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
#1 by Mandi M. Lynch, author on April 14, 2014 - 12:50 am
Interesting. I had some issues with Divergent and Insurgent, but not quite the issues that you had. For instance, way too many unanswered questions in book 1 (some got answered in book 3, some did not). Book 2, I had issues, not with pacing, but with how little actually happened. I don’t like series’ that have a first book that could stand alone and a 2nd book that mostly serves to set up the rest of the series. I wonder what the short stories add to the series – most of the books that have come out as movie tie-ins and bonus content have been useless. I’m a little scared of the movie, too, since it sort of looks like they didn’t care at all what the book descriptions were of any character they cast. I know there are similarities to Hunger Games, but I don’t get the thought that they’re “exactly alike” (seriously overheard somebody say that the other day) and I seriously hope the studio isn’t trying too hard to make them that way.
(Reviews on my blog, too – http://bookinthebag.wordpress.com)
#2 by Barb Caffrey on April 14, 2014 - 8:02 am
I agree with you about all of the unanswered questions, Mandi. There were too many.
In some ways, the way trilogies are often structured now works against the reader. We don’t get three stand-alone stories most of the time, and while it’s OK to go from one story straight into the next (which Ms. Roth did from “Divergent” to “Insurgent”), if there was some sort of conclusion to each novel, it would help.
I almost hate to say that, because my own novel, “Elfy,” was split into a duology (the first being “An Elfy on the Loose,” just out), and all I could do was try to give a solid cliffhanger to run on . . . and for all I know, Ms. Roth’s novel _also_ was split, meaning that perhaps “Divergent” and “Insurgent” could’ve potentially been one novel at some point.
And if the two stories were together, that would perhaps have added up to a solid B read for me.
But with all of the stuff that I didn’t even get a chance to mention, like how and why someone who’s never really been an athlete could attempt to jump off a moving train without going splat (much less doing so successfully), or why the Dauntless initiation wasn’t more like a military boot camp (now *that* would’ve made sense), or even why the rampant sociopaths weren’t just tolerated, but were often exalted in Dauntless . . . well, if I didn’t like the actual writing so much, the grade would’ve been _lower_ than a straight C.
As for the short stories Ms. Roth has written about Four/Tobias . . . it seems to me she’s written them because she killed off Beatrice, and her fans still want more in this universe. So she has no choice if she wants to keep her fans happy.
But whether they actually add anything? I don’t know. I haven’t read them. (Have you? If so, what do you think of them?)
Anyway, for me, the writing was more assured in “Insurgent” and the character motivations made a lot more sense. I would’ve liked more actual movement in the plot, and I certainly would’ve liked some idea as to why Beatrice’s brother was trying to play both sides of the fence. But there was enough there I’ll read “Allegiant” and try to come to some grips with whether or not I feel the trilogy actually works and whether or not Beatrice really did need to get killed off . . .
Thanks for commenting, Mandi. Always enjoy reading what you have to say.
#3 by Mandi M. Lynch, author on April 15, 2014 - 12:42 am
Caleb’s entire existence was weird in the series. He had a few moments here and there and a whole lot of nothing or total crap in between. He’s in the third book, and I would have just as soon had the story without him.
I’ve not read the short stories yet, just all the movie tie in bonus stuff that they’ve done, and the more I read that stuff, the more annoyed with it I get – one book gave stupid explanations that somebody who had never heard of the books would have needed but presented them in a way that about 99% of the book was spoilers. I understand marketing (hell, I have a degree in it), but at the same time, they’ve marketed this series to death. The movie cover for the book has already been out at least six weeks that I know of. I’m actually on the hold list for it at the library, though, and so once I get it, I’ll be reviewing it ASAP.
Personally, though, I’d rather have a couple short stories about the world. When I read the first book, I cared more about how Chicago got to be like it was and why the great lakes were basically drained, and while there was a little bit of explanation, it wasn’t enough for me. I want to read *that* story, which, I suppose VR could do regardless of what characters are around now since it’s in the past. She certainly wouldn’t be the first author to do a prequel after the fact.