In Veronica Roth’s future-dystopia story, Divergent, the first of an as yet unfinished trilogy, the post-nuclear war society of Toronto has been split into five factions of like-minded people. The idea is to apply lateral thinking to the prevention of future wars by nurturing a culture that upholds certain qualities; the virtuous opposites to five of the human flaws that give birth to conflict. Thus ideal led to the creation of Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite, the five factions designed to counter aggression, dishonesty, cowardice, selfishness and ignorance respectively. Everyone in this rigid society must conform to one of these character types and those that don’t are considered dangerous.
As a basis for a future-dystopia it’s inspired but it comes with a glaring problem. Are we really expected to believe that post-nuclear war society’s answer to uphold peace indefinitely is to create a starkly segregated civilization that regards faction as more important than family? The flaws in this plan are all too obvious and it’s one of a number of flaws in the book that prevent it from achieving greatness which is a shame because otherwise Divergent is actually rather good.
The story follows Tris, a sixteen-year-old member of Abnegation, a faction so firm about directing attention away from the self that its people aren’t even allowed to look in the mirror. It seems Tris isn’t entirely happy with thinking only of others because at the annual choosing ceremony in which kids coming-of-age decide which faction to ally themselves to for life, she picks Dauntless. These transfers are rare (although nearly every character of any note in the book seems to be one), but rarer still is Tris; she is a divergent, meaning she doesn’t really belong in any one faction, something a highly advanced simulated reality serum reveals. She must keep this identity as divergent a secret or risk being killed.
The main body of the story follows Tris through the ordeal of Dauntless initiation, a gruelling series of training and trials designed to rank new inductees according to their relative bravery. This involves brutal fights with other initiates, jumping off tall buildings and being subjected to horrifying simulated experiences of her worst fears. The book is at its best when its being nasty to Tris and those around her and a number of scenes of violence and other harrowing experiences really draw you in as does the character of the mysterious Four (yes his name is Four and yes it is quite annoying), an instructor that seems to fascinate her.
The narrative makes semi-successful use of the first person perspective, a writing technique I’ve never much liked. The problem with it is that by delving deep into one central character we end up being distanced from others. This actually works in Divergent because Tris is very much alone but she still comes across as more introspective and self-conscious than she would otherwise and reading about her every thought and feeling can get wearing.
The world of the setting is also very underdeveloped. There’s endless detail about the factions but little of anything else. The story features a very advanced serum to induce these incredibly real simulated experiences but there’s no word on any other technical advancements. Tris also takes time to warm up to. Hers is a story of a spirited survivor but she’s presented with too many negative qualities (selfishness, a lack of pity) early on to make her endearing, at least at first. The story takes her on a well thought-out journey of self-discovery put it takes a while to get a grasp on her nonetheless. It’s also rather difficult to believe that her new violent life is an improvement despite occasional affirmations that she’s much happier.
Faults aside this is a rich and involving story that is well worth reading. The ending doesn’t offer that much closure but with another two books to follow that might not prove a problem.