Despite being a dystopian novel set in the future, Poster Girl by Veronica Roth tells a story that doesn’t necessarily feel all that far-fetched. Roth is, of course, no stranger to dystopian fiction, and Poster Girl ably proves how adept she is at writing in this genre. It’s a story that is far enough removed from our current reality that it feels like escapism, and yet it’s not difficult to imagine the world Roth has built in this haunting, beautifully written novel.
Set in a future post-apocalyptic version of Seattle, Poster Girl centers on Sonya Kantor’s journey as she begins to uncover dark secrets about the government she was once completely loyal to. She was, in a former time, the actual “poster girl” for the Delegation—the regime that required each of its citizens to have an “Insight,” an ocular implant that watched the citizens everywhere they went. Yes, that’s right: an implant in the eye. It provided information, videos, and communication, not unlike a smartphone or smart speaker. The Insight also monitored the behavior of each citizen, awarding or deducting “DesCoin”—their currency—based on their actions.
The Insight was a form of surveillance that Sonya once saw as a comfort, and she was driven, shaped even, by the moral code it forced her to live by. So when given the opportunity to pose for a propaganda poster for the Delegation, she couldn’t say no. She became famous for the poster around the Seattle-Portland Megalopolis, which included the slogan: “What’s Right Is Right.”
Sonya was young when the Delegation fell during the revolution and the current regime, known as the Triumvirate, came into power. Yet she was still imprisoned in the Aperture alongside the most valuable members of the Delegation. However, ten years later, Sonya gets one chance to get out of the Aperture for good when she’s offered a deal: find Grace Ward, a missing girl who was taken from her parents when the former regime was in power.
Poster Girl speaks to the horrors of surveillance technology, which makes its readers question where we draw the line when it comes to how willing we are to embrace these intrusive systems. Our smartphones, smart speakers, and social media accounts really aren’t too far off from the technology used in Poster Girl, which also directly references “the cloud” as a key element. As that kind of technology continues to advance, it’s not difficult to imagine a world with these ocular implants. Reading this book may even make you reconsider your use of some of our current technology altogether.
What’s interesting about this story, though, is that the regime that mandated everyone have an Insight has already fallen. The Triumvirate is against that technology, and in the outside world, outside of the Aperture, citizens are going backward in their use of such devices and systems. Instead, they use “Elicits,” which are much closer to the smartphones we have today, although they are seen by Sonya as a terribly outdated technology.
Poster Girl goes deeper than simply questioning the use of surveillance technology, however. As any good dystopian story does, it asks its reader to consider a more complex moral question. The system used with the Insights used “DesCoin” to essentially control its citizens. Moral value was attached to DesCoin, which was earned or lost based on things like how polite a person was or whether or not they’d done a good deed. The question, then, is how do we determine what is right or wrong? Who gets to make those decisions, and how can you possibly quantify morality in that way?
During Sonya’s journey to find Grace Ward, she realizes those questions are much more complicated than she once thought. Her search for Grace, it turns out, isn’t really about her own desire for freedom. Her journey leads her to discoveries she hadn’t imagined, and she finds out dark secrets about her own family as she begins to reconsider everything she ever believed. The result is an incredibly emotional story full of flawed characters and shocking twists.
There’s even a bit of romance, although that bit is rushed and doesn’t feel entirely necessary. In fact, my biggest gripe with the book is that the romance element almost comes out of nowhere, and then doesn’t get the development it deserves.
That’s the case with a lot of the novel, unfortunately. Several details are glossed over, and there’s so much interesting backstory that isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. This feels largely due to the structure of the story. The current action takes place after the fall of the Delegation, and yet so much of what took place before is vital to the story. So we’re given flashbacks that don’t get enough attention, and we learn about characters we should have emotional ties to but who aren’t spoken of nearly enough.
Too many elements of the mystery are rushed as well, and considering how beautifully the story is written, it’s a shame the book isn’t at least a few pages longer. Poster Girl is a page-turner, and it’s a fairly quick read, but it moves so fast at times that its reader misses out on being immersed in the world it’s created. At times, it barely scratches the surface of some of its most interesting ideas, and that means a missed opportunity for some of the more emotional moments throughout the book, and too many of them wind up feeling anticlimactic.
Still, it’s a heck of an entertaining read, with a fascinating concept and plenty of suspense. The questions it leaves the reader asking make it meaningful and memorable—it’s the kind of book that sticks with you long after you finish reading.
What Poster Girl does best, though, is give us a main character that we root for immediately. Sonya Kantor has already lost everything, but she’s had a strong will to survive. She’s flawed. She’s made mistakes. But her journey throughout the novel allows her to reflect on her life, her choices, and her entire identity. And if there’s anything that makes Poster Girl worth reading, it’s that.
Ashley Bissette Sumerel is an English Instructor who loves reading dystopian fiction and stories about vampires. She’s also a TV Critic and the Editor-in-Chief of Tell-Tale TV. Find her on Twitter @ashleybsumerel.