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Beyond the world we know | class #4, spring 2017

fantasy2014

This week’s topic is “Beyond the world we know” — a category that encompasses an extensive range of books, from magical realism to science fiction to the far away places of other worlds. Jane Langton’s classic piece on fantasy from the 1973 Horn Book, “The Weak Place in the Cloth” provides an apt and lovely metaphor for the various ways that authors peek through, or break open, the barrier between reality and fantasy. Students will also read Kristin Cashore’s piece “Hot Dog, Katsa” on the pitfall-laden task of world-building.

  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
  • Feed by M. T. Anderson

Folk and fairytales have long been fodder for writers, who re-tell, borrow, fracture, and invert the original stories to make them their own. I suggest that Tom McNeal bends the relationship between fairy tale and novel in a new way in his suspenseful tale Far Far Away. What do others think about the blending of new and old? What does the novel suggest about the role of folklore in both literature and our psyche?

Published fifteen years ago, M.T. Anderson’s dystopian satire Feed was disturbingly prescient about our reliance on technology and its toll on language, the environment, and perhaps humanity itself. As current technology — and other global developments — catch up with the Anderson’s vision of the future, is the novel running out of time? Or does it still have something to say to today’s iPhone generation?

 

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. I do feel that Feed has stayed somewhat relevant to us today, despite that it was written 15 years ago, before the rise of the Facebook-Snapchat-iPhone era. Anderson does a nice job portraying just how shallow and irritating the cast of characters is; even the adults speak like teenagers in chat rooms. I did appreciate Violet’s quiet subversion of the Feed. Anderson handles her decline and death sensitively and beautifully, and Titus’ callousness is also interesting and horrible to read. But very real.
    This was the first of the books I have read for this class that I did not love, though. I think I’ve just read one too many books about a generic white boy who is inspired by a wacky/cute/interesting/revolutionary girl. I also think that since then, criticizing millennials for living online and for their shallow disregard for the world has become very commonplace. I actually think that this particular generation of young folk is a generation of Violets — I’m seeing a large surge of young political activism that does occur on the net, or is facilitated by the net.
    This is not to say the book was not original, or lacked depth; I just didn’t feel that my mind was blown at the end. I imagine that when it was published, it really was a lot more relevant.

    And just a small bit about the other book:
    I loved Far, Far Away. The narrative voice of Jacob Grimm was endearing and quirky, and each sentence seemed so carefully written. Though it was set in a small, modern (?) town, something about how it was written seemed timeless. I expected more supernatural or fantastic elements to appear, but I enjoyed the twist at the end!

  2. In Far Far Away, when Ginger and Jeremy are discussing the idea of going away to college, Ginger says, “My grandfather says there’s no point in traveling. He says all that happens when you go far, far away is that you discover you’ve brought yourself along.’” Listening, Jacob thinks, “Well, there is truth in that. Look how far I’ve traveled, and yet here I am.” There are other times later in the book where Jeremy too reflects on this idea and echoes it to others. I am interested in the ways in which this idea of a fundamental sameness of identity both is and is not born out by the book, specifically in the characters of Jacob and Sten. Jacob, of course, does experience meaningful personal changes over the course of the book; the baker, in contrast, does not. The core evil that Jeremy recognized in the baker even as an infant—when he burrowed down his blankets to escape the baker’s gaze—remains to the end.

    This idea that one’s personal identity is so deeply entrenched that it can be almost impossible to change (even after 100+ years in the Zwischenraum) is interesting to me in light of Feed, where individuality is close to impossible; a world in which even the genetic clone of Abraham Lincoln spends his time going into “mal.” Because Violet has had a different experience than Titus and his friends (her father, receiving the feed later in life) she is able to step back and see things as more of an outsider: “Look at us! You don’t have the feed! You are feed! You’re feed! You’re being eaten! You’re raised for food! Look at what you’ve made yourselves!” Even at the very end of the book, when Titus seems far more aware of the world around him, the only language he can speak is the language of the feed: “Together, the two crazy kids grow, have madcap escapades, and learn an important lesson about love. They learn to resist the feed. Rated PG-13.” One of the discussion questions at the end of the edition I read pointed out that “feed” can be a verb or a noun. So too can human “being.” Are the characters in these books “beings” that exist only as nouns, objects in their respective worlds incapable of change? Or are they “beings,” evolving, growing, and learning to resist?

