Author: Elizabeth Norris
Star Rating: *
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-fi, Romance
Janelle is a smart, precocious teenager who is responsible for saving the world. Her life was pretty normal until she was hit by a truck, died, and was brought back to life by a fellow student. Suddenly, her life doesn’t make sense, her FBI father is anxious to figure out what a mysterious bomb is that appeared out of nowhere, and strange individuals from another universe are telling Janelle that her universe is about to implode. With only 24 days to figure out what is going on, she has to convince all the adults in her life that even though she’s still just a teen, she has something to offer and she just might be the key to making sure the entire world doesn’t end.
Unraveling is a mediocre YA science thriller. The setting, characters, and plot are pretty standard, and there are lots of world-building and writing weaknesses that I could point out. However, instead of talking about these problems, I have to address a rather big issue that affects the entire novel: plagiarism.
To explain, the follow description may sound familiar. Janelle is a spunky, smart teenager who likes to help solve the cases of her FBI agent father. She has a racialised friend with an overbearing mother. Her own mother is mentally ill, and causes great trauma to her family. Janelle goes to a high school ruled by cliques, and she doesn’t fit in with any of them. She used to be best friends with another girl who is now part of the popular crowd, and she is a target of their ridicule and torment, particularly for dating a popular boy. Janelle was also the victim of rape while she was unconscious at a party.
If you are a lover of the Veronica Mars TV series, all of these little details are probably twinging at your memory because the above paragraph describes Veronica at the start of season one extremely well. Her father was a PI rather than an FBI agent, and she never encountered issues such as the collapse of the fabric of space and time, but otherwise, Janelle feels like a less compelling version of Veronica.
This brings us to a conversation about plagiarism. This is a topic that tends to make people flail as plagiarism can be complicated, and no one likes accusing an author of such a serious breach of ethics when the proof is messy and not necessarily beyond a reasonable doubt. Unraveling was obviously not, as far as I could tell, copying Rob Thomas’ work word-for-word, but plagiarism is so much more than just direct theft. Plagiarism is about using, without citation or permission, another author’s ideas. In fiction, this can be a fine and difficult line to define. Veronica Mars was not the first story to use a spunky, but damaged young woman as its lead, nor were her struggles something entirely new and unseen. What makes me think that Unraveling falls into plagiarism territory, however, is that it is too similar. It doesn’t just use the broad tropes that appear in Veronica Mars, but also all the same little details (and even compares the two stories on the back cover). While it is true that fiction writers often borrow a lot from one another, taking so much from one author without changing it, particularly the unique aspects of that other story, is plagiarism, and this is certainly something that readers should not support.
I was also bothered by the fact that some of these details were not even necessary or particularly relevant to Unraveling. For example, the rape plot was problematic in many ways. In Veronica Mars, the protagonist is drugged at a party and assaulted, and this has repercussions throughout the entire series. In Unraveling, the rape occurs in much the same circumstances, but is later discovered to not have happened. Instead, Janelle was saved by her love interest and the entire incident was really only written to ensure that readers think that Ben is pretty great. In Veronica Mars, the fact that Veronica was raped had crucial effects on the characters, plot, and setting of the series. Taking this assault out changes the story substantially, and even when watchers were made to believe that an actual assault didn’t occur the incident was still uncomfortable and affecting. In Unraveling, the rape was treated tritely and didn’t need to happen. The fact that this rape plotline didn’t seem to fit lends further credence to the idea that Unraveling lifted ideas from another series without much thought.
Unraveling is not a direct retelling of Veronica Mars. In fact, as the story progresses, Janelle’s story begins to diverge, and she becomes more and more her own character. However, the initial similarities are just too glaring to dismiss. Furthermore, because Unraveling and Veronica Mars share so many details, I kept comparing the two, and this was not beneficial for Norris’ work.
I should also note that in my review of other people’s opinions and experiences of this book, Veronica Mars was not the only other series that people thought Unraveling pulled from. I can’t make any claims of plagiarism for these given the fact that I am unfamiliar with the other sources, but this suggests that Unraveling definitely has problems with originality.
Unraveling is an amusing, light read (with some significant writing problems), but I couldn’t get over the fact that it seemed too much like an amalgamation of ideas from other series without much change. I wouldn’t recommend it given the fact that I feel like it sits too close to the plagiarism line to be ethical, but for those who pick it up anyways, it’s good for some escapist reading. However, don’t expect to find strong, well thought-out sci-fi in its pages.