Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Divergent

I'll confess that I jumped onto this wagon because the book was everywhere and I figured I'd get ahead of the movie buzz for once instead of waiting for months past the movie release to crack the book. Marketing makes me contrary.


Rating: 3 stars
Length: On the long side but doesn't feel like it (487 pages)
Publication: February 28, 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books
Premise: In a city where people divide themselves into five factions, Beatrice Prior is Divergent, with an affinity for more than one of them. She's having enough trouble finding her place in the adult world, but inter-faction tensions lurk beneath the surface and threaten to rip apart everything she's ever known.
Warnings: allusions to child abuse, attempted murder, sexual assault, suicide, mild gore
Recommendation: This is one of the best-paced YA books I've read recently, even though the worldbuilding could use a bit more detail. If you're looking for a great vacation read or fun way to spend an afternoon, this might be just what you're looking for, but I'd recommend finding it on sale or at the library. 

Spoilers for Beatrice/Tris's chosen faction, but it's plastered over quite a bit of the summary text I've found (and is kind of difficult to avoid discussing).

What keeps this one flying along:

Beatrice Prior's world was built on fear: after wars nearly destroyed humanity, the survivors created a society to prevent conflict. People divided themselves into five factions based on what they saw as the cause of the wars. The Erudite blamed ignorance, the Amity blamed aggression, the Candor blamed deception, the Abnegation blamed selfishness, and the Dauntless blamed cowardice. Children are raised in the faction of their parents, but when they are sixteen they take aptitude tests to determine which faction would suit them best: regardless of the results, they are free to choose the faction they want. Each faction has a role to play: the Dauntless are security forces, the Amity manage agriculture, the Candor control the judiciary, the Erudite pursue research, and the Abnegation run the government because they are assumed to make decisions in the public interest even if those decisions would disadvantage them on a personal level. The worldbuilding doesn't entirely make sense (more on that later) but it has the structure of a fantasy novel caste system, or perhaps the Hogwarts sorting system: teenagers even shed blood on the symbol of the faction they choose in a callback to the principle of "faction before blood." It's a good way to examine things as concepts isolated from excesscomplications and has the advantage of clarifying Beatrice/Tris's search for identity, which makes up for a lot-- Roth also included bonus materials like the manifestos for each faction for added context.

Where Divergent succeeds, it does so on the strength of Beatrice herself, who renames herself Tris at the start of her initiation. She's been raised to Abnegation, but she doesn't instinctively give of herself to help others the way that her brother seems to find so effortless. To her, leaving her faction would be dangerous, but it would also mean going against everything she's been raised to believe. Staying would make her parents happy and she'd spend her life helping others; staying would be the kind of selfless action she wants to be able to take. Leaving and joining Dauntless, the risk-taking faction that has fascinated her for years, would in itself be a way to demonstrate that she's brave enough to belong. The book manages to avoid making it as simple as one faction being better than the other: Tris feels at home in Dauntless and loves the mad risk-taking, but surviving there starts to strip her of her mercy. Some of her fellow initiates are cruel and others just want the comfort that her family would provide without a second thought, but she consciously forces herself to not help or be too open because she knows it would leave her vulnerable. Her struggle revolves around what it means to be brave and good while fighting the realization that many of her most courageous moments are fueled by the upbringing she's abandoned. It works best when she's dealing with Al, a faction transfer who may be too gentle for Dauntless and is starting to buckle under the strain of initiation. Tris is willing to act in unfriendly ways that are normally off-limits to heroines in this genre, and it's deeply refreshing to watch her stand her ground against both friends and enemies.

That struggle works in large part because of the struggle of Dauntless initiation: Tris is facing a new challenge almost every day, whether it's an uneven fistfight or a midnight game of capture the flag that forces her to use strategy. Abnegation doesn't really emphasize physical activity, so she's riding high on adrenaline even when she's bruised or terrified. Sometimes she's exhilarated because of the heights and sometimes she's too sore to tie her own shoes, but each mood pulls out different insights or sides of herself that she's not sure she likes. Her love story even works well; yes, it carries some YA tropes about the boy's dark and brooding past and his fascination with her, but their love is ultimately based on trust and an appreciation of strength. Tris's upbringing has left her nervous about touch and intimacy, in part because Abnegation keeps physical affection private, and in many ways her odd relationship is more about coming to terms with that than it is about the boy himself. Tris grows into a person who loves the Dauntless tendency towards risk-taking, from jumping out of moving trains (admittedly one of the parts that makes the least sense) to riding a zip line with a thousand-foot drop. You can feel her unfolding on every page, especially when she's reacting to physical challenges-- that zip line ride is one of the most vivid sequences in the book. Veronica Roth's style works best when Tris is growing through her series of trials by fire, and the underlying wistfulness for how good the faction could be pops when paired with her slide towards ruthlessness.

