In the same way that the Twilight series spawned a genre called "teen paranormal romance" (see also: Beautiful Creatures and any number of forgettable books and movies), The Hunger Games trilogy has produced a, uh, hunger for dystopian stories helmed by strong but flawed young women.
I am all for this development. I came of age during the height of the early 80s nuclear war fears and love me a good dystopian story. Young women at the center of narratives - especially smart, physically strong young women, or ones who are willing to become that way: great. Bring it.
Let me tell you the bad news right up front: all of the series that I've read feature white 16 year-old girls in relationships with white 16-18 year-old boys. Often, but not always, there is a heterosexual love triangle. Sometimes there are important relationships among females, but typically these relationships take a backseat to the central girl-meets-boy(s) romance. Now, by and large, these offerings are much better than what's in the mainstream. This is no Walking Dead scenario, for example, which my friend Bob has described as demonstrating that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of the patriarchy and racism. However, it does seem that in the YA-dystopian-girls universe, it's easier to imagine the end of society as we know it than it is to imagine girls and young women loving other girls and young women, or at least being interested in something other than that boy. (Which goes back to my long-standing argument that boys' coming of age stories are about friendship and death and class and sex and lots of other things, while girls' are pretty much about boys. Or occasionally cancer.)*
The other bad news is that the Divergent series, coming in April to the aforementioned cineplexes and anointed the next Hunger Games by those who declare such things, is not terribly good. The first book about a society divided into five factions that each fulfill a particular role in society - Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity - is entertaining. Watching the protagonist, Tris, choose a life of daring and boldness and then learn how to actually be and do those things is exciting, even when things start to royally fall apart around her. Book number two, Insurgent, is fine, though there are almost too many twists and turns and I found myself caring less and less what happened by the end of the book. The series finale, Allegiant, is so badly written and so ludicrously plotted that I can only imagine a movie executive pressured the publisher to skip the editing process and rush a first draft to press. There is no other explanation for the sudden introduction of alternating voices of Tris and her boyfriend (previously Tris is the sole narrator), voices which are in fact indistinguishable and cause a lot of confusion for the reader. (I hate to say it, but it makes Stefanie Myers' introduction of Jacob's voice in Breaking Dawn look really skillful.) And the plot and characters in the third book just have no resonance with what's come before. I was looking forward to the movies (before I read the last book, at least). I've really liked Shailene Woodley's work, and thought she would be able to do justice to Tris' complexities. But now that I've seen the print ads, I'm really disappointed in how they define her only through her relationship to a man. One poster even has her in that back-to-the-viewer pose that has been thoroughly and wittily mocked.
The good news is that there are other series that are actually well-written and engrossing and worth a read. These are probably also the series not likely to be made into movies. They do follow a similar pattern to Hunger Games and Divergent: society got fucked up and people a while ago decided that _______ was the cause of the strife and that order could be restored by _______, which will happen during adolescence, usually age 16, through a public test/selection/procedure. The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras) focuses on the role of beauty in society. Lauren Oliver's Delirium trilogy (including Pandemonium and Requiem) identifies love as the problem. Westerfeld's series is intriguing for its refusal to produce a pat or romantic resolution, while Oliver's particularly well-written accounts of what it feels like to be in love for the first time made me wish she had written the Twilight series. (In a not-so-subtle marketing ploy, the covers of her books bear a remarkable resemblance to Twilight movie posters, from a Kristen Stewart look-alike to the curve of her hair.) Like Divergent, both series take place in (eventually) recognizable US cities (Los Angeles, Portland, ME). They also propose the forests as places where an alternative life is possible.
What are your favorite YA dystopian novels with a strong female lead? Do you disagree with what I've said here? Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.
*This is not to diminish the fact that when you're a teenager, first love and relationships can and do feel like the entire world. But really, if we're writing speculative fiction, can't we imagine some other scenarios beyond "girl falls for boy"?