Ally Condie’s 2010 YA dystopian, Matched, takes place in a highly-regulated, warped paradise of job assignments, planned deaths, and compulsory conformity, the workings of a faceless, monolithic Society in the far future, Giver-style. The Matching ceremony, the day on which the government presents to each citizen their predestined partner, plays a key role in getting Cassia, a familiar subdued, brunette, mostly complicit dystopian heroine, to question the system that’s kept her life safe and predictable lo these seventeen years, but by the end, she’s taken a second look at everything. The Society’s destruction of previous cultures. Its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. And, most urgently, at the end of book one, its swift and hushed deployment of her boyfriend, Ky, as a prop of its vague and unspoken war.
Crossed, book two, is the fallout of the possibility of resistance. In Matched, we follow a relationship mutually acknowledged to be doomed. In Crossed, where both Ky and Cassia are on the run, they have to deal with disagreements about the future they only recently realized they could have. What’s more, Cassia hears word of a rebellion brewing on the edges of the Society, the very one in which Ky, jaded by his family’s past, long ago lost faith.
It’s subdued and rather uneventful as far as sequels go––the Society, in Crossed, is more of a looming presence than, as it is in Matched, a mounting threat. In Crossed, Ky and Cassia, along with a few incidental others, trek through the wilderness to find each other, and, eventually, to find the already gathering forces of a rebellion, the Rising. This setup forebodes a laggy, unimportant middle chapter, but Crossed has a utility in doing what a plot summary would cast as useless loitering. It holds all the themes of Matched while taking some time to let the immediate danger of being pursued by authority air out in the wilderness. The same stakes are ultimately at hand, but they are examined here in a deeply personal lens. What’s more, the monotony of the Society ripens with an example to pair it against. Where the Society does appear in Crossed, Condie inextricably associates it with the destruction of the natural world, further codifying its slick, sterilized aesthetic: just the foil for the naturalism, figurative language, and poetry that defines her main characters, and their deeply-held, almost unconscious, need to rebel.
As either consequence or catalyst of this, Condie’s prose style is of the earnest, flowery variety, sparse yet heavy with metaphor: so much “ash and nothing into flesh and blood,” so much “a thought flitters into my mind like one of the mourning cloaks, the butterflies that string their cocoons along the twigs,” so much “my mother painted with water, and my father played with fire,” as to render it trite, cliché, and unbearably cheesy, but her characters are so fervent and her argument for agency so entangled with poetry and passion that it registers with striking clarity. The key to Condie’s invoking such drastic lyricism is commitment.
It doesn’t hurt, though, that she chose to set Crossed in the dramatic landscape of a canyon, the Carving, where bright red cliffs exist in stark relief beside dark, rushing waters, and consequently where her lofty prose style feels most at home. Ky, the melancholy, poetry-reading love interest, also happens to harmonize with the landscape––Condie makes it the site of his childhood and the tenuous middle ground of the issue that comes to define his newfound tension with Cassia: to, or not to, join the Rising. What Crossed does with the debate is a cut above the expected. Yes, it’s a dystopian trilogy, and the rebellion is a given, but where Cassia’s all in, Ky is rather uneasy, and what’s more, the Rising is far from the “natural” side in Condie’s natural-unnatural dystopian lexicon, and she foreshadows some discord between the Rising as a restrictive institution and the beliefs of the people who turn to it for hope. Two salvaged poems, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” play a key role in the series, Cassia and Ky reciting parts of them like mantras. The Rising, however, has co-opted the metaphorical figure of the Pilot from Tennyson’s poem for use in their own propaganda, and it is only Ky’s suspicions––with his symbolic ties to the natural, the expressive, and the artistic––that put dents in the Rising’s promises before the thing itself even appears.
Cassia, on the other hand, is earnest and hopeful about this matter, nursing wholehearted faith in the future––and meets heartache when Ky doesn’t share her vision. She isn’t fully realized as a novel or startling heroine, but she is a fully-realized reflection of her upbringing, the Society’s purported ideals of justice and equality activated when they meet their authentic counterparts. The point is that she embodies the average of her circumstances reacting to a chance encounter with freedom, just like Ky embodies his ostracism, and reflects the want of creative freedom once had, and lost. This doesn’t make them boring or flat; it makes them painstaking extensions of their worldbuilding.
Likewise, Crossed‘s muted and internal nature doesn’t make it a pointless victim of middle book syndrome; it makes it a refreshing departure from a genre that demands armed conflict as resolution, and very rarely shifts all or most of its focus into how its characters feel about the matter. It’s a volume of careful thought and sustained commitment to its role as a meditative interlude. High-octane expectations gave the book mixed reviews upon its reception in 2011, but after YA’s wave of dystopian popularity has crashed, it’s worth revisiting what Crossed does with setting, character, and art: it takes a long, introspective trek through a canyon, as opposed to the straight and narrow path.
Thank you for reading! My name is Pippin, and this blog is my passion project for all things bookish (and, to be frank, mostly young adult sci-fi). I’d love to chat about this book, or anything else, really, in the comments: am I blinded by my teenage nostalgia for this book? Am I missing a killer dystopia that more people should read? Is Ky Markham too angsty? Tell me below!