The red pen:

Fun though the faction system is, it's full of enormous worldbuilding holes. It's presumed that people unanimously decided to put this system in place, and a few centuries later people are full of unrest. The Erudite faction wants more power because knowledge inevitably leads people into dark places and ambition (or so it seems), and they're trying to achieve that end by spreading slander about Abnegation to increase public ill will against the faction. The problem is that the larger dark plot relies on Erudite and a few Dauntless being evil while no one of any other faction seems unpleasant on more than a personal level, and that level of anti-intellectualism gets tiresome; we see hints of the good and bad of every other faction, but Erudite is just full of evil snobs. The numbers are also oddly off-- it comes off like all five factions are the same size, but there can only be ten new Dauntless initiates each year. If all the factions have roughly equal recruitment, that means only fifty teenagers choosing each year with about ten to a faction and no way to sustain farming operations (Amity) and an enormous glut of tactless people in some vague legal profession (Candor). It's a "how are all the evil people in Slytherin and how are there a thousand Hogwarts students but less than fifty in each year" problem-- it's an interesting system on paper, but it falls apart under even mild poking.

This gets particularly weird during the aptitude test, when people have to make choices like "take cheese or a knife" or "do you tell the truth to an unhinged man on a bus." The whole test has very few choices and takes just a few minutes...but it's supposed to determine your entire future, and anyone showing an aptitude for more than one faction is Divergent. One character later argues that he wants to be brave and selfless and kind and smart and honest, not just one, and it makes sense: someone self-sacrificing might also be kind, someone smart might also be incapable of telling a lie to smooth the waters, someone brave might also be kind and a brilliant strategist....or, as is theoretically most likely, everyone has traces of all five. The faction system could be interesting, but the idea that failing initiation into your new group means immediately being kicked out on the streets to live among the poor and homeless, and that leaving your home faction means being seen as a traitor to your family....it doesn't make sense that most people would choose anything but the very safest initiation processes except in rare cases. There's a hint that being Divergent also entails a certain awareness that a computer simulation is a simulation that you can manipulate, but the whole concept is vague and unsatisfying. 

Tris's moments of seeing the potential in other factions are compelling, though it would have been nice to see how the factions actually work together (or don't) beyond the small present snippets. Her fellow initiates....they try to be interesting, but they end up feeling too generic, in large part because their characterization centers on her. A few interesting friendships start to form, and there's a great natural rivalry because not all of them can join the faction but they like each other. This is fun until everything starts to be about Tris and whether they can cope with her strength, and what they think of her old faction, and how awful they think the people being mean to Tris are. Most of these people are objectively awful (sadists, possibly murderers), but this has the classic too-loved heroine problem of no middle ground: people love her or hate her, and that one fact about them also tends to be a tipoff about whether that person is good or evil. With worldbuilding this roleplaying-rules in style, the people need to be more complex to make up for it, and they just aren't-- Tris's journey isn't quite interesting enough to make up for everyone else's near-stagnation.

The verdict: Divergent relies on style and speed rather than thorough worldbuilding. After the book is over, you're left with dozens of questions about how this society could exist, or why things work the way they do in pretty much any arena. In the moment, however, it's just a fast-paced journey of personal exploration bound up in larger societal issues, and I had trouble putting it down. Odds are that I'll grab the next ones through the library or a friend and have a nice afternoon of mental popcorn without rereading them afterwards.

Prospects: This is the first in the Divergent trilogy-- it was followed by Insurgent and Allegiant, which will come out this October and conclude the trilogy. There's also a movie in the works for a 2014 release, and the first trailer came out recently.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~I haven't read enough YA recently, because I can't think of any good parallels but The Hunger Games. I've heard that Scott Westfeld's Uglies series is good and a bit like this, but I haven't read it myself.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analysis. I read Divergent recently and am still wondering what I think of it. There's a Lord Of The Flies kind of unpleasantness but I suppose that's a dytopian trope. Personally, I think Scott Westerfield's Uglies series has more--depth is maybe the word I want. I'd be interested to see what you say if you read them.

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