Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review - Veronica Roth's Divergent series

I find myself reading a fair amount of Young Adult fiction recently, only in part to see what the whuppersnappers are looking at these days. "Adult" novels (minds out of the gutter - yes, you in the corner, I'm talking to you - we're discussing mainstream fiction, not erotica*) are fine, and I read more than my share of detective/crime novels. But YA fiction often has a goodly amount of Adventure, often combined with a Message that is direct enough for me to understand. Furthermore, YA novels tend to be mercifully short. Sure, I could tackle Gravity's Rainbow, but at 10 p.m. I'm never really in the mood to wade into that.

Several years ago, I read The Hunger Games, and thought it was a brilliant book in its grim, dystopian future. The sequels lost a little of the first book's luster, as sequels tend to do, but the characters were well-drawn, the pace was quick (some dragging in book two, but it's hard to keep up the action for hundreds of pages at a go), and the story was gripping. Similarly, Philip Pullman's Golden Compass series had two compelling lead characters and a set of incredible adventures, all tied together with a terrific story and a heartbreaking ending that made me nearly forgive his militant anti-religion stance. (Too bad that first movie wasn't very good.) In contrast, while I managed to choke down Twilight, its breathless "Oooh, isn't he so dreamy" heroine and turgid writing dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of the series, and while I did read the next two books I drew the line at the last.

Are Veronica Roth's Divergent books more like The Hunger Games or Twilight? While they share some of the former's strengths, sadly, they also share some of the latter's weaknesses.

The setup is a good one: a community has divided into five factions, each based on one desirable aspect of personality. The Abnegation are selfless, the Dauntless are courageous, the Amity are friendly, the Erudite seek knowledge, and the Candor value honesty. Tris, our heroine, grew up in an Abnegation household but chooses Dauntless as her faction. Most of the first book involves her initiation into the faction, learning how to fight and to engage in reckless stunts for the hell of it. She falls in love with her trainer, Tobias, makes friends and enemies, and is prepared when the inevitable violent conflict with another faction arises. Subsequent books develop the inter-faction conflict and then show us the broader world, with its own set of internal conflicts. Like The Hunger Games, there's a lot of teen-on-teen violence, with the added benefit of teen-on-adult and adult-on-teen violence.

While the basic plot is engaging, the characters are less so. Tris and Tobias spend a lot of time kissing, feeling up one another, feeling conflicted about everything, and having other teen emotions, but not much time considering the situation and trying to think their way through problems. Tris is betrayed by someone close to her and has to find a way to forgive him, and Tobias eventually resolves his issues with his parents, but the two never really grow as characters. Even the plot, which features various conflicts and back-stabbing, has an expeditious resolution that Doctor Who fans might call the Big Red Reset Button.

The trilogy is an engaging read, and the ebook prices I paid were low enough that I felt I received good value. I couldn't help but think that some minor adjustments to the books would have yielded substantial improvements. The way the series has sold, however, I seem to be in the minority.

* I did download the free sample of Fifty Shades of Grey from iBooks. Sad to say, the sample ended well before anything tawdry occurred - hell, the female protagonist was still a virgin, which I am led to believe was not the case by the end of the book - but the writing might have been the worst I’ve read in any published book though, to be fair, the competition in that department is pretty intense.

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