Press materials for Archetype, M. D. Waters’s debut novel,* position it as a pinnacle event in the publisher’s 150-year history. Waters’s novel may indeed be the next-next big thing (or at least the most commercially successful thing they publish all year), but if it is, it will be because it fulfills the formula for a contemporary blockbuster: action-packed dystopian fiction, starring a kickass, vaguely feminist heroine. Once upon a time, so conventional wisdom goes, the rules for popular protagonists dictated that girls would watch stories about boys, but boys would not watch stories about girls. This led to what Katha Pollitt called the Smurfette principle — if a girl appeared at all, there was usually only one of her, and she was utterly defined by her feminine difference.
But the success of Bella, and — even more so — Katniss has changed all that. Veronica Roth, the now twenty-five-year-old author of the Divergent trilogy, proved that one didn’t even have to write well to sell over 5 million copies of 400-plus page novels that may have well just doubled as mediocre film treatments.
Plotwise, Waters’s novel is a mishmash of now familiar tropes: It borrows some some feminist philosophy from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (our heroine, Emma, lives in a not-so-distant future where wives are for sale to the highest bidder); some gadgetry (i.e., transporters) from every sci-fi flick since Star Trek; and some mind games from, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (though Emma’s husband insists she has always loved him, memories come to her in dreams of her previous life in a concentration camp–like training center and the mysterious man she once loved). There is, of course, a war between technocrats (here the East) and the scruffy rebels outside the gate (here the hinterlands known as the West), and dueling love interests — Emma’s husband, Declan, a clean-cut, rich-but-sweet guy cut from the same cloth as Andrew McCarthy of Pretty in Pink; the other a rakish Han Solo type who demonstrates his love by trying to kill her off a few times (at first the identity of dream boy is not entirely clear — we’ll avoid a spoiler alert and just call him Han).
As a novel, Archetype falls somewhere between its recent predecessors. It’s not nearly as cynically indifferent to all but the barest commercial concerns as the Divergent novels, but also clearly indebted to the originals from which it takes its form. Waters’s greatest strength as a writer is her considerable attention to character development and emotional depth. Her willingness to create nuanced, ambivalent characters gives the novel an emotional suspense that is missing in Divergent‘s one-note action-adventure: Take Emma’s husband, Declan, a boardroom-alpha business type, but also (apparently) caring husband who claims he wants their home life to be a respite from the gender inequality and brutal force that rules the outside world. In contrast, the scruffy rebel dude we agreed to call Han has a few anger management issues and is, as previously stated, not shy about expressing them with possibly lethal force. In this way, Waters creates a more complex, credible portrait of a young woman who might possibly be in love with two men, rather than relying on easy tropes of the powerful, callous villain and the martyred, sensitive underdog. Oh, and another thing: Unlike some other dystopian and fantasy novelists, her sex scenes do not rely on coy euphemism, and they do go on a bit (nothing racier than Cosmo or Harlequin, but maybe we’re seeing the Fifty Shades shadow here).
Waters’s novel is not about to establish a new archetype of literary dystopic fiction (for that, the best are still the original The Handmaid’s Tale and Lois Lowry’s superb quartet, written for young adults, which beginss with The Giver and ends with Son, released in 2012). But for readers who are craving a return to a dark tomorrow, Archetype isn’t a bad choice to keep one up all night.
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article identified the novel as “young adult” fiction. However, according to the publisher, Archtype is intended for adult readers.