    Looking forward to discussing these books in this week’s class!

  3. Wow, my experience of reading this book was of constant tension, in a good way! If he had not warned us of the Finder of Occasions at the beginning, it would have been a much breezier reading. As it was, I was unnerved by every sign of danger and every fairy tale clue. Who was the villain? Was it possibly the enchanting, gum-snapping Ginger, who seemed too good to be true? Was it the knowing Ms. Applegarth, who I feared was going to push Jeremy into the oven at one point? Or was it even Jacob himself, who would unwittingly do unimaginable harm in the midst of trying to save Jeremy?

    Because we read this during fantasy week in our class curriculum, I kept expecting the book to take a magical turn, but aside from the ghosts, it was actually very grounded in reality—a scary reality. The book slightly dragged during the time of captivity. Still, I absolutely loved the world that McNeal created. I love that he consulted Maria Tatar about the Brothers Grimm (I took a class with her, she is THE expert on fairy tales!). McNeal’s portrayal of the ghost of Jacob Grimm was a unique choice, and Jacob was the heart of this book. Mentor, father figure, best friend—a genuine, tender relationship between Jacob and Jeremy. The last few pages absolutely KILLED me, as they said their loving good-byes, simply painful and beautiful.

  4. Alice Wang says:

    Far Far Away is s wonderfully dark tale, a true brothers Grimm tale. The creepiness of this book hovered above until it struck with brilliant swiftness. I’ve been always one to believe that a true mark of a talented author is the ability to make the reader want the end, fear the end and sadden when you’ve reached the end. I truly loved it.
    But this still bothers me: what exactly was the baker’s motivation? Or was he simply a psychopath? If so, who can understand his train of though, really?

  5. I enjoyed the fusion of elements in Far, Far Away to create a compelling work of magical realism. Early chapters tell of scenes at school and characters who seem relatable (with the exception of Jeremy and his ghost!), but fairytale-esque details are sprinkled throughout, such as the name of the town, Never Better, or the magical green smoke of Princess Cakes. As others have mentioned, I also expected more fantastical events, but McNeal’s maintenance of realism heightens the tone surrounding the unnerving series of events around the Baker’s kidnappings. Rather than inventing some magical holding cell in another world or such, McNeal forces the reader to accept the reality of the situation, conjuring up a gruesome reaction that is characteristic of the Brothers Grimm.

    Lauren, in relation to Feed’s relevance, I believe it still has something to say. Since it was published 15 years ago, the omnipresence of technology was less normalized than it is today, so Feed, especially through the text of characters’ feeds, reminds us of our overstimulated existence. We become conscious of technology’s pervasiveness and how it shapes/limits our thoughts, and we question the impact of it on our lives.

  6. I had strong feelings of initial disorientation reading both of the books this week, before settling in; I tore through both of them, wanting to know what would happen. Feed, of course, at first assaults the reader with Anderson’s made-up teen lingo before they get acclimated to it, as I did. More persistent, perhaps, was the strong feeling of recognition I felt: Feed is so similar in its protagonist and plotting to one of my favorite short stories, George Saunders’ “Jon,” that I looked up when both were published out of curiosity (within a year of each other). “Jon” is about a young man in a future corporatized dystopia who speaks in the commercial jargon of the constant ads playing in his head, who finally gives up his life of comfort and luxury to follow the girl he loves in renouncing their own “feeds.” However, “Jon” is ultimately very hopeful, and perhaps it’s that contrast that made me appreciate Feed; as Shauna writes, I really enjoyed that Titus is allowed to be callous, to make the wrong decisions, to have trouble having the strength to follow Violet into the dark and real places she must go. I also feel that one of the reasons it’s still relevant is perhaps that the teenagers aren’t the villains, just one element of this world; Titus’ parents are just as feed-obsessed and shallow as they’re raising their children to be, and Violet’s father makes the mistake of abandoning his nonconformism, while holding fast to his cheapness, that leads to his daughter’s eventual death.

