Insurgent is the follow-up to Veronica Roth’s Divergent and serves as the middle book in her planned dystopian DIVERGENT trilogy. I gave Divergent a middling review, noting its fast pace but finding some issues with plausibility and depth of character. I wish I could say Insurgent showed some improvement, but I actually found myself less impressed with the sequel. It is possible that the book suffered in my reading it so soon after Divergent and so I was responding to the cumulative flaws between both books rather than simply to Insurgent’s problems.
Then again, that might be the case because Insurgent’s flaws are so similar. Once again, the characterization is relatively shallow. Side characters come and go with little to distinguish them one from the other and with little concern on the readers’ part as to what happens to them. As shown in Divergent, Roth isn’t afraid to kill off characters, but I found myself not reacting all that strongly to any of the deaths. We’re told they’re supposed to have an impact via the first-person narration, and we have the instinctive reaction of sadness or pity because we’re told the characters are important or because their roles, say of mother, father, brother, sister, lover, or best friend (I’m using these in abstraction, not as literal examples of deaths in the books) mean we know intellectually we’re supposed to care, but very few of the characters are drawn vividly enough to really create a depth of response. I recently read a book where a character utterly unrelated to other characters or even really to the plot was introduced and then killed off in the span of three or four pages, and that death was far more moving and haunting than any of the supposedly more major ones here. There you felt someone real had died and felt as well a real sense of tragedy; here in Insurgent and Divergent, I felt a prop was used to serve a purpose.
The first-person narration is another reason Insurgent suffered in comparison as after several hundred pages of Divergent and then another several hundred pages of Insurgent, I grew tired of the voice and the simple blunt conveyance of information and emotion. Everything is writ large and plain to see and I admittedly prefer to work a bit more for my understanding of character and plot. It’s the old show rather than tell form, and while that is without a doubt an overly simplistic rule, I felt it should be applied to these books. I’ll have to confess as well that I’m probably not the best audience for the many first-person moments dealing with the narrator’s adolescent romance, but again, I’ve read many a book where such a relationship has moved me. It didn’t do that here, mostly because it didn’t feel individual enough via characterization nor was it conveyed in any particularly original language. Admittedly, these are lesser flaws appearing in a YA book than if they appear as such in an adult literary novel, and much of the target audience may not care or even notice much, but I do so dislike just giving a pass to uninspired writing because it’s “just” YA. There are certainly enough YA authors out there doing high quality work that it can’t be accepted as simply a given of the genre that the writing need not soar or startle or the characters need not feel like unique individuals.
The world building remains too thin for my liking. Again, we’re told how the factions work and we see little bits and pieces of it, but it feels a bit like a Hollywood sound stage and less like a full realized world. And whereas Divergent countered some of its flaws with fast-paced action, I felt far less engaged in the plot of Insurgent. I sped through Divergent quickly, but the sequel lagged in many places and there were times I struggled to pick it up again. The plot line was too episodic in nature, with the main character hurtling from one loosely connected scene to another toward a few confrontations/ending scenes that just didn’t make a lot of sense to me in several ways. And some of the book’s “twists” didn’t feel natural. I can’t say the ending was a surprise, but even so, I had some plausibility issues with it. Finally, too much of the plot turned on people behaving a bit too simple-mindedly, like horror movies depending on characters to separate themselves then walk into basements, attics, and woods on their own. I’m never a fan of that.
As I mentioned with regard to Divergent, I can see how the teen and pre-teen audience will respond much more positively to the series than I have. Certainly my ten-year-old son whizzed through Divergent in a single night (in fairness, I should mention my wife also liked it better than I did). But even my son had a hard time finishing Insurgent, stopping and starting a few times and then finishing “just to find out what happened” in his words. I wouldn’t recommend the series for most adults, but based on my son’s response, I’d hold off at this point even recommending it for YA readers until seeing how the trilogy concludes.