*WARNING: This review may contain minor spoilers. This is the kind of information that would be revealed very early on in the book and nothing regarding later outcomes.
It’s been a while since I’ve devoured a book. The kind of reading where you don’t want to put it down and find yourself sneaking in time to read it. I read this during our NYE celebration because it’s that good; at least to me. It’s not a perfect book by any means and it struggles in some places but the creativity and writing easily stands out. The best part for me is the moral ambiguity. The gray space of right and wrong, struggling to do the right thing when it’s not entirely clear what the right choice is. The very real and concrete consequences combined with the atmosphere of violence gives a visceral authenticity to the book. Anything can and will happen to almost anyone. No one is safe and what is safe anyway?
The story follows the main character of Beatrice as she narrates the story in first person present tense. This writing choice threw me at first but soon I was so absorbed in the story I didn’t notice it anymore. The time is some unspecified future where people have divided themselves into five different factions based on noble concepts: Honesty, Bravery, Selflessness, Intelligence, and Peacefulness. Children are raised in their parents’ faction until they’re 16, when they take an aptitude test which tells them which faction they belong in. However the teenagers are then allowed to choose whichever faction they wish regardless of those test scores. For example they can choose to stay with their parents’ faction, go with the one they have an aptitude for, or choose another one entirely.
Once a faction is chosen the teenagers become candidates for initiation and must go through rigorous training before being inducted into that faction and training is different for each faction. The main narrator, Tris, is a divergent, which is a person who can fit into multiple factions. This concept of a divergent is explored further within the novel and the definition changes and deepens. Suffice it to say for the purposes of a review, Tris is special and unique. Though of course she is, she’s the lead character. Tris chooses the Bravery or Dauntless faction and begins the brutal and sometimes cruel training.
Here is where the book really takes off. The concept of the 5 factions is not post-apocalyptic but the atmosphere and world building certainly feed off that idea. There’s a sense of inherent violence and uncertainty that keeps you guessing. There’s not much explicit violence, aside from the butter knife scene, but it’s the exquisitely drawn tension that constantly surrounds Tris and the other characters that keeps them and the reader on their toes. The writing conveys an incredible sense of unease, danger, and excitement all at once. You’re never sure exactly what will happen and what could happen in any given scene but it’s absorbing and engaging to find out and want to find out.
There are a few minor issues I had with it, despite how much I really did enjoy it. First is that while the characterizations are well crafted and nuanced, Tris can get on my nerves. She’s 16 and gets advice from almost everyone in the book. If a rock could talk, I’m sure it would be telling this girl what to do to survive. Yet she almost never takes that advice. She always knows better in her own head, save the one time she actually followed given advice. I’ll be honest in that sometimes I wanted to slap her to wake up and listen. But I suppose that’s due to her age, lack of real sophistication and maturity, and the fact that she didn’t chose the Erudite, intelligence, faction. She chose the almost mindless bravery/courageous one. So really her personality does fit even if it drove me nuts at times.
Additionally the backstory on how the world came to be the way it’s portrayed is pretty weak at best. There’s a thin explanation of the factions and their purpose but no real examination of what happened to drastically change the world. Or how the factions function to maintain their current world. There are tidbits of information scattered throughout the story, such as the selfless faction governs or the bravery faction guards…something, but no real explanations. This is starkly evident towards the end of the book when some big things happen and the lack of offered information becomes hindering. The events at the end of the book are explosive but unfinished. How such things happened or even why (beyond the easy motives) should be much more complex than the simplistic answers offered.
Overall though Divergent is a page turner. I enjoyed almost all of it and finished it far faster than I thought I would. The writing is excellent and the internal and external conflicts presented absorbing. The characters are all shades of gray with morality being an ever shifting principle. The flaws and strengths of the characters, almost all the characters save a few stereotypes, present an intriguing background against a harsh and uncertain landscape. For the most part, this book hit all the elements I look for in dystopian novels and a few more.