The Story: Divergent, the first novel in the trilogy of the same name by Veronica Roth, introduces readers to a dystopian society where people are divided into Factions based on dominant personality traits. However, some people cannot be defined by just one trait and such persons are labeled as Divergent, which makes them dangerous in the system’s eyes. Beatrice Prior is reaching her age of initiation where she will choose to either remain with her family and Faction from birth or forge a new path for herself in life. However, Beatrice is Divergent, which could mean her downfall if it’s ever unmasked.
My Take: Well, here I go – I’m finally going to do it: I’m finally going to review the Divergent trilogy. Much like the Twilight series, I have put off reviewing this YA series for the same reasons – it’s just so popular that I worry about offending readers in either camp (Camp Love It or Camp Hate It).
But then I realized that I just had to dig down deep and find my inner Dauntless and just do it. Or would that be Candor because I strive to be honest in my reviews?
Well, in any case allow me to share my erudite observations in an amiable way. (Okay, I’ll stop with the Faction jokes now!)
Much like The Hunger Games trilogy and the Twilight saga, the Divergent trilogy seems to have taken the book market by storm and has enjoyed further success through its film franchise. And much like the other two aforementioned series, Divergent falls squarely in the YA vein but is set in a dystopian America where the main focus is the now-walled city of Chicago. People are divided into and dwell among the Factions, which are defined by a dominant trait such as bravery (Dauntless), honesty (Candor), selflessness (Abnegation), intelligence (Erudite), and peace-keeping (Amity). Folks who either forsake this system or who don’t fit in at all become Factionless, the undesirable caste, and folks who exhibit traits of more than one Faction are proclaimed as Divergent, which is seen as dangerous in the system’s eyes as they can’t be controlled.
This is where Beatrice Prior (who later rechristens herself as Tris) comes in. Tris belongs to Abnegation by birth, a Faction known for their self-sacrificing ways and a simple, no-frills lifestyle. After taking her initiation test to determine which Faction she wants to belong to, Tris learns that she possesses multiple traits, meaning she is Divergent. But being Divergent is the same as wearing a target on your back, so Tris has to keep this secret close to her and not tell a soul, not even her own family. In time, she elects to join Dauntless, a far cry from the life she has always known. Hence, the bulk of the novel’s plot focuses on Tris’ grueling initiation into her new Faction and, thus, a new way of life.
I first became interested in Divergent after learning about its film adaptation (which I have yet to watch). I was sort of on the fence with this one as its reviews tended to be split: either readers loved the book or they denounced it as yet more YA drivel. So with that kind of a love-hate response, I hung back for a while, assuming that it wouldn’t be to my reading tastes. But finally I decided to give the novel a go and, I’ll confess, I wasn’t expecting much at first but later had a change of heart.
While Divergent didn’t wow me, I didn’t find myself gritting my teeth in frustration or rolling my eyes in disgust. At first glance, and when you break it down, much of the novel (a good 80% perhaps) is consumed with various trials, tests, and simulations that Tris and her other new Dauntless initiates must face as they seek to prove themselves worthy of their new Faction. On paper, that sounds like the makings of a possibly repetitive, dull story. However, I actually found myself curious to see how Tris would handle these new challenges as they pushed her outside of her comfort zone and then some. While I still think the book could have been trimmed as it is rather long, the chapters are easy to breeze through and I found this to be a surprisingly quick read despite its physical size. Plot-wise, Divergent was enjoyable in its own right – interesting and somewhat innovative but a little slow in spots, especially in the second act.
To her credit, Tris (who serves as the chief protagonist and narrator in this novel) is no pansy but she’s not a man-hatin’ feminist either. I appreciated her balance between the prim and proper Abnegation girl and the rough-and-tumble Dauntless newbie; and her struggles to fit in and prove herself felt organic. Essentially, Tris has to cast off everything she has been taught and she wars with herself at times because of this. That being said, her selfless upbringing helps ground her so she develops a loyal and humble spirit, one that doesn’t want to leave any Dauntless behind and doesn’t always think of her own self-comfort. Likewise, she’s not afraid of a challenge and I appreciated the fact that, very much unlike the Twilight novels, Divergent isn’t afraid to put its characters in genuinely dangerous situations, including Tris. From the start, I could tell this was a series where even its leads wouldn’t be safe from harm, and I respect Roth for taking those risks as that makes for a far more thrilling read than a book that never pushes its characters outside of the comforting arms of safety.
