12.01.2013

Divergent and Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

I read both of these together in one volume on my iPad, so it's hard for me to separate them in my head enough to write about them. Here be spoilers.

Divergent
Veronica Roth has a spare writing style, leaving you to fill in a lot of detail as to what people and places look like. After reading so many books in which the author describes things in so much detail that you feel you know the protagonist's blood type and astrological sign, it's refreshing to exercise a little imagination. In Divergent, we met Tris Prior and her Balkanized version of abandoned Chicago. In Insurgent, Roth starts to draw aside the curtain and explain why Tris' world is so very odd.

Some time in the future, there was a disaster. We aren't given the details in Divergent. Roth drops us right into the middle of things, as Tris and her brother have their aptitude tests to determine which of the five tribes they would best fit into. Tris grew up in Abnegation, the tribe that devotes itself to selflessness and courtesy towards others. But she's never felt like she belonged. Being completely selfless was always a struggle for her. When the time comes to choose, she joins Dauntless because she feels a sense of kinship towards their quest for bravery. The training period is a struggle. Failing means joining the outcast factionless and a short, miserable, hungry life. Tris survives and thrives in her new tribe. Everything would be perfect if it weren't for the fact that Tris is Divergent; she has an aptitude for three tribes, not just one like everyone else. And, for some reason, if Tris is found out, she will be killed quietly, so as not to upset the status quo. All hell breaks loose on the day Tris graduates. A plot, hatched by the leader of the Erudite (who prize knowledge), causes non-Divergent Dauntless to become mind-controlled automatons who then attack the Abnegation leadership. Divergent ends with Tris and her friends and allies seeking refuge with Amity (peace-seekers).

Insurgent
Insurgent picks up Tris' story immediately after the events of Divergent. Everyone around her is scrambling to find out what's going on. No one, apart from Tris and a few others, don't know how far Jeanine Matthews of Erudite has manipulated their aptitude tests and neuropharmacological simulations. It's hard for them to believe. Dauntless allies itself with Erudite. Amity claims neutrality. Abnegation can't stand up for themselves. Candor (who value honesty) are browbeaten into allying with Erudite. All factions are threatened with violence if they don't send their Divergent members to Erudite so that Matthews can experiment on them, then kill them so that they don't mess up the five-tribe system. The tense stalemate doesn't last long, but there's a new wrinkle. One of the former members of the Abnegation leadership claims that Jeanine attacked Abnegation not because Erudite's propaganda claimed that Abnegation was hording food and luxuries, but because the tribe held important information that was supposed to remain secret from everyone. Insurgent ends with another violent clash between Erudite and their mind-controlled soldiers and the other factions and factionless.

As I read Divergent, I wondered how this society had come to be. The system was so strange and artificial that it could not have evolved naturally. Five different tribes, each devoting themselves to just one quality and actively suppressing others, will inevitably lead to conflict. It's not a stable system. And this flies right in the face of what Tris has been told about her city's origins—that they withdrew because they wanted to find a way to live in harmony through their various paths. Calling the five groups religions is as fitting as calling them tribes. The system sounds more like an elaborate thought experiment than anything else. At the end of Insurgent, I found out that my suspicions were right. It is artificial. It was a thought experiment played out in real life. And I'm going to have to want (impatiently) to see how it all plays out in part three to see what happens when Tris and her comrades venture outside of their city.

One of the defining characteristics of young adult fiction is how didactic it is. The genre is often as much about self-discovery as it is about entertainment. That especially apparent in this series. Almost every plot point and character can be read as a metaphor for something without much effort. That not a bad thing, as Divergent and Insurgent are fairly well written. I would say very well written but Roth is not a subtle writer and several of the characters undergo emotional whiplash as they're forced to do what the plot needs them to do.

It's still a fascinating story, in spite of its problems. I can forgive problems that spring from the author's purpose rather than from an author's lack of ability (e.g. the Twilight series). Besides, the main character of this series is a strong girl, who is conflicted but still heroic.

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