Welcome to the first entry in the Orwell Project! Those of you who follow me on twitter may have seen my brief tweets whilst reading the first book on the list, and you may have noticed that my opinions were less than positive. I go into every book with an open mind and aim to give each of them a fair chance, as I did with the Sparkle Project (yes, really), and what better way to start off my exploration into the new dystopian YA craze than with what is arguably the biggest success story of the post-Hunger Games market.
Summary (taken from GoodReads):In a future Chicago, 16-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.
Cover impressions: Veronica Roth started writing “Divergent” in college, and was quickly signed up by agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe. The book rose to success at an unusually enthusiastic pace, with a 200,000 copy first run by HarperCollins, and a huge online promotional campaign. The campaign is what interested me the most upon the book’s release. Part of the promotional campaign included a Facebook campaign where you could “discover your faction”, and to me this is a huge reason as to why the book was so successful, certainly selling more copies than similarly themed and promoted novels. A huge attraction of the novel’s concept is the idea of choice, of looking inside yourself and deciding which human traits you value the most, and having your entire life dictated by that choice. As I mentioned before, much of the appeal in teen dystopian novels these days lies in the inherent choices one must make, and the subsequent consequences of that decision. Unfortunately, “Divergent” fails on this front by falling into several major pitfalls of the genre.
The Chicago of the future depicted in “Divergent” is one divided into five factions, with the citizens of each faction devoting their lives to one specific virtue that they consider the most important: Amity (peace), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (intelligence) and Dauntless (bravery). Upon turning 16, each citizen must take a series of tests to discover which faction they are most suited to, but are then given the freedom to choose whichever faction they wish to join later on. This confusion is one of the first big missteps of the novel. Why introduce mandatory tests to find a suitable faction if the citizens then have free will to decide differently?
Beatrice/Tris, our heroine, belongs to Abnegation, but decides to join Dauntless, after receiving inconclusive test results which identify her as Divergent, the name given to those who are shown to possess more than one of the allotted virtues. Once again, the red flags come up, revealing my biggest issue with the novel. The world building makes absolutely no sense. The concept of dystopian societies relies on the notion of a world that seems perfect but is shown to be extremely flawed and often dangerously problematic (an idea many writers and publishers can’t seem to wrap their heads around), but while the concept of a world run by a series of such virtues sounds interesting at first glance, I cannot think of an instance where this would work without someone calling it out. How can you divide humanity into one of five virtues? How on earth can you be brave and not honest, or intelligent and not peaceful? Why would possessing more than one of these virtues be dangerous, as Tris is told? I can understand brainwashing one’s citizens into wholeheartedly believing in this system but by offering choice surely that gives them agency to question it? Those who do not pass initiation are sent out into the outskirts to be faction-less, taking on the grunt jobs and living on hand-outs, and yet the possibility of a completely justifiable uprising is never mentioned. Even if the society of this world had been watertight in its depiction of an entirely subservient society, I can’t imagine those without factions not rebelling in some way. The way in which every character just accepts this, along with every other world-building hole, felt lazy.
How on earth is this system governed? It is mentioned that Abnegation are in charge of politics of the city because of their selflessness, which sounds divine in terms of contemporary politicians, but who decided this? How can one be selfless when it is one’s job to dictate to others how to rule their lives? We’re given no indication of how the rest of America outside of Chicago works, which constantly raised questions as to the function of local government versus the role of Washington and the Congress and Senate (granted, I’m a politics geek so I doubt most teenagers are stressing over this like I am). Tris also attends high school with other factions, which logically makes no sense since surely allowing such a system would only encourage rebellion. Each faction is assigned a different job to do but the idea that each position would only require one virtue is ridiculous and illogical. This complete lack of sense is present throughout the entire book and is impossible to overlook. I cannot invest in a novel that leaves me asking so many questions. The concept and its lack of thought reminded me of Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium”, set in a world where love is a disease. It sounds like an interesting concept until it’s thought about for longer than five seconds.
Upon leaving Abnegation, Tris is sent to the Dauntless camp to begin her training for initiation. The biggest chunk of the book is spent in what I find easiest to describe as an extended training montage. Since the Dauntless value bravery above all else, naturally their training process is like a big adventure camp, complete with punch-ups, tattoos and paintballing. These frivolous activities are supposed to be what proves, for the biggest part of the story anyway, who the truly brave are. The Dauntless spend a lot of time getting tattoos, dying their hair wild colours and generally dressing like Sex Pistols fans. The definition of bravery presented is questionable at best. The stakes, which make Dauntless seem more like a summer camp than a truly life-changing initiation, are set ridiculously low, except for the frequent punch-ups the trainees must go through. While this element of the world is questioned by Tris, she buys into it ultimately but I don’t – why is violence brave? Surely the braver thing would be to say no? This element is set up for a later pay-off into the evils of another faction but once again the mishandling of the world-building raises some questions. Who is monitoring the factions? Leaving them self-governed is just asking for trouble. There’s no authority present, which also means there’s no real villain or sense of threat. The closest the novel comes to having a villain is the opposing faction Erudite, because apparently valuing intelligence makes one instantly maniacal and ready to take over the world. There’s a less than subtle anti-intellectual tone throughout the book which seriously annoyed me. The inherent premise of the book is where the issue of this lies, but given that the supposedly heroic Dauntless are happily beating up each other, I fail to see them in a better light than those who value intellect. One of the tensions of the novel lies in Erudite’s slandering of Abnegation, yet one would expect Candor to be doing their job of being honest about the inherent flaws of the city’s governmental rule. Once again, too many questions.
