Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are probably aware that I have a liking for dystopian fiction, most particularly of the young adult variety. Yet for whatever reason, until tonight, I hadn’t touched Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, the first two books of which are DIVERGENT and INSURGENT.
Why is this, you might be asking? Am I tired of dystopias? (Um, no. Not if done well, anyway.) Has the genre simply played itself out? (Perhaps.) Or — and this one’s for the big money, folks — could it be that these novels simply seemed too much of a copycat to Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular trilogy starting with THE HUNGER GAMES? (By the way, Jason reviewed both THE HUNGER GAMES and book two of that trilogy, CATCHING FIRE, here at SBR. But I digress.)
Granted, Ms. Roth’s milieu is near-future Chicago rather than a downtrodden future Appalachia. Her version of Chicago has somehow divided itself into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless people who must take care of everyone whether they like it or not), Amity (the friendly peaceniks), Candor (the relentless truth-tellers; they would not make good lovers), Erudite (the incredibly brainy; these are the rocket scientists and entrepreneurs who think up stuff you just have to have, even if you never knew you needed it before) — and last but not least, Dauntless.
Now, why am I not talking much about Dauntless? It’s simple, really. Dauntless seems to be where everyone else goes — the thrill-seekers, the rampant sociopaths, the police and firemen, and the military, not necessarily in that order.
Mind, if you are unable to be placed in any of these five factions, you end up at the bottom of the totem pole. Everyone must be placed in these five factions, or you’re homeless, friendless, and alone — no ifs, ands or buts — even though it seems obvious that there’s some gaping holes in what the factions actually do and how they’d actually try to run a city as big as Chicago.
All of that implausibility aside — and it’s a pretty big implausibility to swallow — the actual story of Beatrice Prior and what faction she ends up choosing is pretty good. She grows up in Abnegation, which despises vanity, mostly wears gray and maybe a bit of brown now and again, and despises people who refuse to work, yet also is one of the two factions (Amity being the other) who will actually help the homeless and downtrodden.
But Beatrice does not feel like this faction is for her, even though she’s grown up with them.
That being said, she doesn’t necessarily have to stay there, as a placement test (a type of psychological simulation) that’s given at her high school at the age of sixteen will decide her fate. Whatever the test says, she’ll have to do — so if it says, say, Amity, she’ll have to go there — even though she has no friends and no family in that faction.
Fortunately for her, she proves to be divergent: she has aptitudes for more than one faction, in this case, for Dauntless, Abnegation, and, oddly enough, Erudite. And as Beatrice grew up in a solid Abnegation household (her father is a politician, while her mother seems to be a do-gooder of epic proportions, and proud of it, besides — think “volunteerism run amok” and you’re not far wrong, excepting that volunteerism on that scale would be vanity, and oh, no, the Abnegation must abhor that, jeepers!), she didn’t exactly expect this.
Her society does not officially believe in anyone being divergent, but the test givers know it’s possible. One of them, a kindly sort, tells Beatrice that she must pick one and do the simulation again so the readings will all match properly. (Does this make sense? Not really. But let’s go with it.)
And of course, that’s exactly what Beatrice does. But she does not pick Abnegation.
Instead, she picks Dauntless, even though, like my Amity example above, Beatrice knows absolutely no one in that faction.
So, off Beatrice goes to Dauntless, renaming herself the shorter “Tris” to save steps (and, perhaps, to give the reader some idea of Beatrice’s internal transformation, going along with the book’s tagline of “One choice will transform you”). But, as you might expect, the Dauntless initiation is no picnic; she has to prove she’s brave, fearless, and skilled (along with being thrifty and reverent, too, no doubt), or she’ll not make it through the initiation.
Then something weird happens. Tris is warned by her mother, who turns out to be a former member of Dauntless, of all things (she actually chose to go to Abnegation, which seems mighty odd), not to call attention to herself.
But what does Tris do?
You guessed it: She immediately calls attention to herself.
Along the way, Tris has a rather understated romance with her Dauntless “trainer,” Four, who also turns out to have been raised as a member of Abnegation. So they have much in common; better yet, they’re actually able to hold a conversation!
Down the line, Tris will learn exactly why her mother decided to leave Dauntless for Abnegation, will learn the value of sacrifice . . . and will learn that her family has been hiding a huge secret. And in the meantime, she’ll be the biggest, kick-butt action hero the world has ever seen . . . at least since Katniss Everdeen. (Apologies for the unintended rhyme there.)
Which, of course, means it’s time for book two, INSURGENT.
Tris now has to figure out what, exactly, her family was hiding from her. As both of her parents are unavailable, the only person she has left to ask is her brother, who’s now a member of Erudite. But he’s not entirely trustworthy, and worse, Erudite as a faction wants to take over all of Chicago — and, eventually, the world.
You see, there’s now a major war going on between the factions. Only Amity is trying to stay out of it, and Dauntless, being what they are, is in the thick of it — but rather than being one faction, they’ve split roughly down the middle. Some have followed Four, now known by his birth name of Tobias, and Tris; others have thrown their support to Erudite, as that particular faction seems to hold all the cards.
In many ways, INSURGENT is a better novel than DIVERGENT. The romance between Tris and Tobias (formerly Four) is plausible; they’re in major trouble, they’re bickering a lot, and they’re both trying to sort out their hormones, which seems realistic. Neither of them expected to be leading their splinter of Dauntless, and both of them are way too young to be doing so and they know it . . . but there simply is no one else.
More to the point, since the whole five-faction system didn’t make any sense in DIVERGENT, showing it coming apart in INSURGENT made a ton of sense. And showing two good people who are trying their best to avoid unnecessary killing while trying to figure out Tris’s parents’ cryptic hints from the first book was, to my mind, a major strength.
However, because the action in DIVERGENT was nearly constant, and because INSURGENT is a quieter and more reflective tale (this being in relative terms, of course, as there’s still plenty of death and dismemberment to go around), many reviewers have disliked INSURGENT for the reasons I liked it — it’s quieter. It is more plausible. There’s a lot of arguing. And these two young people — Tris is still only sixteen, while Tobias is, at most, nineteen — have to scramble to figure out how to save themselves along with the people following them, not to mention figuring out just who’s left that they can possibly trust.
Put bluntly, DIVERGENT felt like it was a paint-by-numbers dystopia. It has a good protagonist that you can’t help liking in Beatrice/Tris, and a ton of action — but the plot made no sense. And it definitely had many, many things in common with THE HUNGER GAMES — too many to suit me.
However, INSURGENT is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The plot made sense, providing you buy into the whole five-faction system coming apart (which, considering it never should’ve worked at all, is no great stretch). The characters behave in a realistic manner. And there’s still plenty of action and suspense to go around, but this time, they’re fighting for something rather than against it — and they know exactly who they’re fighting for, and why.
Bottom line? While DIVERGENT definitely didn’t do it for me — too much implausibility, and way too much derivative storytelling despite some nice writing flourishes by Ms. Roth — INSURGENT was much, much better, to the point that I will be reading and reviewing the third book of this trilogy, ALLEGIANT, shortly.
That’s why my grades are as follows:
DIVERGENT – C.
INSURGENT – B-plus.
–reviewed by Barb