An interesting but ultimately untenable premise, a little lacking in detail
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 29 December 2013
Divergent has many of the characteristics associated with dystopian fiction, particularly that aimed at the young adult market: a female teenage protagonist, a romantic interest who has take second place to the rather more pressing task of uncovering the secrets of the regime, questionable authority figures and a cliffhanger ending.
We are plunged into the action immediately, as Beatrice prepares for the aptitude test which will tell her which faction of the city she is best suited to (a bit like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter): Abnegation, the faction she's grown up in, which believes in selflessness; Amity, which believes in friendship and peace; Candor, which believes in honesty and truth; Dauntless, which believes in bravery and fearlessness; or Erudite, which believes in intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge. The following day, Beatrice will have to choose whether to do as her parents expect and stay in Abnegation, or whether to transfer and effectively cut all ties to her family. The aptitude test should help her make this decision, but Beatrice's results are irregular and hint at fractures in the city and the faction system that she'd never suspected.
As she trains to become a fully-fledged member of her chosen faction, Tris (as she prefers to be called) learns more about the beliefs and customs of the different factions. Each has been established in response to a perceived fault of humanity which led to wars and conflict throughout history, and each contributes to society in its own defined way. At the same time, Tris learns more about herself: she's always struggled with the selflessness required of Abnegation, but comes to realise that selflessness and courage are not so far apart; she is forced to confront the cold, calculating streak that runs through her; and she struggles to understand her feelings towards Four, who coaches the trainees through initiation.
The concept of a society divided into factions is initially interesting, but ultimately untenable. People simply can't be divided into one of five character traits, to the exclusion of all others. In other dystopian fiction, such as Unwind or The Hunger Games, the regime imposes questionable practices but the majority of people struggle with the morality of those practices. Even if they are not pro-actively rebelling, they are not just happily going along with things. But in Divergent, the people who struggle with the idea of the factions are in the minority. On top of this, the faction system was supposedly introduced to avoid future wars, despite history teaching us that segregation itself generally breeds conflict.
The world created by Veronica Roth is not as fully developed as I'd have liked - it's hard to build a picture of what it's really like. The details of the factions themselves and the landscape of the city are fairly superficial. Actually, the overall sense I got from the novel was almost video-game-like, particularly in the training sessions and some of the later action sequences. I also kept asking myself whether this faction system is in place in other cities, or just isolated to this particularly city - it was frustrating not knowing more about how and why this system evolved, although I suspect this is part of the story arc of the whole trilogy.
Divergent is an action-packed novel, in which things and people are rarely what they seem. Families are torn apart, communities are destroyed and lots of innocent people die. But other - more positive - themes run through it as well, including friendship and loyalty, hope and love. This is not the most sophisticated novel in its genre, but for the first offering from 23-year-old Veronica Roth, it's definitely good enough to make me read the sequel, Insurgent.
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