Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s hard not to read this book and compare it to The Hunger Games, especially when so many people are trumpeting it as “the next.” I don’t think that attitude is unreasonable, since the argument could be made that this book might not have seen the light of day were it not for Suzanne Collins‘ success. That said, Roth’s work does stand on its own and, in many ways, surpasses its dystopian predecessors.
Like many YA books these days, the world (in this case, a futuristic, ruined Chicago) is divided into 5 groups, called factions. Each faction has some overriding characteristic–bravery, selflessness, honesty, intelligence, or kindness–which sets them apart and gives them a clear sense of purpose. At 16, every child goes through a test to determine whether they should stay in their birth-faction or transfer and try to make it somewhere else. Not unlike with J.K. Rowling‘s sorting hat, kids are going to be attracted to this concept because it allows them to categorize themselves and, at least in the fantasy of the created world, simplify their self-understanding. Much of the conflict (though not as much as the title would suggest) has to do with the narrator, Tris, being Divergent. This is the condition of not being suited for a single faction, but instead showing proclivities for multiple groups. This is both a dangerous and powerful thing to be, but the reasons underpinning Tris’ peril are murky at best. My biggest criticism of the book is that Roth does nothing to explain why the world is the way it is, or why divergence is such a problem for those in power. As readers, we are simple asked to accept these facts of life and move on with the story. My suspicion is that the explanation is being withheld because Tris doesn’t have answers either, which is a point of craft I can appreciate. All the same, I would have liked something more to better underscore the magnitude of a character being Divergent.
The strength of this novel, and where I think it surpasses The Hunger Games, is in the character development. For all we don’t know about the world at large, Roth does a nice job of creating complex, interesting characters with equally tangled relationships. The interpersonal stories add crucial depth to the sometimes brutal action scenes and often avoid simple classification. By the end of the novel, the reader is able to care about the characters and be invested in what will happen in the second book (Insurgent). This is setting up what I hope will be a more political, global sequel in which we already know enough about the central figures.