[NB: This review is full of spoilers. I’ve tried to mark them as best as I can…]
Welcome to a present tense, action packed dystopia YA novel that involves children killing each other. Sound familiar? It should. Divergent is an unashamed rip-off of The Hunger Games. Like I say, same narrative style, similar characters, familiar scenes. I’ll give Roth credit because I do mean unashamed. Some books try to hide their influences. Divergent embraces hers. And for some reason, it makes me want to forgive it. It doesn’t feel like it’s saying it’s as good as THG. Rather this feels like its kid sister, looking up to the older sibling and admiring her so much she wants to imitate her. If you are very fond of THG and feel protective of it, you might want to give this one a skip. You have to just accept that this book tries to do that same thing (and mostly fails).
It is not often that a book completely stumps me but this one does. It made me so angry while I was reading it and yet at the same time, somehow I came out the other end kind of enjoying it in a ‘guilty-pleasure’ sort of way. I’ll try to explain.
The premise is dumb. That is this books biggest problem. And this goes back to the whole THG thing. You can almost see the author sitting down and thinking ‘I wanna write one of those… reason for kids to kill kids… reason for kids to kill kids… oh, I know… a camp that trains you to be murderers and calls it education… yeah, that’ll do.’ I would like to think Roth was aware how daft this book gets but was forced into that corner by her own lack of foresight. There are rumours that she wrote this book in a month. You can tell. The world is just badly thought out.
The idea is that there are now five factions that everyone belongs to: Amity (non-violence/kindness), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (truth), Erudite (intelligence/education) and Dauntless (bravery). That, I suspect, is how she meant them to come across. This is how they actually come across…
Amity: Oh dear, non-violent people don’t fit in with my whole plan to kill off all the children… hmm… let’s make them… farmers… yeah that works… and not mention them ever again… *SPOILERS* I’ll just kill a couple of them on the train that makes no sense… *SPOILERS END*
Abnegation: A selfless hero? That sound like a good idea. Now how can I undermine this actually interesting idea? I know, let’s have every single Abnegation member you ever meet turn out not to be so Abnegation. *SPOILERS* Let’s have them shoot people, die for absolutely no reason other than mandatory family-dying scene, beat up their kids… oh and let’s make sure our hero is about as selfish as you can get, allowing just about everyone to die for her (and not in a HP tortured guilty conscience sort of a way, in a ‘oh well, better them than me’ sort of a way) and judging everyone on appearance (this is definitely an ‘all evil people are ugly’ sort of a book) *SPOILERS END*
Candor: Truthful people = rude. Actually of all the factions, this is the only one that didn’t really annoy me.
Erudite: Now, maybe it’s because I’m an intellectual that this book really annoys me because apparently wanted to know stuff is baaaaaaaaad. Now, I get that there has to be a bad guy in here. Goes with the territory. *SPOILERS* So okay, make it a power-hungry, mentally disturbed genius who is out to destroy the other factions (Remind anyone else of Mockingjay?) But unlike in Mockingjay where the Capitol follow orders because they don’t know any better, so there is one evil figure and his puppets that don’t even realise they are on strings or that are doing it just to live – Divergent asks you to accept that this entire faction is bad. Let me clarify that it is asking you to accept that the faction who are supposed to be intellectually enlightened and smart… blindly follow this mad lady based on some rumours she puts in the newspaper. You’d have to assume otherwise she’d have been removed from office because one of these smart people might have noticed something hinky was going on. I get that she’s a genius but, well, she’s not exactly clandestine about it. It just really gets under my skin that Roth is basically saying that being smart makes you evil. Because she doesn’t frame it in a ‘too much knowledge is dangerous’ sort of way. Which would have been clever. Because there is a problem with information overload in our world and that would have been a very poignant social commentary element. The idea that if only one faction controls the flow of information, rather like Big Brother in 1984, you never know what is truth and what isn’t. But that’s not the story she tells. *SPOILERS END*
And finally, the daftest of all… the…
Dauntless: Otherwise known as… the reckless, the sadistic, the inexplicably violent for no reason what-so-ever and the idiotic. At this point, I am going to quote the book itself, “There is a fine line between bravery and idiocy.” Apparently, Roth decided to prove this point rather eloquently. Let me explain, jumping off and on a moving train isn’t brave, it’s reckless and stupid. Beating the hell out of someone else for no real reason isn’t brave, it’s cowardly and sadistic. Jumping off a hundred storey building isn’t brave, it’s thrill-seeking and (ironically) selfish. The list goes on. I was horrified with this book and its definition of bravery. Now, I know I am going to be told “but it all gets explained in the sequels, the Dauntless have been corrupted but they used to be about proper bravery” but, to me, that’s too little, too late. This is young adult fiction. That means it has a young and impressionable audience. And this book, for at least the first 300 pages teaches all those young minds that beating the hell out of each other is the best way to be brave. And guns are the answer to everything. This book, this book right here, is the best argument I have ever seen for gun control.
Oh and let us not forget the final two factions.
