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140 of 149 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Packs a punch but misses its mark, 24 April 2012
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This review is from: Divergent (Divergent, Book 1) (Kindle Edition)
Veronica Roth's Divergent is a difficult book to ignore if you have the YA dystopia bug. The five star reviews number in their hundreds and with its sequel Insurgent imminent and The Hunger Games - the YA dystopia against which all others are currently judged - riding high at the box office and in the book lists, to not read Divergent seems somewhat rude. Therefore, not wishing to be impolite, I took the plunge.

Divergent takes place some time in the future in a city that was once Chicago. Every citizen now lives as a member of one of five factions, each defined by their overriding personality trait: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (kind), Candor (honest), Erudite (seekers of knowledge), Dauntless (brave). Each faction contributes to society in accordance with this trait. For example, members of Abnegation rule, Amity members are peacemakers and farmers and the Dauntless police this world. But there are those who fall outside the Factions, living a life worse than death as the Factionless. They drive the buses.

At the age of 16, the young are assessed to determine which Faction they suit but they must still make the choice of Faction on their own. Most opt for their home Faction but there are some who make a jump, turning their backs on their families. One such girl is our heroine. Known as Beatrice in Abnegation, she picks the name of Tris in her chosen Faction of Dauntless, although her fellow initiates name her `Stiff'. Divergent follows the initiation or training sessions that Tris and her friends (and the not so friendly) must undergo before they are selected to be members of Dauntless or, if they fail, cast out to be Factionless.

Through these trials, during which the initiates are taken to their very limits in physical and mental torture, each inflicting the same on their classmates, Tris learns that there may be an alternative Faction. Those initiates who don't perform as they should in the sessions may well be Divergent and, should that be discovered, they will be dead shortly afterwards. That is because they can beat the system.

Without doubt, this is a pacey novel. It's not a short book but Divergent is very difficult to put down. This is largely because of Tris - she has a habit of manipulating her way into our care. She's 16 but she constantly stresses how young she looks, how small she is. And in describing the truly horrible rituals she undergoes, it's difficult not to feel outrage on her behalf and sympathy for her suffering and admiration for her bravery. This is increased as we watch a girl emerge from self-sacrificing Abjugation rules to being able to express herself with tattoos, colourful clothes, even jumping off a train just for the thrill of it. Throw in a love interest that is delicately dealt with - no Twilight angst here - and you're going to care for young Tris.

Despite my strong feelings for Tris, I found Divergent a frustrating novel. There is no sense of the world at all. This is a big failing for a dystopian novel to my mind. Part of the fun is finding oneself in a familiar world transformed and distorted. We're told it is Chicago but this isn't a recognisable place or even environment. There's little description of Dauntless or any of the other factions. We're briefly told that Dauntless is dark, tall towers are mentioned, canyons frighten and trains travel outside the Factions but there is very little other than that. There is no sense of the state of the place. And what about outside? What about the rest of the world?

The idea that society can be divided into such convenient Factions is not believable. It seems preposterous to me that anyone could be anything other than Divergent. The fact that the novel presents inter-Faction fighting doesn't help the sense that this division could never happen. And where are all the adults? There's barely a sense of them in Dauntless.

Tris might be a fascinating heroine but the repetitive insistence on her small stature and undeveloped, childlike appearance doesn't tally with her increased strength and makes her relationship with Four incongruous and a little uncomfortable. She is also not always likeable - as the novel progresses there are actions that are not necessarily forgiveable. I wonder if they will be remembered in Insurgent or if they are already forgotten.

My main problem with Divergent though is the fact that the vast majority of it comprises the ritual trials that Tris and the others must undergo in order to be accepted as Dauntless. This means hundreds of pages of teenagers being forced to fight each other literally senseless in ugly duels as well as drug-induced confrontations with their greatest fears, facing a multitude of different horrendous ways of meeting a terrifying, painful death. Violence spreads outside the Pit, young people are reduced to the depths of despair while others are tormented by memories of abusive parents. It's all rather... unsavoury. As for the finale, it felt, to me, rushed and surprise-free.

Nevertheless, despite these rather major gripes, I read Divergent quickly and I will read Insurgent when it's released in May. There is a great deal of promise here and I was frustrated that the novel as a whole didn't live up to that potential. Perhaps Insurgent will prove a pleasant surprise.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Apr 2012 11:07:55 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Apr 2012 11:10:56 BDT
PB says:
Good review. I have to agree - the central conceit doesn't stand up. If the idea was to divide the World up into high school cliques, I guess mission accomplished. It doesn't compare with the Hunger Games trilogy - that was a much better conveyed universe with more sympathetic characters.

I just read your Hunger Games reviews and have to agree with you again. Good work.

Posted on 18 Dec 2013 14:52:19 GMT
That's a very incisive and balanced review - thanks. I won't read the novel as it seems to me to be derivative, pulpy, repetitive, tautologous and long-winded. It seems to have over-laboured in its central themes without making any useful comment about anything much at all.

I'm sure that it will, quite rightly, appeal to many readers who are looking for an un-challenging read and it clearly deserves that success, but overall I think this is an example of the vacuum effect - where there is a vacuum in a genre (a vacuum left by the Hunger Games and Twilight), it must be filled by something, even if that something is considerably lesser in merit.

Posted on 7 Apr 2014 22:54:26 BDT
N. J. Terry says:
the reason that not everybody is divergent is in fact explained in allegiant. As is a lot of the other things you had complaints about.

Posted on 9 Apr 2014 10:05:21 BDT
Nick Brett says:
Excellent review thanks

Posted on 5 Jul 2014 18:31:20 BDT
H J Mac says:
I just had to comment that the business of her going on about how small she is and childlike did become quite disturbing, I agree with you about that. To the point where it took me out of the story and I started to wonder if the author had body image problems and this was a self insert. It did also make the relationship feel a bit odd and I wasn't sure of the purpose of it.
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