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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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Review: “Halo: The Thursday War” by Karen Traviss

Title: The Thursday War
Author: Karen Traviss
Series: Halo: The Kilo-Five Trilogy Book II
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2012

This will be the first Halo book I’ve read since starting this blog (unfortunately, it’s part two of a trilogy), but for a while there I was on a real bender. I read all of them that were published, and then waited impatiently for this one to be released. Once it was, it sat unread on my shelf for a year and a half for some unfathomable reason….I’ve always appreciated the depth of the world created for the Halo games. It goes way deeper than any I’d encountered before when I first discovered it, way back with the prequel novel to the first game, The Fall Of Reach by Eric Nylund. I’d never even played the game at that point, but that book so gripped me and pulled me in that I’ve been hooked ever since. There have of course been some ups and downs, including the necessity of avoiding the cutting edge of the ongoing plot between the release of Halo 2 and Halo 3 to avoid spoilers, but on the whole it’s been a fascinating universe to visit in these novels. So when I heard that they’d hired Karen Traviss to write a trilogy setting up Halo 4 I was ecstatic. Karen Traviss happens to be one of my favorite writers of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, second only to Timothy Zahn, and even there I waffle back and forth at times. She no longer works with Lucasfilm after a very public falling out over some idiotic restrictions they placed on what she could and couldn’t do in the final book of the series she was writing,* but I’ve kept an eye on her work ever since. I’m looking at powering through the Gears Of War tie-ins she’s written in the near future as well.

Okay, so here’s the world of Halo: five hundred years from now (give or take) humanity has colonized the stars under the authority of the United Nations Space Corps. (UNSC), spreading across the galaxy the way we’ve done since the dawn of time on our own world.** Eventually, we ran up against the Covenant, an expansionist theocratic empire composed of a number of different alien races. The Covenant worship the Forerunner, a vanished ancient civilization that left behind a wealth of artifacts and installations strewn across the galaxy. Humanity found itself locked in a brutal war against an enemy that believed our annihilation was their god-given duty. On the ground, humanity could hold our own with the Covenant. In space they hold most of the cards, and having lost a ground engagement can simply pour plasma fire into the planet’s surface until it’s uninhabitable. Colony by colony, the UNSC lost ground. The tide was stemmed somewhat when the Spartan II’s joined the fray, super-soldiers kidnapped as kids and put through a series of genetic and surgical treatments on top of the most rigorous training program that could be devised. But even the Spartans could only do so much, and soon Humanity faced a far more dangerous threat. According to the Covenant Prophets, the Forerunner ascended to another plane of existence by activating the Halos, a series of artificial ring-shaped worlds. What really happened, as discovered by the Master Chief (the player character for the core Halo games), is that the Forerunner were facing the annihilation of all intelligent life in the galaxy by the Flood, a nasty parasitic organism. They built the Halo arrays as a weapon of last resort, hiding specimens of every species inside the massive Ark installation far out of reach of the Halo arrays. They planned to retreat to a shielded world themselves, then activate the Halos to purge the Flood from the galaxy. They never made it to the shield world. Somehow, the Halos were activated and the Forerunner perished alongside the Flood. The Covenant tried to activate the Halos, hoping to follow the Forerunner into godhood. The Master Chief was able to thwart them–twice–and in the process certain elements of the Covenant learned the truth about the Covenant, causing a violent schism. The Arbiter, an Elite warrior who had been instrumental in the discovery, led a revolt against the prophet overlords and allied himself and his followers with the humans, working together to thwart the Prophets’ final plan to fire all the Halo arrays. It worked, but the Master Chief was lost in the attempt.***

