idea of what the landscape of this novel felt like. There are the Goodlands, where Violet lives, and the Badlands, where Jag grew up, but it seems like the “Goodies” are only good because they’re properly controlled by the Thinkers, and the “Baddies” live freely. It seems like a pretty clumsy way to show people being oppressed. Violet seems to struggle with the concept that what she thinks of as “good” might not actually be good, but I wish there was a deeper, more meaningful theme here. And even if she gets branded as “bad”, what happens? She gets exiled to the Badlands, where everybody lives freely! How is that even a threat or a punishment? Wouldn’t most people want to go live in the Badlands? It’s not even like there’s heavy propaganda to convince people that living in the Badlands would mean total poverty or something, which would make it more believable.
Johnson’s even got empaths and mind-control in her novel, but she never describes how it works or how it feels when her protagonist uses her power to control someone. Remember the scene when Harry Potter first picks up a wand in Ollivander’s shop, and he feels a rush of warmth and happiness, and it’s described so vibrantly that you can feel the same rush inside of you? There’s not a single moment like that here. We never know how using her gift makes Violet feel or how she does it, and that bothers me. That’s something that we should know as readers. Instead, it’s just described with actions. “She did it, because I controlled her.” But how? Do you feel something reaching out from you, snaking into her mind? Do you feel her mind fighting back against your control? Does it make you feel stronger or faint to exert that kind of power over someone? The whole book is written in this bland manner, with few descriptors of anything or anyone, and it really turned me off as a reader.
Furthermore, there are no spoken or unspoken rules as far as powers or tech goes. Vi and Jag control each other, enemies, and allies alike, without a second thought. Shouldn’t they be questioning whether controlling people at all is wrong? Even if they have to control enemies since they’re fighting people who ALSO have mind control powers, shouldn’t they at least feel a twinge of guilt for controlling their siblings? There’s no moral dilemma presented whatsoever. The protagonist’s main conflict is whether to choose “good” (her dad and Zenn) or “bad” (Jag), even though by the end of the book she comes to the conclusion that good and bad are meaningless labels. There’s just not much of a character arc, much less a heroic journey, for Violet, and that’s disappointing.
The weird thing is, when the writing isn’t super-bland and matter-of-fact, it’s incredibly cutesy:
“I kissed him in the hormonal-Vi style.”
I got the sense that the author thinks this kind of writing is witty and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s just bad. Why not describe the kiss in a way that makes you understand that Vi is horny? (“Horny” is probably not actually a word most YA authors want to use, but you can talk about sexual desire in other ways.) Describe her mouth and her tongue and her hands and how her stomach leaps up into her throat or her knees wobble. Just calling it hormonal makes it sound detatched and abstract, and like she’s just a hormonal teen who can’t control herself, which is not something I like to read in YA. I like YA that doesn’t sell teens short, that gives them agency – not books that assume that teenagers are ruled by their uncontrollable hormonal impulses. It doesn’t make for a good kiss or a believable love story.
Aaaand the love story. Where do I start with the romances in this book? Well, for starters, here’s a passage from the beginning of the book, when Violet has known Jag for only a day or two:
To calm myself, I rolled onto my side and watched Jag sleep. My pulse slowed, and the air became lighter. He was right – he wasn’t bad.
He was perfect.
UGH WHY WHY WHY. YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HIM. “Perfect” is not a desirable trait. Every character, even sexy romantic interests, should have flaws. But Jag is consistently described as perfect and without fault, even when he’s wrong. He continually lies to Vi and hides things from her. It turns out they were fated to meet, he was supposed to find her – which he knew and never told her. He also knew that they both had powers and didn’t tell her. Even worse is that Jag keeps controlling Vi with his voice, which is NOT OKAY because they are together now, and she keeps LETTING HIM OFF THE HOOK FOR IT. He’ll tell her “it’s okay” when they’re kissing so that she keeps kissing him and dismisses her inhibitions. She yells at him and punches him in arm and then fucking swoons when he puts his “strong arms” around her and calls her “babe”. It’s such obvious abuse and it makes me angry that it’s not really called out at all.
I needed Jag like I needed oxygen. But he’d ditched me so many times.
THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS WRONG WITH THE ABOVE QUOTE. Violet completely depends on Jag and Zenn. She defines herself as good or bad depending on which boy she chooses, and every choice she makes is based on them. (And they both call her infuriating pet names constantly. Zenn calls her “beautiful” all the time and Jag calls her “babe” all the time, and it’s so annoying that I want to scream every time they do it.)
I ran to him and wrapped my legs around his waist when he caught me. He spun with me, both of us laughing.
Yeah, all right, I was in love with Jag Barque.
Are you though? Because you’ve known him for about two weeks and you don’t really know much about him and you see his memories in your dreams and he controls you with his voice and neither of you seems to trust the other at all. And you never talk about your actual feelings for him, beyond being angry at him for being so irresistably hot or being so cocky and annoying. There’s just no emotion in this romance at all. There’s nothing between Violet and Zenn either, for that matter, just that she seems to feel guilty because of the situation he got himself into. And Violet, of course, blames herself for it. For a character who the author clearly means to be a spitfire, Vi is really pretty meek and lacks any self-confidence. She’s quick to beat herself up when something goes wrong, even though it’s usually Jag’s fault, and she’s even quicker to forgive him.
There are some other things that don’t really add up here. Basically everyone Vi has ever known has a secret identity. Why is her family in particular so very important? She and Jag have mind-control powers, somehow. It’s never explained how. Were they born with it, genetically modified, bitten by a radioactive spider? Is it magic? Are there people with different kinds of powers? We don’t get any kind of history that explains how people developed these powers, which would have added to the depth of the world.
And then there’s Vi’s reunion with her sister (who Vi was dead), Ty. It’s been three years since Ty “died” and she was around 18 when that happened – there is NO REASON why these two shouldn’t recognize each other right away, even though Ty has purple hair now and Vi has short spiked hair. OMG HAIR MAKES YOU COMPLETELY UNRECOGNIZABLE. ALERT THE MEDIA. Instead they don’t recognize each other at all and Ty doesn’t figure it out until Jag uses Violet’s name. Even then, Ty says, “The Vi?” as if there’s only one Vi in the whole wide world. It may seem like I’m nitpicking now, but little inconsistencies and plot holes like this really weaken a novel and make it seem as though the author didn’t do all their homework.
Overall, I have to say I did not enjoy Possession at all. The writing was weak, the plot was clumsy, and the romance was cringe-worthy. Fans of angsty “which boy will I choose?” romance books like Twilight or Matched might like this book (though frankly Matched was much better written), but fans of more adventure-y dystopian novels like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner will probably not be satisfied.
Possession is on bookshelves now. I received an e-galley from Simon & Schuster for review.