The rest of the expansive cast was slightly faceless for me and I do think its size had something to do with that. Granted there were a few characters who stood out and are worth a special mention. Four (a.k.a. Tobias) is both tough and touchy as he has skeletons in his closet that are worth sticking around to discover; Caleb is a slimy little weasel; Peter is an even slimier not-so-little weasel; Christine is a gun-totting sweetheart; and Tris’ mother is a kind, old soul who has a very interesting secret of her own (but I’m not telling – you can’t make me!). Aside from these, I didn’t find the other characters particularly memorable, including the principle villain, and they sort of receded into the background for me.
Granted, this is fiction and liberties can be taken in the realms of politics and social structures but only to an extent. Divergent doesn’t necessarily present a completely off-the-wall concept but sometimes it doesn’t explain itself very well in terms of how this concept works. I can grasp a fictional social system that segregates people according to a dominant personality trait. I can grasp that such a system would make the powers that be feel like they have some sense of control over their people. But wouldn’t folks like the Divergents actually be in demand rather than perceived as threats? Granted, such persons can’t be confined to one Faction and would be harder to manipulate, but their Divergence enables them to cross Faction boundaries, which could make them a unique ally. (Granted, more about this gets explored in the other books, but some sort of glimpse into the ultimate aim and end of being Divergent in this novel would have been a plus for me.)
Also, for as much importantance as the Factions have on people’s lives, there seems to be a great deal of mobility among them. Take Tris for example: she starts out life in Abnegation yet opts to transfer to Dauntless. Wouldn’t the very fact that people can choose to join a new Faction because they obviously must have traits befitting a new Faction as well as their old Faction be a clue that Divergence isn’t all that special or rare? On the surface, it seems like the Factions are a bit like a caste system where, in the grand scheme of things, your Faction comes before your family. Yet the fact that the young people within this society get to choose of their own volition what Faction to belong to makes me wonder exactly how ironclad these ties are. Not to mention that if a young person fails his Faction initiation, he is kicked out and becomes Factionless even though he still possesses at least one trait that could put him back into his Faction from birth, albeit under a sense of great shame, I’m sure.
So, as a whole, these were the two biggest sticking points for me in the novel but didn’t entirely detract my attention away from it. The entire Faction concept is certainly interesting but has more than a few holes that aren’t explained here (nor in the rest of the trilogy, I’m afraid). These hiccups become harder to ignore as the trilogy goes on, but as far as Divergent is concerned, I think the world-building works for the task it’s been given: establish a world where the socio-political system tries to put people into neat little boxes and wants to silence or destroy folks who break these molds. While the idea driving the novel isn’t flaw-free, it does make for some really good tension for Tris to contend with, both within herself and in her world.
Language – Minimal with only a few, sporadic PG-level profanities.
Violence – There is violence in the form of fights and fisticuffs but it isn’t until the last few chapters that some blood starts to flow. Several characters die in a massacre and others are killed in self-defense; however, it is depicted through clinical language and avoids graphic details or gore. Likewise, some of the simulations Tris endures are meant to induce fear but these moments are chiefly full of peril (save for one sequence when Tris is forced to “kill”) rather than horrific imagery, blood, or gore. Also, as part of their Dauntless initiation, some newcomers are forced to endure life-threatening scenarios (such as hanging from a walkway over a rushing waterfall) or engage in risky behaviors to prove themselves “worthy.” However, sometimes these acts are rightfully called out by other characters as acts of foolishness rather than praised as acts of genuine courage.
Sexual Content – Essentially none. As part of a mean-spirited prank, Tris gets her shower towel yanked away as she’s about to get dressed but nothing sexual occurs nor is she threatened sexually. Also, while there is growing sexual tension between Tris and Tobias, they don’t cross any inappropriate boundaries. In the same way, during one simulation Tris is tempted to give in sexually to the simulation’s version of Tobias but decides not to because it isn’t right.
In the end, Divergent was enjoyable as it had enough dynamics between the leading characters and a fun (but sometimes flawed) social structure to keep me reading. I also appreciated the fact that Roth opted to write a clean YA tale rather than a smutty story, which is becoming more common in YA lit these days. So if you’re looking for some entertaining, unoffensive, but rather fluffy, sci-fi of the YA persuasion, give Divergent a try. It’s worth checking out if for nothing more than to satisfy your curiosity as to what the hype is about. But I sense only a certain audience, mainly teens, will really devour this and stick with it.