I made a point of tracking down a copy after all the controversy. Some folks were going around saying it was racist and promoted self-harm, and that it should be boycotted. Which, imho is going a little far - censorship and book banning are terrible things whether it's the right or the left calling for it, and it's important for all of us readers to be responsible and read and think for ourselves. (Informative reviews that mention potential issues are good though.) Ok, public service message over, on to the review!
While I've seen the movies, I've never read her breakout divergent series, so I didn't know what to expect. I gave this a 3/5 stars for some really interesting and well-developed ideas that... I totally didn't enjoy reading about. Yeah. It just felt dark and like a lot of work from the start. Partly that's because it's scifi with a ton of detailed worldbuilding, which pays off. But it also doesn't resolve much and goes on to at least one more book, and this one was freaking long enough. However, if you're a scifi fan, more patient or into worldbuilding than I am, or just want to see what all the fuss is about, I'd encourage you to check it out. There's some good character driven emotional resonance, complex personalities and an intricate examination of social and familial influence, trauma and fate. But is it racist?
No, quite the opposite in fact. Some readers seem to have picked up on the fact that the female protags skin colour is indicated as darker than others' and extrapolated that her entire race is black or at least nonwhite/POC. This is major spoilers, but the other race (nation?) male protag. shares her heritage and it turns out there's some kind of secret about her birth so her background is in question. Other members of her race are described in visually diverse terms including blonde. Characters and races within the book do act racist and express racist opinions about one another, but the author takes great pains to point out the complexity of stereotypes versus the actual history and how it's shared by each race. Horrible things have become a part of the female protags national behavior, but as you read on its developed that this is a result of recent power hungry dictatorial leaders, not innate in any way. Far from being an offensive racist text, I think it brings out some timely discussions on understanding the history that informs today. Some parallels to middle eastern countries in particular where much of the west fears and denigrates people and cultures without understanding the way their own countries have contributed to unrest there and how violent leaders have corrupted things more recently and dominate their own people as well as attacking others.
So, not racist. On the other charge, promoting acceptance or veneration of pain, I do think it's been blown out of proportion. But sure, trigger warning for cutters and self harmers, I guess. There's more of a message about how accepting and owning your experience and uniqueness can change a perceived weakness or victim mentality into self awareness, power, confidence, responsibility etc. The idea that suffering can be character building isn't all that controversial and I don't think it promotes pain so much as recognizes the value of overcoming challenges. Cutting and specifically scarring is a key story element and integral to the female protags culture and the title. When we first encounter it, it's explained as a kill mark, but (spoilers) we later find out its historic and home culture originally saw it as a type of mourning and ritual of remembrance. While outsiders see it as a mark of barbarism, that's a result of violent leaders warping society to their own ends and other cultures misunderstanding and judging a people who never intended such a thing. It elegantly encapsulates the nuanced examination of race, culture and power and proves a fitting title.
Racism is terrible. Discrimination based on appearance, nation or ethnicity is terrible - and often political. Glorification of pain and violence is terrible. I'd argue that that is exactly the author's point, which is why she works so hard to explore these topics. Far from being banned, more readers should engage with this work, although I have to admit it was a dense read with so much going on!