Divergent, by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011 (currently available)
Genre: Dystopian Speculative Fiction
Face Value: This cover suggests to the world that you are reading the Next Big Thing in YA Dystopian Fiction. This is fine, because that is totally what you are doing! The Chicago skyline is a nice touch and the catch phrase and back matter (“ONE CHOICE CAN TRANSFORM YOU”) are compelling, and gives a good sense of who the book is about.
I’ve noticed that dystopias are less likely to have a disembodied girl on the cover than a lot of other YA books with female protagonists, which can only be a good thing. Even though I know it’s because the publishers are trying to make it seem less like a “girl book,” my hatred for that particular aesthetic is enough that I can only see this as a good thing.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes! Our hero, Tris, is a classic dystopian Slatebreaker, demonstrating independence, bravery, intelligence and heroism throughout the book. She challenges expectations of femininity in physical, emotional and intellectual strength. And it gets even better, because Tris is not the typical lone pretty girl playing in a boys’ world, being held up as the one exception to all other females. Both men and women demonstrate the qualities of all five factions, in both positive and negative ways. Christina is a fierce competitor and terrific friend to Tris during the initiation. Natalie, Tris’s mother exhibits a different type of strength, standing by her family and willing to sacrifice everything for it.
Who would we give it to? Fans of The Hunger Games who have been disappointed by some of the other knock off dystopias on the shelves over the past year.
Review: Whoa. I love Chicago, and I miss living there but I would for sure not want to live in this version of Chicago. It’s your basic dystopian situation in which our heroes live in a bleak future where Things Have Gone Wrong. The city has been divided into five factions, based on what they think the reason for the downfall was. If you think that the destruction of society came about because of ignorance, you are an Erudite, who values intelligence. If you blame violence and war, you are one of the Amity, the peaceful. If you blame dishonesty you are a Candor, the honest. If you think it’s the fault of cowardice you are a Dauntless, the brave and if you blame selfishness you are an Abnegation, the selfless. You are born into a family and raised in one faction, but this could change in your sixteenth year, when you decide for yourself which faction you belong with.
Here’s something cool though – the decision. Members of society take an aptitude test at age 16 that dictates which society they belong in. But ultimately it is their choice where they go. This, I’m sure, appeals to the Sorting Hat lovers among us, who have spent a lot of time thinking about where we would align ourselves in these fictitious worlds. It also gives a lot of agency to our characters, who have to decide what they value, despite the consequences. The downside is, of course, that even the nicest of these factions seem a little scary, and Dauntless (which is where we spend most of our time) makes Slytherin look like Hufflepuff.
Of course sometimes people can’t be boxed in neatly to one faction or another. And because this is a dystopia, that kind of individual thinking is downright dangerous. So when Abnegation teenager Beatrice Prior (she renames herself Tris when she changes factions) finds out she is a Divergent (not quantified by any one group) she knows she has to keep this secret. She also has to decide between staying with her quiet, selfless Abnegation family and joining up with the frightening but thrilling Dauntless tribe. As a Dauntless, she has to go through a terrifying initiation process, in which half of those who chose to join up are rejected and become factionless. I loved watching Beatrice become Tris, and seeing her grow up throughout the process of the trials and realizing that she is meant to be in Dauntless. We feel and connect with her terror and her excitement as she learns to fight and takes crazy risks in order to prove herself worthy.
Tris is unique as a heroine and a lot of this comes from her very real flaws. She’s fiercely loyal and protective to those who she feels deserve it, but she can be dangerous and unforgiving to those who aren’t as worthy. Take this passage for example (from nearly the end of the book):
“‘People tend to overestimate my character,’ I say quietly. ‘They think that because I’m small, or a girl, or a Stiff, I can’t possibly be cruel. But they’re wrong.’
I shift the gun three inches to the left and fire at his arm.
His screams fill the hallway. Blood spurts from the wound and he screams again, pressing his forehead to the ground. I shift the gun back to his head, ignoring the pang of guilt in my chest.
‘Now that you realize your mistake,’ I say, ‘I will give you another chance to tell me what you need to know before I shoot you somewhere worse.’’
This really sums it up for me. Tris isn’t evil – she’s just tough and capable and in a terrible situation. She experiences guilt about the cruel things she’s capable of doing, and she wants to do the right thing. But she doesn’t, always. She’s capable of cruelty, of hitting harder than she needs to to prove a point, of refusing forgiveness when it is asked. But she’s also absolutely heroic, taking tremendous risks for the people she cares about and standing up for the things she believes in. And talk about defying expectations – she rejects all of the expectations people have of her, whatever the reason, and simply does what she has to do.
The other characters that populate this book are pretty great too. The friends and enemies Tris makes while going through the initiation are richly drawn, far from the stock characters often found in this type of narrative. Same goes for Tris’s family – when we come back to them later in the book, we find them defying our original expectations. And, as a side bonus, this book has no love triangle! No “who is she going to choose” pandering – just a pretty smoldering relationship that feeds the arc of the story rather than distracting from it.
The best parts of this book are watching Tris develop and the terrifying, exciting way the trials are written. The larger conflict, and the greater workings of the society are drawn in broad strokes without nuance or clarity. We get that there is a threat and that there is evildoing happening among the factions, but I was not nearly as compelled by the greater conflict as I was by the inter- and intra-personal conflict that we saw in the Dauntless camp. However, since there will be more books that will have to give us more information, I hold out hope that this part of the story will be more clearly rendered later on.