Tuesday, May 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: How I loved (and ultimately hated) the Divergent series

I spent my Memorial Day holiday with a trio of books: The Divergent series by Veronica Roth.

A lot of people had been comparing it to The Hunger Games – and the movie did relatively well – so I thought it would be something I was interested in.

It was. Kind of.

The first book, Divergent, introduces us to Beatrice Prior, a teenage girl that is about to go to her “Choosing Ceremony” to decide which faction she will be a part of for the rest of her life.

The Divergent series is set in a dystopian world that shows hints of our world – but it’s obviously different. The factions include Abnegation (which Beatrice was born into), Dauntless, Amnity, Candor and Erudite.

The government in this world is run by Abnegation – although the thinkers, the Erudite, are constantly trying to find a way to get into power. I'm kind of nutshelling all of this -- because otherwise the blog would be 10 pages long.

Just as a side note, given my love of sarcasm and bluntness, I’m fairly certain I would have been part of the Candor group, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, when Beatrice goes to be tested, she finds out that she has traits of three of these groups – which is practically unheard of – and she soon finds out she is Divergent.

In an attempt to hide what she is – even she isn’t sure why, at this point – she joins Dauntless on a whim and is cast into a whole other world she could never have envisioned.

As part of the Dauntless initiation, Beatrice (now known as Tris) is cast into one crazy antic after another.
You see, the Dauntless aren’t scared of anything – or, at least they try to drum that fear out of their initiatives. The Dauntless are the soldiers of this little world – and only half of the initiates will make it through. The other half will be cast out and become factionless.

The factionless are basically the homeless individuals in this society. They live on the streets. They beg for food. They’re the forgotten faces in the crowd.

Tris is a waif. She’s not strong of frame, but she is strong of heart. Her trainer is Four, a character that catches Tris’ interest right from the beginning – even though she doesn’t believe that he could ever be interested in her.

This first Divergent book really is a revelation. It’s a strong and interesting new world, and I found myself glued to each page to find out what would happen next.

I wouldn’t call Roth a strong author. I would call her a great storyteller, but the book is filled with short sentences and a very matter-of-fact writing style. There were also so many punctuation errors in the book that I found myself wanting to rip my hair out at times. Between that and the constant changing between “blonde” and “blond” (both used incorrectly numerous times) and the insistence on using breaths instead of the correct breath in most instances, the writing started to wear on me. Because the story was so good, though, I pushed it out of my mind.

At the end of the first book – turn around if you haven’t read and don’t like spoilers – we find out that the Erudite are trying to enslave the Dauntless to wipe out the Abnegation and take over the government. Tris and Four – who we also find out is Divergent – manage to mount an offensive to stop them.

Tris’ mother (who has a huge backstory) dies in the offensive, as does her father. At the time, Tris’ brother – Caleb, who had joined the Erudite – seems to be on her side.

By the time we get to Insurgent, Tris and Four are an official couple and they’re working to find a safe place to stay. Tris is mourning the death of her parents and the fact that she had to kill a friend – Will – who was under the mind control of the Erudite.

I started to notice the fraying of some story threads in Insurgent, but it wasn’t bad enough to turn me off the story. I did tire of Four/Tobias and his constant need to talk to Tris like she was a child, but it’s a teen book so you kind of overlook those things.

Insurgent had everything -- including betrayal by Tris' last remaining relative. It had Tris sacrificing herself to try and save her friends, Tobias putting himself in danger to try and save Tris and a new enemy -- one more terrifying than the prior government -- claiming power when the factionless took over.

This was a big cast, so the characters start to get whittled down at a quick pace. And, by the end of Insurgent, an even bigger mystery is unveiled. It seems that the city is really Chicago. It’s a Chicago of the future – but it’s still Chicago. Not only is it Chicago, but the people inside of the city were essentially placed there as a big experiment.

It was a pretty interesting cliffhanger. Sure, I had some questions, but I thought those would be answered in
the third book. I was wrong.

In Allegiant, things pretty much went to crap (in both the fictional world and the narrative).

The books, which had strictly been written from Tris’ point-of-view before, were now being told by Tris and Tobias. That should have been a hint how things would end – but it was also a plot device that didn’t quite work.

The big problem was that, apparently, Tris and Tobias thought in the exact same manner. If you weren’t paying attention, their voices were so similar you would have to return to the beginning of the chapter and double check who was telling the story at this point. Either Tris is really masculine or Tobias is really feminine – and given the way he acted in the third book, I’m guessing that Tobias was a closeted 14-year-old girl.
The problems facing the couple seemed really contrived. And, when the duo left with some friends to see what the “real world” looked like, the books turned into a diatribe on human nature.

I like it when a book has a message, but Roth’s message in these books was really heavy-handed. Essentially, whoever got in power in these books became megalomaniacs. It got old after the fourth or fifth time.

When you finally get to the finale, we’re supposed to believe that Tris would allow her brother to die when there’s a possibility that Tris could survive the scenario. Tobias leaves Tris to go on his mission, never once considering that she would sacrifice herself for Caleb. That just makes Tobias an idiot and so far from the character we were introduced to in Divergent that it’s a little bit of an insult.

I don’t believe you have to have a happy ending to have a good book. I believe, when it moves the story
forward or is important to the outcome of a story, that killing a main character is perfectly acceptable. The problem is, Tris’ death seems like a contrived after-thought. I mean, why did she have die? The group never once tried to think of another scenario to save their city. And, by the time she does die, it’s not really for some greater good. She’s just gone.

When it comes down to it, I think comparing this series to The Hunger Games (and even Harry Potter in some places) is disingenuous. The stories were nowhere near as well written as either of those series and the emotional weight carried by them is just a pipe dream in Divergent.

In the end, Divergent is all about sacrifice – which is a nice message. Unfortunately, it ultimately becomes about sacrifice just for sacrifice’s sake. Tris doesn’t sacrifice herself to save the world, she sacrifices herself to be the hero. That’s a very different thing.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is willing to fight – and ultimately die – for what she believes in. She’s willing to put herself on the line to save her family. She doesn’t do it for misguided honor. It’s just who she is.

In Harry Potter, Harry is willing to sacrifice himself at the end to save his friends. He doesn’t do it knowing they will survive. He does it because he knows that the only way Voldemort can be killed is if Harry dies (him being that extra horcrux and all). Harry doesn’t go to the woods to sacrifice himself just to sacrifice himself. He does it to give his friends a fighting chance – because it’s the only thing he can do.

Tris could have done a lot of different things. She could have approached David to get the truth. She could have let Caleb sacrifice himself. She could have evacuated people from the city. It’s like the author just wanted to go for a “gutsy” end – it didn’t matter if the facts of the book got in her way.

As for the story in the final book, that’s a mess, too. There’s a lot of retconning going on – and I’m never a fan of that. I also think that most fans guessed The Truman Show aspect of it at the end of the second book.

In the end, I can say that I loved Divergent and would give it five stars. I would say I liked Insurgent and would give it three and a half stars. I can say I wish I had never read Allegiant and give that book two stars.

In the grand scheme of things, the best thing I can say about Tris is that she’s a better heroine than Bella Swan (although that’s not saying much).

What do you think? Does Allegiant ruin the Divergent trilogy?


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