Divergent, by Veronica Roth, is the first novel in a new YA dystopia series. Roth’s is a solid entry into a genre that shows no sign of waning, though the novel doesn’t do much to separate itself from the dystopic pack and falls well short of works such as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (its most obvious cousin) or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. While it lacks those novels’ vivid characterizations and rich settings, along with their ability to equally satisfy both the Y and the A part of YA, Divergent does have a brisk pace, a thought-provoking if problematic premise, and a likable if somewhat stock main character.
The novel takes place in a city whose population some time ago divided into five factions in an attempt to prevent another war, each faction believing their single principle is most likely to bring about and keep peace: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (knowledge), Candor (truth-telling), Amity (understanding/getting along with others).
Each person chooses a faction on their sixteenth birthday, after taking an aptitude test which can guide them but does not mandate a choice. The book opens up on testing day for Beatrice Prior, who learns to her shock that she is a “Divergent,” someone who has equal aptitude for more than one faction. Beatrice has never heard the term before and is further surprised when her tester warns her to never tell anyone, that Divergents are considered dangerous.
The next day Beatrice, who has been brought up in Abnegation, leaves her family and her faction to choose Dauntless, changing her name to Triss as a symbol of her new life. The book then quickly moves into Triss’ training and initiation into Dauntless, in which she has to compete against other initiates by proving herself able to overcome her fears via a series of difficult and sometimes brutal contests. Failure means a life of poverty and seeming isolation as a “factionless.” Meanwhile, outside, political tensions between the factions are rising and eventually culminate in a major confrontation.
Divergent’s strength is its brisk pace, which speeds along from the very beginning and then accelerates toward the end. It’s a fast read—I finished it in a single setting while my wife and ten-year-old son both finished it in two days. If the prose doesn’t ever sparkle or startle, it more than does the job of carrying you along.
Beatrice is right out of the mold of the YA dystopic female: young, tough, pretty in a not-so-obvious way, independent-minded, drawing on strengths she didn’t necessarily know she had, and quickly becoming involved in a halting, confusing, and sometimes problematic relationship with an appealing boy (Tobias) of roughly the same age whom she just met.
While she is likable enough, there is little to distinguish her from any of dozens of similar characters in similar works. The same holds true for just about all the other characters. Tobias is blandly nice, with a soft edge even to his mysterious side, Peter is the stock bully, another character the stock mean girl, and so on. One or two characters do stand out a bit — her mother for one, and a younger brother of one of the Dauntless members.
The premise is a bit implausible, the sort of idea that sounds fine at first blush but doesn’t really stand up to a moment or two of thought, though I’m OK with sort of accepting it and moving on. Much of her initiation and training, however, felt somewhat contrived, with very few nods to explaining it. I don’t want to give away too much about the final confrontation, but I will say that I had some major issues with the underlying starting point. In general, that was a problem throughout — not enough explained and too much where if you think for a few minutes about what is happening you start to really question it.
I liked Divergent but can’t say it did much more than pass a few pleasant-enough hours. On the other hand, my ten-year-old really enjoyed it and I do think it would go over quite well with a less-demanding YA audience, especially one that places an emphasis on quick-moving action and adolescent stumbling toward romance over rich world-building and sharp, compelling characterization. For that reason, while I wouldn’t recommend it for most adults (unlike the Collins or Westerfeld works), I’d give it a qualified recommendation to teens and pre-teens, qualified in that they’ll almost surely enjoy it, but there are better choices.