Labels and categories can be tricky things. They often guide us to things that we like or things that we identify with. But they aren’t always accurate or adequate to describe individual items within them. Take dystopian YA fiction, for example. Veronica Roth’s Divergent can be placed nicely within this category, only the problem is that it’s a lot more than that label might imply.
Divergent is the story of a girl named Beatrice Prior who lives in a future Chicago where civilization, as we know it, has collapsed. What’s risen to take its place is a society fractured into five factions named Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Each of these factions lives according to very specific and almost absolute ideals. Abnegation, for example, the faction that Beatrice was born into, believes in selflessness and all of its members dedicate themselves to this ideal, acting to help those around them. The Candor faction believes in truth; Amity, friendship and peace; Erudite, the pursuit of knowledge; Dauntless, bravery.
It’s an interesting, if seemingly artificial construct, and at first I was skeptical of it—it seemed too contrived. But Roth explains how this came to be. After the collapse of society, a new structure was necessary. Abnegation became the leaders of this new society, because they were least likely to think of themselves. The members of Dauntless became the modern soldiers, the defenders of the new society. And so on. After only a few chapters, I bought into it.
Beatrice, as mentioned, is a member of Abnegation, but doesn’t feel like it. She tries to be selfless, but can’t quite seem to embody it in quite the way that the rest of her family does. And coming soon, around the time of her 16th birthday, is her time to choose what faction she will belong to as an adult. She is tested, as all young people are at that age, put through some simulations to see how she acts, and told what factions she favors. But something strange happens during the test, and the person testing her tells her she is Divergent, a term left unexplained, and something she is told to keep to herself.
Beatrice continues to the Choosing ceremony where she will choose her faction. And that inner struggle inside of her, the one that tells her she doesn’t belong in Abnegation, wins out. Instead, she chooses Dauntless.
What follows is an intense orientation as Beatrice, who has never been allowed to wear make up or anything other than drab, grey clothes, joins the faction of tattoos and piercings and (in a way) extreme sports. Dauntless is a faction of bravery, but also one of risk-taking, and Beatrice, who renames herself Tris, finds that she has that spark inside of her.
The initiation is not easy, though. The new members are trained to fight, against each other, and they risk their bodies to perform tasks to prove themselves. Tris finds out that only some of the initiates make it through to become full members of Dauntless, and she intends to be one of those.
Without mentioning any more spoilers, I will say that the initiation is filed with tense moments and the Dauntless initiates face death a number of times. Roth handles this well—keeping the tension high and making the threat real, but also allowing us character moments and even relationships.
One of these, of course, is a romance. Again, without going into details I will say that I feared that it would be handled a little too easily. But everything here feels earned. The feelings don’t just appear magically—they are developed throughout the story.
Over the course of the book, Tris learns exactly what a Divergent is and why it’s something that she’s supposed to hide. It involves the larger mystery of the book, and without getting into details, the uncovering of that mystery turns a lot of the the book on its head, and clearly opens up a lot of territory for a future book to address.
One of the things that really works in Divergent is that Roth captures that feeling so intense in our teenage years—the need and yearning to belong and yet the feeling that one doesn’t. It’s all too easy to say “I identify with this, this is who I am,” but it’s rarely so black and white, the borders of the factions that people choose are rarely so rigid and that’s an element that Roth captures in her future society. Those labels and categories, the things that the factions stand for, seem so absolute and so established, but are they really?
Roth also captures the need for people to want to be brave. And the question of what bravery is. Is it brave to follow someone’s orders to risk your life? Or is it brave to stand up to those orders when you question them?
But the true triumph of the book, in my opinion, is the character of Tris. I couldn’t help but like her. She seems real, and yet is also a worthy protagonist. She’s flawed, but she also has qualities that I admired, qualities even that I envied. Her ability to throw herself into dangerous situations particularly, even despite her doubts and fears. And her loyalty to her friends (something that Roth sometimes uses against her).
Divergent kept me riveted throughout. And there’s enough mystery behind the main plot to keep things intriguing beyond all the fighting and adventure. But it can be bleak at times. Though society has rebuilt itself, the way the factions operate is at times cruel and sadistic and the label of dystopian YA fiction isn’t one that’s completely off base. The climax, in particular, becomes increasingly brutal. Still, Roth manages to balance all of these elements and somehow makes it feel natural. And there’s plenty of action to keep things moving at a clip.
I read Divergent not knowing what to expect. What I found was a fascinating and absorbing novel that draws on not only dystopian fiction, but throws in plenty action, some post-apocalyptic themes, currents of mystery and a splash of romance. I highly recommend it.
Rajan Khanna is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop and his fiction has appeared in The Way of the Wizard, Dreams of Decadence, and Shimmer.