    The blending of new and old in Far, Far Away took me a while to get oriented to. Perhaps because I read Feed first, I was initially distracted by trying to figure out the precise setting in a world seemingly without much technology, but with a TV program, but there’s a weird 1950s feel to some of the names and lingo, but after Mr. T and the Twilight Zone…I finally gave up and relaxed into the read. The setting isn’t meant to be precisely figured out, I think; Never Better “can be seen only from the corner of the eye.” (p. 70) And narrative voice adds to this distortion and disorientation: Jacob, antiquated and out of his own time, necessarily perceives things differently from Jeremy and the other current town residents, adding to the strange and otherworldly mood of the book.

  7. I truly enjoyed the books for this week! I typically am not the fantasy reader, however I felt myself compelled to continue reading on and on. Far Far Away was a carefully crafted story that created this tense feel throughout each chapter. I found myself on edge as I read in search of the Finder of Occasions and trouble ahead for Jeremy. As a reader, I was constantly predicting and wondering what might happen every step of the way. I loved the old and new stories were intertwined to create an inventive way of expressing the fantasy genre. The fact that the story was told from the perspective of Jacob, the ghost, allowed myself to feel as if I were hovering over the characters just as Jacob did. Toward the end of the book, I almost felt like I was watching an episode of Criminal Minds! The twisted terror and hopeful characters is what made this novel a page turner. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who not only loves fantasy, but also suspenseful plots.

  8. Uttara Pant says:

    Let me start with the good- Far Far Away definitely surprised me. I thought I was going to have to read some bizarre tale about a crazed girl who falls in love with Jeremy, in a town where “nothing ever happens” and some mysterious green smoke and ghosts thrown in for good measure. What I ended up reading was so much better. I loved how McNeal wove in the fairy tales and the lives of the Grimm brothers- it never seemed force or like some point was trying to be made. Like Phil, I also thought their time in captivity was a bit stretched and could have been shorter- but perhaps McNeal was trying to show how awful and long this wait was? And I also found the end so bittersweet- even though Jeremy’s father has recovered and he has friends and Jacob can finally move on, their sweet “I love yous” totally broke my heart.

    So onto Feed. I really didn’t enjoy this book. As Nell mentioned, I found the language so disconcerting. Of course I eventually go around to understanding it, but I still found it so unsettling.
    Considering this book was written in 2002, Anderson obviously did a really great job of predicting what the future would look like. Although this is an exaggerated version of our hyper connected times, it isn’t really far from the truth. I often feel overwhelmed and maddened by constant advertising and what feels like a never ending supply of information (about relevant and irrelevant things).
    But I just found myself angry and rage-y while reading the rest of it. Titus was horrible. But then I suppose that was also something Anderson got right- he was the perfect example of a selfish, self-centred teenage boy. (I still can’t believe he just deleted Violet’s memories) And also Violet. She was the one who was on to something when she started rejecting the feed and yet she is portrayed as this weak girl who is willing to forgive Titus for being so horrible. Her apology that she said wasn’t an apology made me want to scream and tell her she should have just gone to the mountains on her own! Which was what I was hoping for all along- her going off to the mountains and living happily ever after. Or somehow finding a loophole to an alternate universe where she meets Jeremy and Ginger.

  9. Stone Dawson says:

    One of the most fascinating aspects of science fiction as a genre is its perceived ability to predict the future. In 2002, when Feed was written, the world was nowhere near the hyperconnected place that it is today. In fact, Google’s AdSense network (which is essentially the feed itself just not directly connected to our nervous system) wasn’t implemented until 2003. Many people go back and read older science fiction and marvel at the fact that writers were able to dream up technology before it existed in the real world; however, I argue that the authors of science fiction do not gain their prophetical powers through some insight into the development of technology but rather from an insight into people. Science fiction authors are so good at dreaming up new technology before it exists precisely because they’re taking part in the same thinking exercises as the executives of the tech companies. They look not at the technology around them for inspiration but at the people, and in 2002, people wanted the feed.

  10. Ana Reigstad says:

    I just put down Feed and my mind is still synthesizing. I agree with Shaina that the dynamic between Titus and Violet is something that has been explored in YA literature many times. In fact, I found myself wishing that the story had been written entirely from Violet’s perspective. It was during her observations of world events and resistance efforts that I found myself most drawn into the story. I felt the most distanced from the story when Titus interacted with his friends and family, as the conversations sometimes felt unbelievable due to their superficiality.

