- Title: Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant
- Author: Veronica Roth
- Genre: Young-Adult, Dystopian
- Star Verdict (out of 5): ****
- For: Fans of Dystopian fiction, philosophy, The Hunger Games
Every morning when Beatrice Prior arrives at school she watches as the train flies by outside the school yard and a group of teens in black leap off the moving train, laughing at the thrill. They are from Dauntless, and their loud fearlessness, confidence, and camaraderie is a stark contrast to the quiet servitude of her family’s faction, Abnegation, where she has learned that selflessness is the highest virtue.
Now that she is sixteen, Beatrice must make a choice that will determine the rest of her life: which faction she will join. Decades ago, society decided that the evil in the world was not caused by religion, race, politics, or nationalism, but by faults in mankind’s character. They divided into five factions, based on what they believed was the root cause of the world’s problems. Those who blamed aggression formed Amity, which values peace above all else. Those who blamed ignorance formed Erudite, which values information and intelligence. Those who blamed duplicity formed Candor, which values honesty above all else. Those who blamed selfishness formed Abnegation. And those who blamed cowardice formed Dauntless.
On the day she takes her aptitude test to determine which faction she is most compatible with, Beatrice is stunned by her odd results and the cryptic warning she is given not to tell anyone. The faction Beatrice chooses will become her new identity, family, and position for the rest of her life. But making her choice won’t be the only hurdle: she must also pass her chosen faction’s initiation, as anyone who fails their initiation is shunned by society and relegated to starvation and a constant fight just to survive as a “factionless.” Not only that, but if she chooses any faction other than Abnegation, she will have to leave her family behind forever.
I confess I started these books with low expectations because most of the young adult best-sellers I’ve read in the last few years have basically just made me want to beat my forehead against them. Divergent was a pleasant surprise, with a lot of thought-provoking philosophy and interesting character development. Where Twilight’s message was “Love (lust) is all that matters,” and The Hunger Games’ message was “Survival is all that matters,” Divergent’s message is “Character is what matters.” Roth uses an interesting plot and likable heroine to explore deep ideas about character, identity, nurture/nature and society.
The thing I was most impressed with was that the author managed to dig into such deep ideas without bogging the plot down. There are a few flaws in the plot, but overall it was fast-moving and interesting. Roth shows the strengths of each virtue, but also examines how bravery should not be confused with recklessness or cruelty, peace needs to be protected by a willingness to fight for what is right, truthfulness should be tempered by kindness, knowledge should be combined with compassion, and selflessness does not mean rejecting beauty or refusing another’s sacrifices for you.
The books are quite violent: people are shot, stabbed, paralyzed, poisoned, assaulted, and tortured. However, instead of having violence for the sake of violence (or shock factor), Roth used it to examine the moral questions and consequences of violence. In contrast to Twilight and Hunger games, where violence is always black and white (and justified when committed by the “good guys”), Divergent explores when and why violence is justified and also shows the consequences of violence on both the good and the bad. Granted, there are times when the teens’ actions are just plain reckless, and hopefully the books won’t inspire teenagers to try to go ziplining off the Hancock building.
Also in contrast to Hunger Games, whereas Katniss is traumatized by the violence around her and never rises above it, and (Hunger Games spoiler warning: even decides to perpetrate the same violence against her abusers’ children), Tris is traumatized by the violence she both witnesses and commits, but tries to conquer her fears and, as her father once told her, “Let the guilt teach you how to behave next time.”
The relationships portrayed are also for the most part healthier than those in many teen books. For example, the books explore how lying damages a relationship, even if the character justified the lie at the time. Unfortunately, all three books are filled with teenage sexual angst. Although it is never explicitly stated that the main characters have sex (and sometimes they do specifically decide to wait), there are also countless times when they are passionately kissing, removing each others’ clothes, and then waking up together the next morning. Veronica Roth has said repeatedly in interviews that, as a Christian, she didn’t want to write “smut” but wanted to be true to the teenage experience of love. Unfortunately, her perspective on teen sexuality seems more focused on the intensity of sexual desire (including a few mentions of homosexual relationships) than on Biblical values of purity and commitment.
Some people have complained about the ending, particularly the way things ended for one main character. Personally, I was not bothered by it, as I thought it was much more true-to-life than many books. I was, however, bothered by one massive act of hypocrisy, where the good guys essentially do to the bad guys what they were trying to prevent them doing.
While the books aren’t flawless, I quite enjoyed the interesting plot, great character development, and thought-provoking philosophy. They are not intended to be “Christian,” but many of the issues are explored from a Christian worldview. I’m interested to see how they do with the movie; unfortunately I suspect they won’t be able to get inside Tris’ mind enough to get most of the books’ depth across. Time will tell!