Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I know, I’m late to the party. I have this bad habit of avoiding high-hype books out of a sense of general stubbornness, not because I really doubt their quality (a certain series involving glitter-ridden “vampires” excluded, of course) but partially from general cantankerousness, partially from convenience (I heavily rely on the library, making high-demand books somewhat inconvenient at times), and partially from the fact that my “to-read” stack has become a full set of shelves, crammed to bursting, and lower-priority works have overflowed into a series of boxes until I can get things under control. This procrastination only gets worse when there’s a perception of market glut; i.e. “Twilight is big! Let’s ride this angsty faux-vampire thing all the way to the bank! Oooh….look at the sales numbers on The Hunger Games…..” This last is unfair, I know…there are some seriously good dystopian books coming out now. It’s just a matter of digging through the glut to find the gems. I’m hoping to read The Maze Runner soon, and I’ve heard good things about The Blood Red Road as well. In the case of Divergent, my sister is obsessed. Some of the other YA dystopian stuff she’s into holds no interest for me (Matched, for example), but this looked interesting. Plus, my wife wants to see the movie, and to watch it before reading it would be pure heresy. Thus, I borrowed my sister’s beloved copy and dove in (Thanks Chloe!)

In the unspecified future, Chicago has become a self-sustaining dystopian fortress. Within its walls, the citizens are divided into five factions based on their most dominant character trait–Amity, the peaceful; Abnegation, the selfless; Candor, the honest/impartial; Erudite, the learned; and Dauntless, the brave. Children are raised in the faction of their parents until the age of sixteen, when they take a test that tells them which faction best fits their character/thinking/instincts. They then choose their faction, once and for all. They are free to choose a different faction than their test indicates, providing some thin semblance of democracy, but once the choice is made it cannot be changed…and if you can’t make it in your chosen faction, you become one of the Factionless, the faceless untouchables that perform the menial labor for the entire city.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior has been raised in Abnegation all her life, but she doesn’t feel she really fits in. She wants to be good and selfless, but the fact is that politeness and seeing others’ needs isn’t what she’s good at. If she ends up in another faction, its likely she’ll see her family only on rare occasions (“Faction before Blood” is the motto of the new society), but Tris frankly isn’t sure she can stay in Abnegation for the rest of her life without going crazy. Things only become more complicated when her test comes back inconclusive–Tris could be suited for Dauntless, Abnegation, or even Erudite. The test overseer informs her that she is Divergent, and that to tell anyone her secret could get her killed. The test results are wiped and the overseer pretends there was a problem with the readings, while Tris leaves the test that should have given her guidance with only more questions. Right up until the moment she makes her choice, she doesn’t know what she is going to do, but once she decides there is no going back….

This book garners all sorts of comparisons to The Hunger Games, and I can see the similarities, but I think the differences are far more significant–and I think Divergent is better, on the whole. Both books feature an oppressive social system, a strong-willed female protagonist who narrates the work in first-person POV, and an incredible amount of violence perpetrated against children. At the same time, even these elements bear only a passing resemblance to each other. While neo-Chicago’s faction-based society is clearly flawed, it was founded with the best of intentions while Panem makes no bones about being a bloody dictatorship that televises an annual live-action adolescent death-match. Katniss and Tris definitely share similarities (bravery, a strong survival instinct, and the determination to protect those they care about,) but there are also marked differences. For one thing, Tris is a very active character. Most of what happens in the book happens because makes a decision and does something. Katniss is more reactive, largely as a product of the plot, but the former still makes for a more interesting character. Then of course there’s also Katniss’s angsty whining for the first half of Catching Fire, followed by her slow descent into madness during Mockingjay. I wasn’t too big a fan of those elements. Tris manages to still have a love interest without being quite so whiny about it. Just my opinion.*

The writing here was tight and action-packed, flowing so smoothly and keeping me so engaged that I’ve ended up staying up later than I intended several times over the past week, lost in the ruins of Chicago. That said, there are elements of Divergent that I’m a bit conflicted about. The world itself is overly simplistic, for one thing. And yet….maybe that’s the point. The idea of a society where everyone is defined by a single character trait is ridiculous, on the face of it, but on closer examination Divergent makes it work much better than I expected when I started the book. For one thing, the factions aren’t necessarily built around the only character trait that its members exhibit, but the one they want to emphasize. It can require bravery to be selfless or honest, or even simply to leave your faction and family for a new one at the choosing ceremony. You can have brave Abnegation, honest Amity, or even Dauntless who recognize that violence isn’t always the best option. Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that this is a dystopian vision. A society based around these factions wouldn’t work? Exactly. That would be why it’s falling apart…. I am less thrilled by the underlying anti-intellectualism necessitated by the plot, but even here Ms. Roth makes it clear that its not learning and knowledge itself that is bad, but the underlying human nature–i.e., a lust for power. You see this moral decline in both the Erudite and the Dauntless, and to some degree even in Abnegation. If we explored Candor or Amity a bit more in this book, I suspect we’d see the same decay in their values, and I expect exactly that from the other two books in the trilogy. The problems we see come to fruition in the book are the result not of a particular character trait, but of each faction valuing their chosen ideal to the point where they dismiss or denigrate the others. The faction manifestos included in the back shine an interesting light on the original ideals of each faction, as well as how they’ve drifted from that original conception. The point was that each virtue was supposed to be the best way to ensure the common good, not that each virtue was an end in itself. Thus we see Dauntless emphasizing bravery in defense of the weak, and Amity admitting that fighting to defend another is also laudable. We see Erudite going out of their way to emphasize that while knowledge is a powerful tool, it must be wielded as a tool for the greater good and not a weapon for their own gain. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize how far each of these factions have fallen from their initial ideals…and the original good that underlies the corrupted society they’ve inherited.

Divergence itself confuses me a bit, and I hope this supposed anomaly is explored further in the next couple books. Initially, it appears that divergence is simply displaying the character traits of multiple factions, thus making the placement test inconclusive. If this is all it was, you would expect most people to be divergent, and this apparent disconnect is the source of quite a bit of griping from other reviewers. However, one of the effects of divergence is the ability to mess with whatever simulation they’ve got running in your head, thus implying its more of a neurological anomaly. Since the test itself is a simulation designed to force the subject into specific situations requiring particular traits, that fits, as does the apparent genetic nature of it. As for the apparent rarity of divergents, events soon prove that while they are not the norm they certainly aren’t as rare as everyone assumes. Two of the main characters prove divergent, as do at least two minor characters and several others that are only mentioned in passing.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language, but otherwise PG-13 on the profanity front. Strong, occasionally gruesome violence, including a potential attempted rape. Some sexual innuendos and references, but nothing too explicit.

*Keeping in mind, I read Catching Fire on a very slow night at work, reading almost the entire first half at basically one sitting. That’s a lot of concentrated angst, and had I read it over a longer span of time I may have reacted slightly less negatively.

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