    I was also really surprised to learn how long ago the book had been published. Though of course many elements in the book exist now (as Stone mentioned, Google AdSense, etc) the planet travel and feed elements were still sufficiently futuristic to convince me that the story was not fantasy, but science fiction. I think this story has great conversational potential for students to debate the influence of corporations in our daily lives and how the creation of echo chambers can harm independent thought.

  11. Bobby Dorigo Jones says:

    Reading Feed was quite a process. These thoughts won’t be so organized as my previous comments have been. Like many others, I think Anderson was on the right path in his concern for where we are headed – I cringe now whenever I open up my RSS app, which is called “Feedly”. In that same vein, however, I felt like this book was ripped straight from the pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (which I read, coincidentally, when I was about Titus’ age). Titus’ ideal death, characterized by pure, numbing entertainment is basically what happens to any characters who watch “Rhe Entertainment.” While I thought Anderson’s little vignettes of ads and political snippets were well-written and valuable for the story, they also felt a little bit like a copy of DFW’s famous footnotes. I would rather just give a high schooler a copy of a Wallace novel or a couple of his more readable (and less profane) short stories.

    Like Shaina, I also picked up on the not-so-original “white guy meets ‘weird’ girl” narrative, which wasn’t “meg brag.” Speaking of which, the slang in this book gave me headaches. It must be hard to create a slang lexicon, especially one set a century or so into the future, but I really can’t emphasize enough how much I loathed the dialogue, specifically the slang in this book (I did appreciate the fact that Titus’ dad could barely put a sentence together). Maybe that was the point? I guess overall, Anderson’s writing is beautiful as long as he isn’t writing dialogue – I especially loved the description of the run-down hospital courtyard early in the novel. I also appreciated Titus’…relational incompetence… because I (hate to admit this) was a lot like that during my later teenage years. His inwardness in the face of Violet’s crushing loneliness brought back some regretful memories and, for that reason, felt pretty realistic to me.

    In regards to our other required book, I loved Far, Far Away far more than I imagined I would. I echo all the positive things that my classmates have said. What I will remember this book for, first and foremost, was the narration, which was straight up enchanting. Seemed like every sentence held marvelous rhythm. The book read like a children’s tale in that way. The words just skipped off the page, not sure how else to describe it. I’ll be recommending Far, Far Away to people who, like myself, don’t consider themselves fantasy fiends.

    Also, bravo to Catherine’s comments about “feeds” and “being”, and to Nell’s thoughts on teenagers and their environment. Couldn’t agree more with what you all said.

  12. MG Prezioso says:

    I loved the books for this week!!

    I especially enjoyed reading Far Far Away — I appreciated the fairy tale appropriation, both in content and in language (and in Jacob Grimm’s voice), and I thought the prose, which was both medieval and modern, tied the novel together very well.

    I also appreciated that the pace of the book, while not super fast or heightened, balanced intrigue and action really well.

    I’m curious if anyone had criticisms of the book, because i had a hard time finding anything I didn’t like!

  13. Ana Roche- Freeman says:

    I agree with what my classmates comments regarding Feed, in particular as Nell and Utarra mentions the teenage lingo took a while for me to accustomed too. Even though this book was written in 2002, Anderson did a really great job of predicting what the future would look like. At times I felt anxious reading by the never ending irrelevant advertising and what felt like a constant stream of noise and connectivity. I have not read a similar story, and was intrigued by Anderson’s descriptions of life on earth and the moon, and although it was written in 2002, it still felt relevant. I was disappointed in Tiitus’ attitude toward Violet, but not surprised given the attitude and behavior of his parents.
    On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by Far Far Away, I enjoyed reading the story from the ghost’s perspective and the darkness of the setting and Grimm brothers influence. The, language tone and setting, although I never quite figured it out were a welcoming contrast to Feed