The stakes are raised in the second stage of initiation when Tris and company must go through extremely life-like hallucinations of their worst fears to learn to overcome them (because the true definition of bravery is overcoming one’s fear being attacked by rabid birds). Given that not much of any true consequence happens throughout this large portion of the book, I was disappointed by the lack of real character development, both for Tris and the supporting cast. I genuinely forgot the names of several of the Dauntless trainees, who remain distinguishable only by their token roles – best friend, love interest, bully – while Tris veered between cold, dull and a bit of a hypocrite. She has a distinct lack of compassion that I found to be a complete turn-off due to the inconsistencies of her depiction. While Tris admits she is too selfish to stay in Abnegation, but this doesn’t explain her often cruel nature as well as her habit of passing judgement on everyone. Characters exist to serve purposes and not much else. Peter is a bully and not much else. Al is the nice boy having trouble fitting in until he suddenly turns bad then kills himself for a cheap emotional pay-off. Not one supporting character makes a lasting impression and all feel entirely disposable.
Of course, her emotions change quickly for the romantic interest, Four, who I am sorry but not at all surprised to say is a typical YA jerk. Then again, I can’t think of many YA romantic leads who managed to draw blood from their supposed true love. I tend to get very angry when the “I was only trying to protect you” card is played in any novel, but here it angered me more than usual since “trying to protect” Tris includes physically hurting her, demeaning and humiliating her in front of others and treating her like a child (although she is often immature and dim-witted). Of course, he also has a tortured past and is brooding but gentle and loving, ticking off so many clichés in one swoop. The fact that the supposedly strong Tris falls for this hook, line and sinker entirely contradicted her depiction as a “strong female character”. It does not help that Tris seems to pick up each part of her training with ease. I’m not sure knife throwing and using a gun (something Tris finds a lot of security in, and don’t even get me started on the pro-gun stuff) are something that just come naturally.
The moral element of the novel feels shoehorned in. Tris makes references to God and praying but we are given no sense of the role of religion in this society. While the factions suggest an inherently Christian foundation to the city’s new rule, there’s no depth to this, nor any real rules put in place. It’s difficult to imagine a society without religion, or something resembling a religious element, be it the “worship” of a leader or the following of a divine theistic being, and I think the world of the novel would be much more complex and interesting if this was explored in more depth, but the author can’t just add a few references to God and hope for the best, especially when most of what the societies do to rule their city contradicts the inherent teachings of God and Jesus.
In terms of general prose, pacing, etc, the novel is serviceable at best and plodding at worst. Clocking in at almost 500 pages, the story feels sluggish, poorly developed and more concerned with an extended action montage than any semblance of developing its poorly structured society and undeveloped characters. I have no issue with the novel’s less than original concept since strong execution can more than make up for that, but there are too many holes in this novel for me to ignore. One cannot shove the major plot developments into the final 50 pages after expecting the reader to trudge through such boredom for so long. And here’s my biggest issue beyond the basic structuring of the novel – this is a world where the essential message is those who value intelligence are all greedy, selfish, power-hungry schemers who are working to take over and destroy all that is good and selfless, and if those who are truly “brave” need to shoot them in the head to stop them, so be it. Dystopian fiction is inherently political, I have no problem with authors taking a specific slant, even if it’s one that directly contradicts my own politics, but the basic premise of “Divergent” is one that is flawed to the extreme, and one that any reader can pick apart within 10 minutes of the first page. Tris may express disagreement with the violence of Dauntless but she is only happy to use it herself, frequently, and it always works. The generalisation and complete misunderstanding of basic human thinking is mind-boggling. “Divergent” is weak in almost every way. Its world-building has more holes than Princes Street’s tram building project, weak characterisation, plodding pacing, predictable and tired romance and inherently fails in its objective. Needless to say I will not be reading the sequel.
Big Brother’s Checklist:
· World-building: Utter failure for all the reasons I mentioned above.
· Strong premise: Falls apart very quickly and is entirely illogical.
· “Strong female character”: The quotation marks are there for irony’s sake, as seen in the hilarious Kate Beaton cartoon. Tris is weak, frequently contradicts herself and is all too quick to fall into the romantic damsel mode, which isn’t particularly suggestive of brave. I also deeply resent her supposed displays of bravery when they rely so heavily on contradicting everything she supposedly stood for.
· Love triangle: Thankfully no, although I was fearful for one moment.
· Sense of threat: There isn’t one.
· Strong villain/antagonist: Making intelligence your villain without any real development or explanation will not win me over.
· Lack of priorities: The entire Dauntless faction lives for this. Paintballing is a display of bravery?
· Overdone/unnecessary romance: Four is a jerk who will undoubtedly prove to be a popular romantic hero in all his clichéd wonder, but he was entirely useless and unnecessary as a character, and his treatment of Tris was in no way “protecting” her.
· Supporting cast: Weak, poorly developed, seemingly only there to provide useful exposition and serve convenient roles when the occasion called for it.
· Deeper meaning: Intelligence is BAD!
· General writing quality (pace, plotting, prose): Serviceable to weak. I hate to bring an author’s age into the equation since it’s often used as a lazy smear and proves to be inaccurate a lot of the time (Hannah Moskowitz is two years younger than me and continues to knock my socks off with her talent), but the immaturity of the storytelling is painfully evident in places, but remains readable, even when the pacing and lack of development is a turn-off.
· Originality/execution: Weak. I seem to be using that word a lot but it feels the most fitting.
Bingo count: 11/12.
Next time on the Orwell Project: I honestly have no idea. I’m waiting on a few books arriving from the library so I will update this entry when I have more information, or post it on Twitter (@Ceilidhann).