Such is the state of things at the end of Halo 3: the Covenant is defeated and splintered, at least for the time being. Humanity is triumphant, and the Elites are our new allies. All is well, yes? Not so much, actually. The end of the war with the Covenant means that the old tensions between Earth and the colonies are heating back up without the more pressing threat to keep the Insurrectionists at bay. Then too, how much do we trust the Elites? The Arbiter himself seems honorable, so far as that goes with a species whose culture we barely understand, but we spent a generation fighting each other. Even if we can trust the Arbiter to keep his word, he won’t hold onto power forever. Eventually, we’re going to have to fight the Elites again, and it would be in Earth’s best interest if they weren’t allowed to regain their former power before we do it. Both of these issues fall under the purview of the Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI–the UNSC version of the CIA, but with even more dirty tricks up their sleeve. The head of ONI puts together Kilo-5, a mixed-bag strike team capable of dealing with both threats. There’s a Spartan, Naomi, a couple ODST Helljumpers, an expert on Elite culture and language, as well as the team leader who is being groomed to take over the entirety of ONI one day and a fourth-generation AI. Their mission consists mainly of spying on known Insurrectionists in between a series of “dirty tricks” operations to supply weapons to forces hostile to the Arbiter–ostensibly because ONI believes they’re more trustworthy, or at least more stable in the long term, than the Arbiter and his forces, but in reality just because it’s to our advantage to keep them fighting among themselves and too busy to come after us. Of course, it’s not all that easy. First, an overzealous underling discovers where his boss’s weapons are coming from. Then it’s discovered that Naomi’s dad is still alive, contrary to assumptions since his colony was glassed, but is now an Insurrectionist leader convinced that the government was behind his daughter’s kidnapping. It would be less complicated if he was wrong….but Kilo-5 doesn’t have time to worry about that now, because their expert on the Elites is stuck on their home planet in the middle of the suddenly-erupted civil war.

This was excellent–pure Karen Traviss at her best. There are few writers–or at least, few who deal with licensed properties–who can take in the world that’s been created by other authors in a variety of media and see the subtleties, the right places to poke and show you that the struggle you thought was black and white is actually composed of a rainbow of shades of gray. That the villains aren’t always evil, and the heroes aren’t always noble. That sometimes it comes down to people doing bad things for a good reason. There are obvious parallels to her Republic Commando novels, even beyond the Commandos/Spartans who share an origin rife with moral ambiguity. To some degree this is a departure from previous Halo stories in that it features an almost-entirely new set of characters, but that’s pretty much required by the status quo Traviss was handed, and I have no problem with that. Will this be confusing to people unfamiliar with the world of Halo? Yes, I fear it would, and you can’t get a good handle on the world without playing at least the second and third games (the first game has a novelization, but the second and third do not). I tried, back when I didn’t have an X-Box. Will this trilogy end leaving you somewhat unfulfilled? Probably not too much, given Traviss’ abilities, but certain plot threads are definitely being woven as a set-up for Halo 4. Bottom line: I loved it, but I’m already invested in this world. If you aren’t, this probably isn’t the place to start.

CONTENT: Mild language, PG-13 grade. Violence, occasionally gory. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

*Not very objective, am I? No, I realize that. Here’s the short version of my nerd-rage rant: Karen Traviss had a series she was working on featuring the Republic Commandos during the Clone Wars. By the later part of the series, almost the entirety of the action was set on the planet Mandalore, the culture of which she had managed to stitch together from a hundred disparate and contradictory threads into something that was actually cohesive (and incredibly awesome!) Just as she reaches the climax of the series, with one book to go, she’s told that she’s no longer allowed to do anything with the Mandalorian planet or culture because the Clone Wars animated series is going to be pulling a major retcon dealing with those topics. Frustrated for obvious reasons, Traviss left the franchise. Having read her series up to it’s final cliffhanger (that will now never be resolved) and watched the series at least that far, I can tell you without a doubt: Traviss’ vision was better. The show made the coolest warrior culture in the GFFA (in my humble opinion) into a bunch of pacifists! Really? Gah! Okay, I’m cutting this off before my nerd-rage erupts and embarrasses us all….
**There’s another series of Halo tie-ins I’ve yet to read that suggest Humanity has colonized the stars once before, only to devolve back into the stone age, but I’m ignoring that here for simplicity’s sake.
***Not dead–lost. He was in the wrong section of a ship that got cut in half when a portal failed. The UNSC presumes him dead, but we know he was last seen entering cryosleep as what’s left of the ship drifts through the void….


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