  14. Bonnie Tynes says:

    I absolutely loved reading “Feed” by M.T. Anderson this week. I will admit, I struggled at first to get past the slang of the characters, and it took me a while to acclimate to the futuristic world of Titus and his friends. However, after about 75 pages I found myself unable to put the book down. This book made me hyper-aware of the role of technology in the lives of students today, as well as the average American adolescent. Anderson hyperbolated our current world, and he created a frighteningly realistic vision of the future. I was especially captured by the lesions and the fashion trends that the characters adopted throughout the book. Though ridiculous, it made me think of some ridiculous fads that we have in our current popular culture. I loved the relationship between Titus and Violet. It was honest, scary mature, and deeply meaningful in a world where the human relationship (and interaction) seems to have taken a spot on the back burner behind technology and the feed. Finally, I was very wrapped up in the final chapters of the book that were set up with percentages. Once I figured out what these percentages meant, I was on the edge of my seat reading. Thank you M.T. Anderson for a weird but very real read.

  15. Sarah Mintz says:

    I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have always really loved fantasy and science fiction, so I was looking forward to this week. I think science fiction in particular can be a really great vehicle to discuss philosophical problems and to really delve into what it means to be human. I enjoyed reading Feed though Titus and his friends did drive me crazy. I actually didn’t mind the “futuristic” slang – I thought it was clever and not such a stretch that you couldn’t understand what was being said. What more got on my nerves was the excessive “like”s in the dialogue, which felt like it was trying too hard to capture a teenager’s voice but wasn’t quite authentic.

    Lauren, as to your question as to whether Feed is still relevant, I definitely think it still is. Though technology continues to rapidly change, there are some really interesting ideas in Feed about our reliance on technology and whether technology advancements can go “too far.” The book also raises a lot of interesting questions about consumerism, corporations, and human effect on the environment. I was also reminded of We Were Liars in that both novels have interesting commentary on class differences and the kind of culture shock that can arise when teens with varying levels of privilege interact.

    Like a lot of my classmates, I also was pleasantly surprised by Far Far Away. I’ll admit it took me a while to get into it – my initial reaction was that having Jacob Grimm narrate the story felt cliche and over the top. But I was quickly drawn in by all the characters in the town and the suspense of the Finder of Occasions, and I even eventually warmed up to Jacob Grimm’s character as well. I liked how Far Far Away combined such traditional elements of fairy tales with an otherwise ordinary American setting in a way that somehow felt seamless.

  16. Sophia Pompilus says:

    I absolutely love Far Far Away! Growing up, I was not a fan of YA fiction in which the plot was high fantasy because I could not see myself living as any of the characters because that reality is so far from mine. But I did (and still do!) really appreciate books in which there is a doorway to fantasy where a little bit of magic or other-worldliness exists. I thought McNeal did a fantastic job of blending the old and the new and I did not find it hard to jump between both worlds. Jacob Grimm’s narration is written such that readers can actually imagine him speaking that way in his time without it being so old that new readers in today’s modern age can’t understand the plot. For example, he consistently pushes Jeremy to focus on “the studies, the studies” but readers can deduce what he means even if that phrase doesn’t exactly fit adolescents’ current slang. Jacob spoke both enchantingly and understandably.

  17. Caryn Howell says:

    I will echo the praise above for Far, Far Away. Like Bobby, I would definitely recommend this to hesitant fantasy readers or those who aren’t huge fans of the genre. It wasn’t overloaded with elements of fantasy and as the Jeremy and Ginger were in “our world” parts of the story could be very relatable. This kind of fantasy was my favorite when I was a child and young teenager, and so many of the parts of the story felt familiar. I think this speaks to McNeal’s success with using a Grimm brother to narrate and with weaving in well-known bits from other fairytales, like Cinderella’s slipper. It reminded me of other books I loved in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I spent about the first 100 pages trying to figure out when and where this was – at first I thought somewhere in Europe! Modern-ish, but not too modern, there was a TV reference, I’m not quite sure! But like others said above, I think it makes the story timeless. What could have felt like forced choices (a dead person who is a well known fairytale author, a person who can conveniently hear that dead person) felt natural and lovely. Hugely enjoyed this!

    I was personally not as thrilled with Feed, but like Sarah mentioned above, elements of it are definitely still relevant, and I can see those connections sparking lively debates or discussions with adolescent readers.

