Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Photo credit: prettybooks)
This young adult novel grabbed my attention over the weekend -- I listened to the first half on audiobook, then read the second half on an iPad.  It tells a by-now familiar story of young heroes finding love in a dangerous fantasy world (familiar to fans of The Hunger Games or Twilight, to be sure), with just enough imagination to make the story feel new.  The love story is pretty predictable, but it gave enough interest to the story to keep me reading.  The fantasy world is a future version of Chicago divided into "factions" based on personality and values, in which 16-year-olds are given a choice of which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.  The heroine, Beatrice Pryor, chooses between "Abnegation," the selfless faction from which all the government is formed and to which her family belongs, and "Dauntless," the courageous faction that defends the city, toward the beginning of the novel.  The other factions, "Erudite," "Candor," and "Amity," all have roles that fit their values -- seeking knowledge, truth, or getting along, respectively -- in the society created by the novel.  The choice she makes, to forsake her family and join Dauntless, introduces her to a new family of sorts that she must compete against in initiation -- her peers, other 16-year-olds who have chosen to switch factions.  It is an interesting conceit, mirroring contemporary high school and the switch from family to peer loyalty.  The Dauntless initiation is risky, involving physical fights, mind games designed to force initiates to overcome their worst fears, and ruthless competition.  In this dangerous initiation, Beatrice (her name shortened to Tris), meets and ultimately falls in love with Four, a trainer within the process, age 18.  The main obstacle to these two lovers coming together is that Tris is preoccupied, and rightly so, with surviving the Dauntless initiation.  Four has his own demons, which aren't fully explored until the end, when we learn the reason for his unusual name.  I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll leave the plot description there.

The main reasons I like this novel are its focus on confronting fear, its authenticity in describing the internal world of a teenager in this conflicted society, and its simple prose, which makes it a quick read.  One chapter, in particular, stands out for its depiction of fear -- the chapter about ziplining from the top of a skyscraper, which strains credulity but also provides a glimpse into how overcoming fear creates a bond among those who have done so.  The teenage heroine's internal consistency is shown in multiple scenes, but particularly in the scenes involving a technology that allows her to be tested through a sort of shared hallucination -- the "aptitude test" before she chooses her faction (from whence we get the novel's title), then again when she confronts fears as part of the Dauntless initiation.  Finally, the stripped-down prose allows the reader to focus on the plot and doesn't get in the way, with the possible exception of the fact that the faction's names are not parallel -- something that probably only bothers a grammar geek like me.
Young adult (YA) literature has reached deeper into the culture since Harry Potter became a pop culture phenomenon, with both good and bad effects.  Twilight, The Hunger Games, and now The Mortal Instruments (City of Bones) have all been made into movies.  I have read bits and pieces of all three of these series and have seen most of the Twilight movies and The Hunger Games movie, mostly because of my wife's influence.  I also loved the Harry Potter series, and thought the movies did a decent job of bringing the books to life.  Harry Potter bent the children's lit/fantasy genre in some ways, while more recent books have been following a YA genre formula. Some have been called "dystopian" futures, especially The Hunger Games, but I don't think they fit that term precisely.  (I tend to think of A Brave New World, 1984, and Bladerunner as more dystopian than The Hunger Games, but maybe that's just me.)  Divergent will also be made into a movie in 2014, part of the trend toward YA lit in moviemaking.  It does fit neatly into the genre of "dystopian" YA fiction, and I hope it is a stepping stone toward those classic dystopian fiction novels for young readers.  The only place it really falls short is that its themes do not come close to the questioning of norms that truly dystopian fiction evokes.
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