Factionless: AKA: The working class. Apparently being a bus driver is a fate worse than death. Likewise labourers of any kind. Apparently it is akin to be homeless and destitute. I am really not sure what point she is trying to make here but at best it is distasteful and snobbish. Interesting message to send out in a YA novel. I wonder if the young readers even realise that she has just insulted the majority of their parents.
Divergent: AKA: PLOT DEVICE. This is the only logical explanation I have for the divergent. Or more, it is the only way I can explain why all of a sudden in a world of free-thinking individuals, only two of them don’t fit neatly into a box. Simple test for this theory. Put yourself in one of the five factions. Only one. So you can be Dauntless but you can’t fight to save others because that would be selfless. You can be Erudite but you can’t then use that information to realise that fighting isn’t the answer. You can be Candor but then apparently have to accept a life of ignorance as a want to learn would make you Erudite. So you see, this is the key flaw in this premise and why it is so dumb. It would have made sense if, let’s say, when they were born every person was injected with a magic serum that made them single-minded and brought out only the most dominant personality trait. And the Divergents were the minds strong enough to overcome this serum. Again, this would have been a clever, logical plot. But no, Roth asks us to accept that in the future 99% of the population are unquestioning sheep that fit so neatly in a box it hurts.
Other things that bother me in this book is the lack of reason for anything. To give credit to Roth, she is kind of ballsy for just saying ‘to hell with it, I want this scene because it’s cool so I’m going to do it’. From a train that doesn’t stop (and is also magical as it manages to be seven storeys up and also at ground level in the same place) to a jump into a hole that was only there to make a plot point, this book is full of things that happen ‘just cos’. *SPOILERS* and then there are the ‘mandatory’ scenes. So… both parents dying for no reason/because their daughter who has been trained to fight and kill sends them out first… the evil roommate who is out to kill everyone just… well… cos… the glass tank that they just happened to have hanging around so they could drown her and give her time to escape rather that just shooting her… the many magical serums… and the least necessary… shooting Will. Before pulling the trigger she points out that it is not his fault that he has been brainwashed AND that he is her friend. And she then takes a deliberate aim and hits him in the head. Not the knee or the shoulder to slow him down and buy him time. She kills him. She shoots Eric in the foot (she hates him, he’s trying to kill off everyone she loves), and Peter in the shoulder (well, he only tried to kill her like half a dozen times) but her friend who has been there for her from the beginning, him she executes. Yup. That makes sense. *SPOILERS END*
So, I think I have succinctly explained why this book made me angry. Now to the enjoying it part.
The characters, while 2D and often just renamed versions of characters from other stories, are mostly engaging. Four (despite his stupid nickname that had me double reading things… sentences like “Four jumped on the train”, now is that four people or the character Four – got really irritating) is interesting enough as a male lead. I enjoyed the sequence through his ‘fear landscape’ and there were a couple of other moments that I really liked with him. I liked Christina and Will and their dynamic. They were often the only source of logic and reason. And Al, like all those before me, was the character I found most interesting.
I won’t say much on Tris. I dislike her. She is no Katniss Everdeen. In fact, I suspect she is what Bella Swan would be like if put in a dystopia world and made to kill people. I think I really started to hate her when she berates Al for crying. That actually took my breath away. That isn’t selfishness, that is just plain cruelty. Katniss kills because she has to. Tris kills, mostly, because she wants to. It is the only explanation for her willingness to kill some while grant mercy to others. I know this is meant to be a story about a weak, shy girl become a kickass hero but to me, it felt like the story of a person becoming a monster. A solider kills because he has to. Because he wants to protect those he loves. Because he is brave. Tris kills because she has absolutely no empathy (unless the guy is hot, then she’s all over that), because she wants to live (even at the expensive of others *SPOILERS* at one point even admitting she’d literally throw her friends under the bus to get a better ranking … nice person this Tris *SPOILERS END*), and because she gets a kick out of it.
Sorry, back to the good parts. Roth is actually a fairly accomplished writer. There were sections, like the fear landscape and the Ferris wheel that were really well written and presented and at no point did her writing become so bad that it took away from the reading. She has some moments of beautiful description and… well… she doesn’t let you take a breath, jumping from action to action and keeping the story moving. It is easy, flowing prose that makes for an easy read.
To enjoy this book you have to turn your brain off. If you can ignore all the stupidity of the concept and just let it sweep you along on its very busy ride, you will enjoy it. It is not a bad book in that the author can write. It’s like if you can ignore how high you are and how far the drop is and how many loop-the-loops are coming up, and just focus on the ride itself, this roller-coaster can be a bit of fun. I will not be reaching for the sequels. I don’t think I could take any more of Tris. But this is also not going in my ‘Never-Again’ category. I hope in time to come, Roth writes something else. Takes a little more time and engages properly with her own concept because I think she has the capability to write books just as good as THG, but first she has to find a way to stand on her own.
Rating: 6-10: Surprisingly high but at the end of the day, I enjoyed it. I think.
Favourite (7) Quotes: “Humans can’t tolerate emptiness for long.”
“Mom used to say that politeness is deception in pretty packaging.”
“There is a fine line between bravery and idiocy.”
“We are supposed to be capable of anything.”
“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”
“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
Favourite Character: Four
Least Favourite Character: Tris.