TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Everyone remotely involved in teen literature knows that pretty much every dystopian novel is touted as the next "The Hunger Games." Sure enough, I heard that exact pitch for Veronica Roth's debut teen novel, "Divergent," which takes place in a desolate, fractured Chicago of the future. You know what, though? "Divergent" actually has some of the spark — the great hook, feisty lead character, and intense scenes of desperate survival — that made "The Hunger Games" such a phenomenon. While it lacks Suzanne Collins' precise worldbuilding, complex love story, and overall literary skill, it's still a compelling, highly enjoyable read.
Dystopian Chicago — the lakes have dried up, buildings are hulking shells — is divided into five factions, each based on a desired human trait. Amity folks are friendly and personable; Erudite is comprised of cold intellectuals; Abnegation members are selfless, plain people; Candor-ites are blunt and, perhaps, far too honest; and the Dauntless are strong, fearless fighters. The factions were created as the antidote to the human complexity that lead to power struggles, infighting, wars, and the near destruction of society. Teenagers now take an aptitude test, after which they must choose to remain in their birth faction or join the faction for which they show an innate ability. As such, society remains properly ordered, separated, and safe.
Smart, resourceful teen Beatrice has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family. Try as she might, she cannot seem to hold her tongue, quietly accept her circumstances, and selflessly offer up her time and possessions. Her aptitude test reveals a shocking result: Beatrice shows a talent for three separate factions. Such Divergence is considered so explosive and dangerous that Beatrice must keep the results secret from everyone, including her parents and beloved brother Caleb. (To be honest, we're never actually told why Divergence is such a threat, although we get hints late in the novel.) At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice selects the Dauntless group, seemingly betraying her family. She is plunged into an underground world of darkness, tattoos and piercings that is also a place of camaraderie, physical and mental strength, and bravery.
The bulk of the novel encompasses the Dauntless initiate training, which Beatrice — rechristened Tris — initially undergoes with others who were likewise born into other factions. The training is grueling, which should be expected from a group that leaps off buildings and jumps onto moving trains. We're talking beatdown fights (think UFC!), mental torture, firearms, bloodshed, daredevil feats, and knife throwing. There is plenty of action throughout "Divergent," and the training sequences, even after the Dauntless-born initiates are added to the mix, are riveting in their sheer physicality and emotional duress. We see Tris come alive during this process, emerging from a mousy Abnegation girl to discover her inner strength and calm resolve. It's a coming of age tale on steroids!
I also loved how the Dauntless competition splinters Tris' new group of friends, much like any rivalry with dire consequences inevitably reveals human flaws. (Losers here are relegated to the Factionless and forced to live apart from society as outcasts.) Tris' friends Will, Christina, and Al are all perfectly content to like her when she's the weakling "Stiff," but are offended and threatened when she emerges as a viable competitor. The wicked hazing of several initiates, including Tris, also reveals the ugly human underside of stress and cutthroat competition. Tris' horror and panic at this violence, including her post-traumatic stress reaction, are gripping and terrifyingly real.
Author Roth nicely conveys the full gamut of emotions felt by an alternately exhausted and exhilarated Tris. We clearly perceive Tris' delirium at destroying her old Abnegation bonds and soaring down a rip line or running breakneck along the edge of a cliff. There is an intoxicating freedom in living so dangerously, which we experience right along with Tris. The paintball game, in which Tris climbs the dilapidated ferris wheel at Navy Pier, is both frightening and pretty darn fun. At the same time, Roth richly depicts every last bit of pain and turmoil from Tris' many beatings and sufferings, including some harrowing scenes in which Tris must face her biggest fears in an all-too-real simulation. (Hello, hordes of pecking, smothering crows!) That's potent stuff.
There's also a love interest here, a stern trainer nicknamed Four (Tobias), who is one of those protective, compassionate, kind — and super cute! — guys we tend to see in YA fiction. Four has some secrets of his own, which he slowly shares with Tris. There's supposed to be a forbidden love angle going on with Tris and Four, but we never sense enough of the danger, passion, and longing that we should. I actually felt more intensity and steam — not all of it good! — from Four's rival, young, masochistic leader Eric. Eric is a great character, charming and seductive one minute and lethal the next. His undercurrent of malevolence really drives the story, since there is no real villain (an Erudite leader named Jeanine appears late in the book, but she's basically a one-dimensional poster girl for evil). Eric's edginess and volatility work particularly well towards the end of the book, when Four and Tris uncover a plot that I found silly and unbelievable. Remember the zombie army from "Attack of the Clones," after Emperor Palpatine executes Order 66? All the clone troops became mindless killers, decimating the Jedi Knights and other peace-loving folks. "Divergent's" conclusion is exactly like that. It's a bit of a cheap plot device. At least Eric grounds the story in a tangible, believable menace.
If the love story and ending are a bit wonky, Eric's still an excellent foil, Tris rocks, and there's a cool mystery brewing beneath the whole Divergent idea, which we finally (finally!) begin to glimpse by story's end. Throw in some exploration of the larger notions of group dynamics, weakness, greed, power, sacrifice, and bravery — as well as unexpected cameos and shocking revelations during the climax — and you have the makings of a surprisingly deep action novel. Could the ending be better? For sure. Is too much of this novel simply laying the foundation for book two? Probably. Will I be back for the sequel? YES. 🙂
"Divergent" is out now, and I think it's a good choice for boys and girls who like action, sci fi, or adventure stories. I'm thinking the audience here is later middle school and up, since there's some mild language and, as I mentioned above, some fairly intense scenes of violence and torture. Please let me know what you think!