Divergent, by Veronica Roth. HarperCollins, 2011. 487 pp. 978-0-06-202402-2.
... in which Beatrice, living in a dystopian future Chicago, must choose a faction, survive the dangerous and competitive training for initiates, and stop a plot that could destroy her whole society.
Divergent follows the adventures of a 16-year-old girl named Beatrice Prior. Beatrice lives in a futuristic dystopian Chicago, where all of the population is divided into five factions, distinguished from each other by their central characteristics: Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave). At the age of 16, each citizen takes an aptitude test and then chooses which faction they would like to join. Many stay with the faction they were raised in, though some decide to switch. On the day of her aptitude exam, Beatrice is given inconclusive results, which means she is Divergent... a very dangerous thing. Despite being raised in Abnegation, Beatrice chooses to switch factions to Dauntless, and changes her name to Tris. There, she must survive a very dangerous and very competitive month of training, while learning why being Divergent is a dangerous trait. Along the way, Tris meets a boy (of course) and discovers a dangerous plot that could destroy her whole society.
This book reminded me strongly of Lois Lowry's The Giver in its first couple of chapters. The setting is a little bit similar (only in the beginning), and the scenes where Tris is choosing her faction reminded me somewhat of the Ceremony of Twelve that Jonas goes through. As I really love The Giver, these similarities made me very happy.
Having said that, after the first few chapters, any likenesses between the two books disappear, and Divergent becomes a wonderful novel of its own. I really enjoyed Veronica Roth's writing style; the book moved forward at a good pace, there was a good balance of exposition and dialog, the writing was free of cliches, and the characters were well developed.
Probably the strongest aspect of the book is the heroine, Tris. Roth does a really excellent job of making Tris seem like a real teenage girl, which seems like a common challenge in YA fiction (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer). Tris is brave enough to deserve her place in Dauntless, but she isn't so brave to be above fear and apprehension. She's selfless enough that the reader can see her origins in Abnegation, but she isn't so selfless that the reader is put off by her angelic goodness. She's intelligent, but not intimidatingly so, and she has plenty of character flaws that make her seem like a real person. The book is written from a first person perspective, in the present tense, which gives the reader a sense of connectedness with Tris, and makes all of the events in the book seem more immediate and important.
I also quite liked the setting. It was an interesting take on the futuristic dystopian setting, and was original enough to make it unique, instead of just being all evil dictators and fearful people. For a young adult book, the setting had a good amount of complexity... just enough to make the book interesting, but not so much complexity that it required too many pages. If this book was intended for an adult audience, I would have liked more detail and depth to it, but for a young adult book, I think it's very appropriate and exactly what it should be. Readers from Chicago will probably also appreciate the geographical setting, as a lot of Chicago's famous features are very recognizable in the book (Navy Pier, Millennium Park, etc).
I guess my only complaint would be that some of the factions weren't fully fleshed out. We see a lot of characters from Abnegation and even more in Dauntless, so we get to see how people vary within a faction, but with the others, it seems like the entire faction is defined by their one single trait. I have a hard time believing that everyone in Erudite is as smug and cold-hearted and analytical as they seem, but I think this issue will certainly be addressed in the sequels. Given the scope and length of this book, I think this is a very minor complaint about what is otherwise a very excellent novel.
I haven't read The Hunger Games, but I suspect that people who enjoyed those books would very much enjoy this one, as well. This book would appeal to pretty much anyone who enjoys the rapidly-growing genre of YA dystopian lit, and anyone who enjoys a good, thought-provoking book that is also a fast read (I read it in one evening).
A good way to start my 2012 reading!