Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Veronica Roth


Imagine if you built a society based on high school cliques who never mix with each other, then imagine what those cliques would be like after a few generations of isolation. In Divergent people live in a city of five factions due to a system that came about as a response to the horror of war. There's Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless and Abnegation. Beatrice Prior has been brought up in grey-clothed Abnegation, which values selflessness above all things. But she's growing tired of never looking at herself in the mirror, living a bland and uniform life, and always having to think of others first.

At the age of 16 everyone goes through a kind of mind-probing aptitude test to determine which faction they really belong in, followed by a Sorting Hat-style ceremony. However Beatrice's test throws up some surprises that will give her big problems, and at the ceremony she chooses to leave her family and join Dauntless.

The people of her new faction are, to put it mildly, completely barking. They're a group of heavily tattooed thrill junkies who routinely take part in acts of suicidal recklessness, yet they're the only faction that uses guns and their main job is to guard the city. If Beatrice, who is now calling herself Tris, can't endure their initiation period she'll become one of the factionless, which is as good as being homeless. There's also a good chance she won't live through the brutal initiation, which pits the new arrivals against each other in merciless fights and tests of courage.

The group of initiates are bossed around by the multi-pierced and cruel Eric, and by Four, who disagrees with the way Eric wants to run things. Tris begins to form friendships, but she also makes enemies and she discovers that some people will go to any lengths to improve their rankings. She questions whether this is what bravery means, and whether the faction's ideals have become corrupted over time. Add some sinister inter-faction plotting, heaps of jealousy and a bucketload of fingernail-hanging daredevilry. The story whips along. The first person present tense narrative is very immediate, and Veronica Roth's writing is all substance without any of the drag of unnecessary wordage. So it's a fast read, and it's engaging because Tris is both brave and thoughtful, although she doesn't conform to the stereotype of any one faction to an extreme.

However the main problem I found with this novel is the way the differences between the groups are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. It's difficult to believe a society would structure itself this way, even one that was traumatised by a major conflict. I could understand why the factions are cut off from each other and mutually antagonistic. But people have to suppress their natures in order to be part of these factions, and they also refuse to question some things that are obviously wrong. Why would anyone restrict themselves to any one aspect of their personality? And why would they allow others to inject them with a serum that can peek into their heads? I also found it odd that those with fewer fears were considered braver: to me, all that proves is that the character lacks imagination.

This novel works well as a metaphor for overcoming fear, but it's not quite as effective as a believable dystopia. It's an exciting story however, threaded through with a subtle blossoming of romance, as you might expect of a story about a teenage girl. The ending is conclusive but abrupt, keeping with the ethos of no wasted words, and it leaves plenty of scope for the sequels to explore beyond the fenced city and to explain how the society got to such a point. The world of Divergent is one of strangely over-simplified cliques, but it's an intriguing and original concept nonetheless, wrapped in a tense and entertaining read.

21st February 2012

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  YA     Science fiction
    Female Protagonist  

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Review © Ros Jackson