The Short Version: Beatrice Prior, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago, makes a bold choice to leave the Faction she grew up in and switch to another – the Dauntless. There, she meets an impressive young man nicknamed Four and becomes far stronger than she ever knew she could be, all the while hiding the fact that she is different from everyone else: she is Divergent. But she also discovers that there’s a whole lot she doesn’t know about the world she lives in and as the city tears itself apart, she finds herself at the fore of a major revolution – one whose several waves have the potential to rewrite humanity’s future… but that might also destroy everything she knows and loves forever.
The Review: Once upon a time, shortly after I’d moved to New York City, I was given a gift of the entire Hunger Games trilogy at my first internship. This was the first time someone in publishing had done such a thing for me and obviously I was pretty excited. So I went and blasted through the entire trilogy in a weekend – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gave it a 5+, overall – although the second book was a bit warmed-up leftovers at times. And when I started hearing the buzz that this trilogy was the “next Hunger Games”, despite myself, I was intrigued. I’ve warned against the hype machine before (see: Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season) but I also know that the hype rarely appears without any merit. So, after the internet EXPLODED with ANGST and OMGWHYYYY upon the release of Allegiant (I managed to steer clear of spoilers but only by putting up a Tumblr Savior block on my browser), I ordered the whole trilogy in a box set and settled down to power through (and then review) the entire trilogy in a weekend. (ed. note – SPOILERS will follow.)
Except that this time, it felt like work. Where I was compulsively staying up to read The Hunger Games and its sequels, my mind drifted here. I thought about other books I’d like to read. I wrote. I watched Despicable Me 2. It’s not to say that I wasn’t necessarily enjoying the books… but they did not grab me. Now, let’s address why.
First off, there’s too much clunkiness in the series. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening of Divergent – through, actually, the large majority of the book. But when suddenly Tris goes from discovering that “uh oh, something’s wrong” to everything going to hell in the space of literally the turn of a page… it felt way too accelerated. And the book had not been dragging to this point – things were moving at a decent clip, to my mind. So while the whiplash, explosive ending of Divergent did in fact leave me anxious to jump into the second book… I also felt as though we’d missed something. Despite the fact that each of these books clocks in at over 500 pages, this first book felt like it had a hurried ending. And this is where I started to worry.
Insurgent suffers, unfortunately, from middle book syndrome. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait, this time around. We’re teased with several big dollops of information about the world outside, what happened to lead us to this point, the realities behind Divergence and the Factions… but it all feels like the pot is being stirred to keep the reader interested instead of letting the reader’s interest grow organically. The double and triple and quadruple-crosses all felt unnecessary – plot developments for the sake of plot developments, instead of an organically evolving story. Then, as the story comes (AGAIN) to an explosive conclusion… we’re left with a whole brand new slab of information to take on as we dive into Allegiant, which ends up being full of exposition in a really unpleasant way.
Not to mention full of the same tropes we’ve seen develop over the first two books: Four not trusting Tris, Tris being brash, Four being wrong, people double/triple/etc-crossing each other – only now we’re told that everything has actually been a eugenics/mind-control experiment in the interests of putting back together the fractured genetic code of the US population… and right around here is when I started to feel a little resentful towards the book. Not a lot, just a little. This is a Big Idea, one worthy of serious science-fictional consideration – and it doesn’t get it here. I’m not saying it’s a big idea in terms of “we should consider it in real life”, by the way – rather that it is an idea that has far-reaching hypothetical impact on how we live our lives today, the way the best speculative fiction does, so why not treat it as such? Instead, we’re force-fed a half-baked version of the concept in the third book and it felt… unnecessary.
Actually, what it felt like (sorry to bring up Suzanne Collins’ trilogy again) was Roth trying to do what Mockingjay did rather successfully (to the irritation of the fanboys-and-girls who didn’t want their YA dystopias colored by actual serious reflections on politics and society) – except she can’t commit to it, she can’t go all the way. The big plot ‘twist’ that comes at the end of the novel, the one that sent a thousand screaming young girls onto Tumblr and Twitter with their feelings and their ‘rage’, was perhaps the boldest move she made in the whole trilogy – and it’s the one that redeems the trilogy for me, I think. Besides the fact that it was just a ballsy authorial move (albeit one that was telegraphed the minute I saw that we were getting split p.o.v. in Allegiant after dedicated Tris-vision in books 1 & 2), it also brings home the message of the trilogy in a really powerful way.
The thing that got me hooked in book one – and that I could see a younger me absolutely being hooked on – is the idea that you can change who you are. People can change – it isn’t genetics, it isn’t necessarily nurture either. You can rewrite yourself every day if you so choose, if you’re strong enough to do so. Coming out of high school, that was exactly what I wanted to do – or, if not “rewrite myself”, I wanted to just be myself for the first time since I was a kid. Isn’t that what most of us want to do coming out of high school? And I did it again when I moved to New York after college – that felt like the leap Tris takes off of the roof in Divergent. You have the chance to redefine yourself (perhaps a better term than rewrite) – but at the same time, you don’t have to let your new communities define you, either. That’s the big blaring message of Divergent – Be Yourself! – and I love that because hopefully some young kids will read that book and say not “I want to zipline off the ruins of the Hancock Building!” but rather that they want to take the metaphorical leap into something new because they feel like they can.
This, at the same time, leads me to what feels like the big letdown of the trilogy for me: the message is such a simple one that Roth gets in her own way. By the time Tris and Four had their, what, fifteenth fight in the space of two days in Allegiant, I was over it. You can only get middle-school-me hot and bothered with the idea of kissing a girl after an argument so many times before even he is like “okay, do they maybe not actually like each other?” It’s really easy to mistake “this actually won’t work” for “we’re just really passionate” and this couple absolutely tiptoes along that line for basically the entire trilogy. One character, at some point, says of Four that (in the event of Tris’ death) he’d find another girlfriend eventually because, jesus, he’s only 18… and while, yes, everything is WAY more intense at that age and so sure I’m not belittling what any of them feel… guys, come on. I don’t care if you’re running around shooting guns and taking on the fate of humanity. Lyra and Will had the decency to remember they were only kids and even Katniss gets a bit of her Harry-Potter-circa-age-15 on when she starts getting muscled out by the grownups. I’m not saying grownups can handle everything – they’re quite clearly the reason everything gets screwed up, that much is obvious – but also kids can be dumb. I know, I’m 25 and I still feel like a dumb kid. I might not have the weight of the world on my shoulders and I threw my share of fits, but that’s all part of growing up.
What I’m trying to say is that you can be yourself, you can redefine yourself, and in times of great struggle that becomes even harder to do – but authors never really seem to let kids be kids, even if they have burdens the size of Atlas’.
Rating: Going book by book, we’re gonna give it a 4 / 3 / 3.5 – and that means I can’t really give the series, in good conscience, anything more than a 3.5 out of 5 in the end. While I liked the overarching concept and I really enjoyed the light, speedy first book… the confusion of the second two books just stopped me cold. I had to force myself to finish the last book today and even as we headed for the big denouement, I didn’t really enjoy it because I was too busy trying to figure out who was fighting for which side and why and whether any of it really actually mattered because I think in the end they probably needed to just nuke everybody’s memories and give it a good old fresh start. That said: the first book is worth the read if just for the message and for the fun – and the third book does have a great denouement that shows that Roth isn’t afraid to make bold choices. I just hope that in her next series (or even just next book) she makes those choices early and then lets the story play out naturally – a little less can go a long way.