  18. Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye says:

    I agree with Shaina that reading Feed is more like reading a realistic novel (not so much, but still). Themes such as consumerism depicted in the book are indeed quite relevant to today’s society. I feel like this book might be a good resource for young adults to reflect on problems in today’s world, but I also wonder if young adults who are living in an Internet era today would enjoy this book as much as they would a decade ago.

    I like Far Far Away in the way it is organized. The story is told in the voice of Jacob Grimm. Jacob only has conversation with the protagonist Jeremy, and anybody who is reading the book can be another Jeremy, and be a part of the secret conversation. Unlike Phil, I didn’t really experience a long-lasting guess on who the Finder of Occasions is. I was pretty much sure it’s the baker. But I did experience an expectation of something more magical and fantastical as Phil and Katie put it. Looking back at the whole plot, I do feel this unexpected realism goes well with all the fairy-tale elements in the book. Happy ending, happy ever after, long long ago, far far away…. All these references make the book similar to a fairy tale of Jacob’s (he is like a manipulator all the time, and Jeremy is hearing suggestions and is rescued by him), like what Bobby and Sophia have mentioned. On the other hand, it questions the common ending of a fairy tale, and makes it a more complex version than any fairy tale one has read in his or her childhood.

    Moreover, what I enjoyed most about the book Far Far Away is the small icon at the beginning of every section. It’s a little boy trying to escape from the arms of a skeleton. I guess that icon allowed me to foresee the plot a little bit from the very first page and kept me clearer on the track. I am curious how many of you may have made more sense of the small picture as well as the bigger one as a “prologue” with three human figures and a skeleton.

  19. Rebecca Hawk says:

    I agree with what my peers have said so far regarding Feed’s dialogue taking a while to get accustomed to. I think that this language added to the book’s dystopic nature- in addition to asking readers to consider the ways in which technology invades and disturbs their lives, MT Anderson asks readers to consider how language could affect the complexity of their relationships. Like Bonnie, I loved the thread in Feed that focused on lesions. Thinking about how corporations might try tp rebrand environmental destruction in a way that is fashionable underscored the dangers of capitalism, technology and environmental destruction that are (in my opinion) not too far from our reality. I think Feed is definitely still relevant- if not more so-today than when it was published.

  20. Although I usually don’t like fantasy books, I felt that Far, Far Away was, as Shaina mentioned, timeless. The way that it was written kept me intrigued and made it feel relatable even as a fantasy title. Additionally, this week’s books as a whole expressed how relevant fantasy and Sci-Fi can actually be. While it still isn’t my cup of tea, the thematic elements of Feed and Far, Far Away would be great for adolescents in a classroom. As far as relevance, I find Feed’s depiction of consumerism even more relevant in today’s society in which a huge figure of capitalism is at the head of this country. I think there are interesting themes and connections in this book to explore, such as that for example. However, as a reader I felt that the voice in Feed was too contrived and didn’t enjoy that book.

  21. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    Like many others, I also enjoyed reading Far, Far Away. My mum used to read some of Grimm’s fairy tales to me when I was growing up so it was nice to see Jacob and various fairy tales featured in the book. I knew this was a fantasy novel but at the same time it felt very real to me. The story was told so well that I began to forget that ghosts speaking to you, giving you advice and what not is not a regular occurrence in reality!

  22. Min Hyun Oh says:

    Like Shaina, Feed didn’t really resonate with me as strongly as other texts. The beginning took some time for me to understand what was really going on…I abstractly understood the concept of “feed,” but the jargon that was dropped here and there without much explanation confused me. I can see the merit in the dystopian theme/futuristic satire that creepily parallels today’s social media world; but, I felt that some points (e.g., when characters would secretly “chat,” like how people discreetly text each other with others around them, uses of omigod) were too apparent in their similarity to our world and the teenage slang in the text didn’t really stand out that much to me. I also felt that the characters were a bit flat, maybe with the exception of Violet. Even though Titus spends a lot of time with his friends, the friends seemed very dull, and Titus doesn’t change much–either from interacting with both his friends or even Violet. The story is driven by a novel concept of feeds, but the storyline seemed a bit flat for me…the incidents of the virus, lesions, mals, and dystopian undertone made me expect a rebellion from Titus/Violet, and I think not seeing that made me a bit disappointed. Or maybe the Hunger Games series spoiled me.

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