November 30, 2021

Review: Unchosen

Unchosen Unchosen by Katharyn Blair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting, subversive little book. It's a zombie apocalypse (with the twist that the zombie virus is a supernatural one, transmitted by eye contact and arising from a curse supposedly uttered by a long-dead pirate queen). (And said pirate queen, Anne de Graaf, was apparently a real person, although her death curse was fictionalized for this story.) This is well enough, but it's only as I went through the book that I realized its true theme--the deconstruction of the Chosen One trope.

You know the story. You've seen it in The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and countless other stories, movies and TV programs. Whether as a result of birth, a prophecy, or selection by the gods, the Chosen One is born or is made special and tasked with saving the world, regardless of what he/she wants. The Chosen One has to face down Big Bads that would make most sensible people scream and run for their lives, because there is no one else who can do it. And even if they succeed, as Frodo discovered, they can never return to their pre-Chosen lives. The burden is immense and one they cannot escape, and they sometimes buckle under it, as Buffy did during the much-maligned Season 6 of the show.

In this story, we begin some months into the supernatural zombie apocalypse, and our narrator is Charlotte Holloway, the middle of three sisters; her older sister is Harlow, the talented singer/guitarist, and the younger is Vanessa, the budding gymnast. Charlotte doesn't seem to have any particular talents, save surviving, and quick thinking....and lying, as it turns out. Because her sister Vanessa is the Chosen One, with visions and a red Latin phrase magically tattooed on her fourth rib. Here, the Chosen One must find Anne's Heart, the ruby formed by Anne de Graaf's curse when she died, and break it, thus breaking the curse and ending the zombie apocalypse.

This being a supernatural strain of zombies, they're nothing like the usual stumbling, moaning, flesh-rotting, brain-eating shamblers, at least not right away. They retain their thinking ability for some time, and can be identified by their glowing red eyes--which our characters can't meet for fear of catching the virus themselves. This leads to some clever workarounds, such as everybody wearing mirrors on their arms, hands, and shoes, because a second-hand reflection doesn't transmit the virus. There's also an out: if you're infected and look three people in the eye within a certain period of time, you give the virus away and your eyes then turn yellow, signaling your immunity to re-infection. Yes, this sounds silly writing it out, but these rules are a large driver of the plot, and I give the author credit for establishing them and sticking to them. Naturally, society breaks down as the virus spreads throughout the world. There is a remnant of civilization and government called the Torch, led by engineer Genevieve Lassiter and her son, virologist Abel Lassiter, that builds walls to keep out the Vessels (the name for this world's zombies) and still has electricity. But the West Coast states, such as California where the Holloways live, become a sort of pirate haven as uninfected people take to the seas--and greedy virus survivors called Runners hunt down the uninfected Curseclean, taking and selling them to those who wish to unload their own infections.

Charlotte's compound is broken into by a group of Runners, and to prevent Vanessa from being dragged away and sold, she steps up and pretends to be the Chosen One. She is captured and taken aboard the Runners' ship to a mysterious person called the Vessel Queen but along the way, the Runners' ship is raided in turn. Charlotte and some of the other prisoners are rescued by Seth Marsali, son of one of the generals from the Torch.

To save herself, Charlotte repeats the lie that she is the Chosen One. This begins a twisted chain of obfuscations and lies, as Charlotte slowly ingratiates herself with Seth's group. (To be fair, Charlotte remembers a great many of the strange prophetic pronouncements Vanessa makes after one of her nightmares, and Charlotte's figuring out things that are coming before they actually happen does a lot to shore up her credibility.) Seth sails up the coast, intending to take Charlotte to where the Heart is, and as Charlotte slowly begins to bond with these people and fall for Seth. She doesn't realize it at first, as at the beginning of the book she thought herself in love with Dean, her older sister Harlow's boyfriend. But as she lives out the lies she has told others, she begins to feel something she hasn't felt in years: hope. She also begins to inspire hope in Seth and the rest of his group.

This book is about Charlotte's realization that she doesn't have to be the actual "Chosen One" to save everybody. She fights, she figures out the riddles Vanessa has uttered, and at the end she leads Seth to where the Heart is hidden and destroys it. She meets the ghost of Anne de Graaf and learns her true purpose:

"I hated you," I whisper. I put my hand over hers.

"And you did it anyway," she says. "Redemption. A way to stop this, Charlotte. I always picked you. But it had to be your choice. You had to believe it. And it had to cost you everything." She pulls our hands away, keeping her fingers wrapped around mine.

I stop, looking down at my ribs. At the mark left there. I shake my head.

"The Chosen One was always going to be the one who chose herself. Just like I did."

At the incredible time sink TV Tropes, there is a Chosen One entry--and there is also an entry for the Unchosen One.

If The Chosen One is the ultimate perpetrator of Because Destiny Says So, the Unchosen One is the ultimate perpetrator of Screw Destiny.

The Unchosen One is the hero or heroine who stands up to do what's right not because of a prophecy, but because they feel the need or desire to stop the Big Bad (sometimes doing so in spite of a prophecy). The Unchosen One is, in essence, a Chosen One who chooses themselves.

That's who Charlotte is, and that's what this book is about. Someone who defies "destiny" and takes their fate in their own hands. To quote Sarah Connor, "There is no fate but what we make."

This philosophical underpinning makes the book quite a bit deeper than the usual "zombie apocalypse," and is a big part of why I enjoyed it.

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