Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Divergent," by Veronica Roth.

The Protagonist: Beatrice "Tris" Prior. Raised in Abnegation, a faction that reveres selflessness and helping others over all else, once she turns sixteen, she will be asked to choose which faction she'll belong to for the rest of her life.
Her Angst: Should she choose the faction that raised her, despite the fact that she's not as selfless as she wants to be, or a faction that calls to the true passion she's been forced to repress? And what's wrong with wanting both?

The Secondary Characters:

"Four": The trainer for the Dauntless initiates. Has a Sexy Mysterious Past, and insists on training initiates despite being offered a higher-status position.

Christina: A Candor-raised girl who chose Dauntless, and now trains with Tris and the others. Pretty nice person - loves Will.

Will: Another transfer from Candor, he's friends with Christina and Tris, but he and Christina might share something more than that.

Peter: The boy who is to Divergent what Cato was to The Hunger Games - a ruthlessly evil, murderous scumbag asshole who bullies the other Dauntless initiates. He unfortunately does not end the book eaten by bioengineered manwolves.

Eric: "Four"'s superior, and a completely creepy dude. Very obviously The Villain.

Al: A large but sweet-natured Dauntless initiate who, despite his size and strength, has trouble adapting to the Dauntless way of life.

Caleb: Tris' brother, who also abandoned his family and faction at the Choosing Ceremony to become part of the Erudite faction.

Tris's Mum: A total fucking bad ass. You'll find out.

Angst Checklist:
  • Making Hard Decisions
  • My Family Doesn't Understand Me.
  • I Have to Hide Who I Am
  • Mysterious Sexy Pasts
  • Who am I as a Person?
  • Redheads are the Devil
  • Thrillseeking
  • Selflessness
  • I Get The Sense That Constantly Being Injected With Needles Is Going To Mysteriously Backfire Later On
The Word: I gotta hand it to the publishers - they certainly know how to market this series. When I first saw this book, I was turned off by the cover, thinking it was just another Hunger Games clone. However, thanks to the hoopla for the upcoming sequel (Insurgent - what's the third title going to be called? Detergent?) where bloggers choose a faction - I got wrapped up in the excitement and decided to see what all the fuss was about.

In post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided and ruled by five factions: Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), and lastly, Abnegation (the selfless). Every citizen has their personality assessed when they are sixteen and chooses a faction. You can only choose once. Your faction supports you. Your faction is more important than your family. Those who don't choose or who fail their faction initiation become factionless - impoverished outcasts dependent on charity.

Beatrice "Tris" Prior, our protagonist, has been raised in the self-denying life of Abnegation. However, she's never felt like she fits in. She wants to be as good and selfless as her family, but she can't help but wish for something more for herself. When her personality is tested by the Poorly-Explained Plot-Propelling Scientific Doohicky (more on that later), her performance produces a rare inconclusive (or divergent) response. The well-meaning test administrator encourages Tris to lie about her results and choose a safe faction, for people identified as Divergent tend to come to Mysteriously Bad Ends.

The Choosing Ceremony arrives, and Tris scandalizes Abnegation when she chooses Dauntless as her faction - a decision that essentially cuts her off from her family and the only belief system she's ever known. As she's thrown into the brutal, unforgiving Dauntless initiation process, she discovers that she might be a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll - and that defining yourself by only one positive trait can come with some pretty disastrous downsides.

Given the release date, the dystopian setting, and mock-Mockingjay-ish cover, I feel the comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable. However, I felt that Divergent avoided many of the pitfalls The Hunger Games fell into.

While Divergent does share some things in common with The Hunger Games (such as a tough, independent heroine who has to scrap her way to the top of the heap in a dystopian setting despite having all the odds stacked against her), I felt it shared more DNA with Lois Lowry's The Giver, a novel that also included a society in which people's roles were more or less permanently decided for them.

I actually enjoyed the worldbuilding in Divergent far more than The Hunger Games for this reason. Like The Giver, while the world Tris lives in has lost its original purpose and has fractured as a result, you can still see and believe the original benevolent intentions behind the political and social structure. The idea of grouping people together based on common beliefs and personalities and giving them sole responsibility over specific tasks makes sense (at least in theory). 

With The Hunger Games, the entire societal structure was built on pretty blatant, black-and-white tyranny. There really is no "good" reason for the Hunger Games. Because of this I had a harder time believing the majority of Panem allowed their children to be butchered for seventy-five years, whereas I understood why people in post-apocalyptic Chicago still trusted the faction system, even though it bred ignorance and resentment that the Villains in this novel are quick to exploit.

As well, despite the futuristic setting, Divergent's storytelling relies far less on Poorly-Explained Plot-Propelling Scientific Doohickies than The Hunger Games does. There are a few (like controlled, hallucinogen-induced simulations injected into people), but ultimately it's pretty technologically low-key, which allows the characters' decisions and the consequences of these decisions to have more meaning and weight. Nothing is healed by a never-before-mentioned super-healing serum. No monstrous creatures are bio-engineered at the drop of a hat for a single purpose. No magical rubber balls drop out of the sky and eat people. That sort of thing.

Finally, I felt the characterization of Tris and her character arc to be more realistic and compelling than Katniss Everdeen's. *dodges stones* I'm serious. Katniss starts out as a badass and continues to be a badass by the end of the first book - I never felt she really developed or changed as a person in any significant way beyond her affections for a particularly studly baker. She was always self-sufficient - The Hunger Games simply allowed her to demonstrate that on a larger scale.

I really enjoyed how Tris came to explore and discover new elements to her personality as she changed factions. The factions focus so hard on supporting certain traits (honesty, intelligence, etc.) that they repress others, so changing the focus of her ideology allows Tris to realize the bravery, compassion and intelligence she's carried in herself all along - as well as the pride, selfishness, and cruelty - while still acknowledging the selfless part of her that was nurtured in Abnegation. I enjoyed the novel's theme that people can't always be checked into neat little boxes. I also enjoyed that Tris is allowed to experience moments of actual joy without being a constant Angsty McSadPants.

That's not to say this book didn't have flaws. I felt Tris was a little slow on the uptake on a couple of points that I thought were obvious, the pacing sags pretty disastrously in the novel's middle parts, the world-building could have used a little more detail, and the ultimate Evil Plan does depend on a Poorly-Explained Plot-Propelling Scientific Doohicky, resulting in an incredibly violent, rushed, and abrupt ending that kept me at a distance.

That being said, Divergent is a uniquely entertaining vision of a not-too-distant future that doesn't allow the science-fictional elements to overpower the very human development of its realistically-drawn characters.

Buy Divergent here!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:55 PM

    I just finished this book yesterday, and I have so many mixed feelings about it! But this was a great review and really summed up a lot of what I liked about it- specifically the worldbuilding as opposed to that of THG. I still think it's a bit weak- given our culture now, I have a very hard time seeing how it could evolve into what's depicted in Divergent- but it was a lot more plausible from the standpoint of those living in it than THG.

    And Tris- oh, man. I wanted to hate her so badly, and there were times she irritated the fuck out of me, but she was so similar to my angsty stupid younger self that I couldn't quite do it.

    My big critique is that I feel like the novel couldn't decide whether it wanted to be about Tris's initiation into the Dauntless or the takeover of the other factions. The sleepwalking bit just came out of nowhere for me, and it was just so abrupt that I felt jarred out of the story. But I will say the death scenes almost had me in tears. So yeah... there's that, I guess.

    Just wanted to add as one last thing that I came across this blog via the whole Story Siren debacle, and I'm so glad I did. It's quite awesome :)