While I’m trying to read a lot of old-classic and new-classic science fiction and fantasy recently, every so often I feel like I should dip my toes in the Young Adult pool, just to see what’s going on with the most popular titles of that scene.
Sometimes, it pans out, as I really enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, and thought that Veronica Roth’s Divergent might follow suit. Both focus on a young girl living in post-apocalyptic America, but that’s about all they share. Still, with sci-fi origins, best-selling status and a forthcoming movie adaptation, I figured it was worth diving in.
Normally I’d review each book separately, as I did with Game of Thrones or the Kingkiller Chronicles, but saying Divergent isn’t quite as deep as either of those would be something of an understatement. I polished off the series in about a week and a half, which it took me about that long to even finish the last Kingkiller book.
This will be a full discussion of all the events of Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant, so only read on if you’ve completed the series yourself. If you’re looking for a general recommendation of whether you should read the series or not, consider me raising my hand and tilting it back and for while saying “ehhh.” The Hunger Games, it isn’t.
Divergent tells the story of young Beatrice Prior, a sixteen year old girl living in the walled-in ruined city of Chicago at some unspecified point in the future. There’s no talk of the rest of the world at all, or even that there is a rest of the world, and the citizens of city are content to live their lives in isolation, divided into five factions as is age-old tradition.
The factions are not by race or class, they’re by personality. Ever year, all sixteen year-olds take a hallucinogenic test that measures their personality traits and suggests which faction they should join. Erudites value knowledge, Candors are unflinchingly honest, Amitys want peace, the Dauntless are fearless and Abnegation are completely selfless. You can pick whichever faction you want, no matter what the test says about you (unlike say, Harry Potter’s sorting hat), meaning faction members have often left their families behind.
Abnegation-born Beatrice takes the test with inconclusive results, and her administrator whispers that she’s “Divergent,” a dirty word that she’s told never to share with anyone. When choosing day comes, she’s bored of her white bread Abnegation life, where they don’t even have mirrors because it encourages vanity, and she chooses to leave her family and become Dauntless instead. The group is wild, wears black and has tattoos, and spends their time learning how to shoot guns and jump on and off moving trains to get around the city.
Beatrice changes her name to “Tris,” puts on eyeliner and gets a few tattoos. It’s here you start seeing the parallels to various high school cliques, but the grand scope of the book is much larger than that. Nearly the entire first book is Tris learning how to overcome her various fears and survive Dauntless initiation, all the while falling in love with her dreamy, brooding instructor, Four.
While the first book mainly focuses on ladder rankings and initiate standings where recruits backstab and try to murder each other to land a spot on the list, the end breaks out into chaos as it’s revealed the leader of Erudite has concocted a mind-control serum to use the Dauntless as an willing army to eradicate rival faction, Abnegation, who holds some secret about the outside world that Erudite wants to possess.
It’s an intense finale, and despite being YA, Divergent practically kills more characters than Game of Thrones. By the end of the series, I’d say at least 50% of the characters you meet have died, and not all in epic or memorable ways. For every act of self-sacrifice, there’s one character who just…dies to some random stray bullet or tragic accident. It’s unsettling, and you learn not to get attached to anyone.
The series evolves over time and goes from training to a war between the factions in Insurgent. The Factionless, the cast-offs of the city, become a huge part of things, as do Four’s parents. Tris’s parents? They both die by the end of the first book, naturally.
The central love story of the book…is odd. I appreciated the fact that while The Hunger Games had its own love triangle, there wasn’t too much made of it, and we were spared Katniss narrating passionate kisses and embraces for the most part. But in Divergent? There’s no triangle, it’s just Tris and Four, and the book randomly erupts in PG-13 rated 50 Shades of Grey moments where Tris talks about his shallow breaths on her neck and him gripping the waistband of her jeans with the tips of his fingers. It’s weird, and never matches the tone of rest of the book, and by the end I still have no idea if the two of them ever actually had sex.
I was curious to see why the last book in the series had relatively poor ratings compared to the first two installments, as has been the case with other series like the last few Ice and Fire books. But this time? I think the criticism is justified.
The problem is twofold. First, the entire book deals with the revelation of the grand secret of the series, what’s outside the wall. Second, is the end of the series itself, which left many fans frustrated, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
It turns out the grand secret is that Chicago is a government project. A long time ago, the US government tried to genetically manipulate certain segments of the population into becoming smarter, more brave, more kind, etc. But the problem was that for whatever trait was increased, negative ones were amplified to balance out. The smart people became arrogant. The fearless people were cruel. And so on. It led to a war between the genetically altered subjects and their genetically “pure” overlords, which destroyed most of the country. Now, the government has been trying to breed new “Divergents,” people with more than one trait, meaning their genes are healed. Chicago is one such city-site experiment, and there are others like it, though none with the same sort of factions.
There are many problems with all of this, first and foremost is that when you think about it for more than a few minutes, it’s incredibly stupid. If you have a group of genetically damaged people, the last thing you want to do is isolate them and make the breed for generations. That’s now how genetics works. Furthermore, the entire point of curing genes is moot because everyone knows war will exist with or without altered genes, and characters in the book even say this.
All throughout the series, there are simply too many bad guys. First it’s the Erudite, then it’s the Factionless, then it’s the government and it’s just a constant string of evil, evil, evil. You never know who you’re supposed to root for other than Tris and her merry band, but even if they “won,” there’s never any clear picture of their end goal, as any result seems like it would have either minimal or negative impact on everyone. It’s not really a good idea to have a plot with a complete lack of hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.
The other major problem with the final book is that Roth splits the narrative between Tris and Four all throughout the book. Having a multiple narrative is nothing new in literature, but it’s incredibly poorly handled here. Like most other young adult books, Divergent is in present tense, first person. Past that, Tris and Tobias aren’t on opposite corners of the map, doing different things, they’re together practically the whole time. Furthermore, with both narratives in first person, there’s literally nothing to differentiate them in tone from one another. Both sound like insecure teenage girls, which is fine for Tris, but makes no sense for Four, and he describes their romantic encounters, for example, in a way no guy ever would, all breathless and yearning and so on and so forth. I often lost track of whose perspective I was reading. with nearly nothing to set them apart from one another.
In the end, it’s revealed the narrative was split for one reason only, because Roth knew she was going to kill Tris at the end. I told you this was like Game of Thrones.
There’s nothing wrong with a lead dying in a book, but it feels weirdly out of place for a young adult series. It shows the author knows little about her target audience, because of course teenage girls are going to run out and write 1 star Amazon reviews when the singular character they’re supposed to have identified with for three books is killed for little to no reason. Tris’s death seems arbitrary, unnecessary and like she’s just another victim like the 50 other people the author already killed. It just doesn’t fit with the context of the story, and it causes the book to end on a sour note. JK Rowling once talked about how she thought about killing Harry Potter, but then realized it would devastate her audience to an absurd degree if she did. She didn’t, and you see no one complaining about the happy end to that series. Sometimes you have to give your audience what they want, particularly in this genre.
Overall, the Divergent Trilogy was a disappointment. The initial concept sounded kind of cool, but it really wasn’t in practice, and the twists and turns of the story were more confusing and jarring than interesting, and everything really falls apart in the final book, right when it needs to all come together.