I love dystopian young adult fiction. Its major downside is that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to intelligent discourse and discussion. I finished Divergent last Friday and have been trying to figure out what direction to take my review in since then. My final decision on that was basically this: keep it simple because if you say too much now you’re not going to have anything to say by the time you get to the end of the third book in the trilogy.
I talked a bit about the plot of Divergent in my last post. Basically Tris Prior (who changes her name from Beatrice when she leaves her faction, Abnegation, for Dauntless) is going through initiation at Dauntless. There are three stages to initiation in Dauntless: the first is physical training, teaching the initiates how to fight, since the “job” of Dauntless members is defense of the city of Chicago from whatever threat may lay beyond the gates. No one really knows what that is anymore, but I suspect we’ll find out in the next two books. Tris doesn’t do well in this first phase of initiation because in Abnegation there isn’t much need seen for learning to fight or how to throw knives or shoot guns. The second phase, however, is different. The second phase is mental training, or teaching the initiates how to face their fears. They are injected with some sort of medication and put into “simulations” that detect their fears and force them to face them. Over and over again. You don’t get out until you successfully face all of your fears, and everyone has a different number. Four is the person who monitors this training, and we learn where he got the nickname “Four.” Apparently he only has four fears, which is an unprecedentedly low number. When Tris is able to get out of the simulations in less than half the time it takes her fellow initiates Four knows that she is Divergent. It’s hinted at that he is also Divergent, but Tris doesn’t find out for sure that he is until much later.
It goes without saying that Tris’ rank in her initiate class begins to climb steadily once they start phase two and the kids who used to taunt her and call her “Stiff,” the other factions’ nickname for Abnegation members, start to be quite intimidated, once even going so far as to try to kidnap her and throw her down into the chasm. This is a high, sheer cliff in the middle of Dauntless that ends in a very unsafe river. Dauntless members go here when the want to kill themselves, or apparently, intimidate other members. Four rescues her, and this is when it becomes obvious that he likes Tris. I knew before this, of course, because I’ve seen the movie. So here is my first major fault I’ve found with this book. Roth does an amazing job of creating stress and tension and action. But romance is not her strong suit. The budding romance between Tris and Four is adolescent but I didn’t feel the chemistry between them. The actors who played them in the movie did a really good job of making the feelings believable. I tried to convince myself that it was just because it’s a book aimed at young adult readers, but when I think about The Hunger Games and the triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, I remember that I felt Katniss’ conflict in my bones. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But even Stephenie Meyer did a better job than Veronica Roth at conveying the angst and supreme feelings of teenage romance. I hate to say that because generally Roth is far superior a writer, but she needs to work on the love stuff a bit.
So, Tris has many adventures in her training: there’s the capture the flag competition that she wins for her team; Four takes her into his “fear landscape” to teach her how a true Dauntless would approach her fears; they kiss a few times; and then she has her final test: she has to go into her own fear landscape with all the leaders of Dauntless watching. She does it right and passes with flying colors. But then the real world encroaches. Even before Tris went to Dauntless, there had been rumblings of dissatisfaction with the leadership of Chicago. Abnegation, since time immemorial, has been the faction in charge of government. This was so because their selflessness made them incorruptible. The Erudite has lately begun to find fault with this system and has been slowly sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the other factions about whether or not this is the best way for Chicago to be. Somehow they have gotten Dauntless on their side, which is a good move, because how are all these scientists and people really supposed to stage a coup without the military arm of the city? On initiation night all the members of Dauntless are injected with a “tracking serum,” that’s actually some kind of mind control simulation that puts all Dauntless in a highly suggestible trance, except the members who are Divergent, of course. How convenient! I’ve mentioned before that the Divergent are seen as dangerous, especially to a faction that operates in a “follow orders so no one gets hurt” sort of way like the Daultness. So the people who don’t seem to be affected by the serum are rounded up and killed or something. Tris realizes what’s going on, as does Four, and they play along. They discover that they are going to Abnegation’s part of town to stage a hostile takeover of the government. When they get there, they drop the act and are captured.
Tris’ mom appears and rescues Tris, but Four has already been taken elsewhere. They are running to meet up with Tris’s dad and brother and several other members of Abnegation when they are almost caught again. Tris’s mom sacrifices herself so Tris can escape. During this whole scene we learn that Tris’s mom was originally a member of Dauntless, and also Divergent. When Tris gets to her remaining family and Abnegation members, they launch a plan to attempt to rescue Four. (Oh, by the way, Four’s real name is Tobias, and he is the son of Abnegation’s leader, Marcus. He left Abnegation to get away from his dad, who was physically abusive. This is one of the stories that Erudite leaked in their efforts to usurp Abnegation; the difference between this one and all the others is that it’s actually true, because it’s in Four’s fear landscape.) Long story sort, they rescue Four, and wake up the other Dauntless members, but Tris’s dad is killed. At the end of the book, Tris, Four/Tobias, Marcus, Caleb (Tris’s brother), and several others are riding the train to the end of the line, not sure where they are going to end up. I know, though. They’re going to Amity.
There are many more characters who were introduced in Divergent that I didn’t get a chance to mention in my review, mostly other Dauntless initiates, both friends and foes of Tris. This book definitely has a cast of thousands, and I know it’s only going to get worse as the trilogy progresses. This is hardly a complaint; I love books with lots of characters and plots and subplots. But it makes for long reviews!
I really liked the final paragraph of the book, and I’m going to include it here, so you guys have an example of Roth’s lovely prose: “Abnegation and Dauntless are both broken, their members scattered. We are like the factionless now. I do not know what life will be like, separated from a faction—it feels disengaged, like a leaf divided from the tree that gives it sustenance. We are creatures of loss; we have left everything behind. I have no home, no path, and no certainty. I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either (487).”
I am very much looking forward to what happens next in this trilogy. Divergent is far from perfect, but Roth has potential. I think this dystopian Chicago is a very interesting place. I suspect in the end I will have enjoyed The Hunger Games more, but the Divergent series raises a lot of interesting questions about what kind of people should lead, and how best to organize a community. The idea of dividing people based on primary personality traits but also allowing choice is really interesting. What would bring about a change like that? I hope I get to find out. That was always disappointing about The Hunger Games. We never really learn what caused the United States to turn into Panem and the Districts. Veronica Roth will earn points if she tells me her dystopian world’s origin story.