Book Review: Veronica Roth, “Divergent” (2011)

Veronica Roth’s debut novel, Divergent, is set in a universe wherein society is split into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intelligent).  The intention of the factions is to create a harmonic society within a futuristic version of Chicago.

The story begins with introducing us to sixteen-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a young girl who grew up in the Abnegation faction with her parents and brother.  Upon turning sixteen, Tris, and all other sixteen-year-olds within Chicago must take an aptitude test to see which faction they’ll fit into as adults.  However, when Tris takes her test, she discovers that she doesn’t fit into any of the factions and is instead labelled divergent: an apparently dangerous label to have.  Knowing that she must pick one of the factions to live in (rather than being Factionless, which is akin to being homeless), Tris chooses Dauntless, the most dangerous and daring faction of all.  As Tris struggles to fit into her new faction, she begins to wonder just where she belongs, and if being divergent isn’t actually a bad thing, after all.

For the most part, I enjoyed Roth’s novel.  I’m generally a big fan of the dystopian genre, so I’m always excited when a new dystopian novel is released.  I also typically enjoying reading “Young Adult” novels, so despite the fact that I’m probably 10 years older than this novel’s target audience, I was still keen to give it a read.  I enjoyed Roth’s writing style and prose, and though the pacing was a bit uneven (the first half of the book dragged, while the second half seemed to speed by), I enjoyed how much of a fast and easy read it was (once I got pass the first half, I finished the rest of the book in under two hours).  What originally drew me to the story was the idea of the factions, as I thought it was an interesting and unique spin on the story.

However (and this is where I become critical of the novel), Roth didn’t spend nearly enough time setting up a back story or even explaining how the factions came into existence.  The reader is thrown right into Tris’ world, with little explanation of how the world got the way it currently is.  We are not told who split the city into factions, we are not told when, we are not given any idea of a leader or some war in the past, or anything any other dystopian novel would’ve used to explain how the world changed.  There isn’t anything hinting to if the rest of the world is split up this way or not.  We aren’t even told that the novel takes place in Chicago; I found that out from Wikipedia.  I found the lack of details extremely lazy.

Of course, with any YA dystopian novel released now, comparisons are going to be made to The Hunger Games, and I do have to agree that there are quite a few similarities (even down to the character of Tris, whom is almost a carbon-copy of THG’s female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen).  Perhaps because of this, and the lack of a back story, some parts of the novel read like fan fiction; as though Roth took someone’s ideas and then just added to them with her own story.  The idea of the factions was the only real original idea, with the rest of the characters, ideas, and love story seeming like a conglomerate fan fiction of every YA dystopian novel rolled into one.

With the exception of Tris, the characterizations were also poorly done.  As I mentioned above, Tris was written as what now seems to be the stereotypical YA female heroine (what I’d like to call the “Katniss blueprint”): sassy, hard to like, plain looks, the underdog who somehow triumphs in the end.  However, she is at least given a story and as she’s the book’s narrator, we got to see inside her head and understand her feelings.  I’m sure the target audience could greatly relate to Tris’ struggles with finding herself and figuring out what kind of person she wanted to grow up to be.  That was one of my favourite aspects of the novel.

The other characters were incredibly one-dimensional, though.  All of the Dauntless initiates were interchangeable and unremarkable.  I got two of the male characters confused throughout the entire novel, because they were written so similarly and neither had any real distinguishing traits or personalities to set them apart.   When the plot evolved into a love story between Tris and another of the main characters, I honestly just didn’t care; the male character wasn’t developed enough for me to find him interesting and (this may be my age showing here), I just don’t find teenage romances to be all that interesting in general, anymore.

In the end, Divergent is a three star novel, because it’s mostly an enjoyable ride.  Roth’s universe definitely needs some fleshing out (which I suppose she does or either intends to do in the other two books in the trilogy.  I find this pretty unacceptable overall, though, because I wish the book stood on its own…I don’t want to keep reading just because Roth did an incomplete job of establishing her universe, I want to keep reading because I care about the characters and what happens to them).  No, Divergent is not the best book I’ve ever read, it’s not the best dystopian novel (I’d recommend Hunger Games over this, and then if you really love the genre, read 1984, Brave New World, and One Perfect Day, in that order), hell- it’s not even the best book I’ve read this year.  But it was a fun, quick read and a decent entry in the dystopian genre.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

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