Promo Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth (104 pages)

Krispy pointed me in the direction of HarperTeen's promotion for Divergent, which consists of the first 104 pages available online. I'd heard a bit of hype but had been unimpressed by the premise. Nevertheless, I thought I'd give it a chance. Turns out I'm even less impressed than I thought I'd be, though I do have food for thought now on what makes dystopia work and how this book is so far an example of unsuccessfully fudging it.  I kind of want to read the rest, but I'm not going to stand in line for this book.

Divergent by Veronica Roth (first 104 pages)

Pros: Interesting exploration of virtues in society (hopefully this is expanded on throughout the novel), eventually manages to maintain some narrative tension near the end of the 104 pages
Cons: Insufficient world-building, laughable pseudo-science, implausible societal structure

Intellectual Rating: 3.5 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: C-

Book Blurb: In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves…or it might destroy her.

*Warning: SPOILERS for content in the promo pages*

Alz's Take: I'll be frank: I was unable to suspend my belief long enough to buy anything in this excerpt even though I walked into it with an open mind. It's a YA futuristic dystopian novel and the great thing about dystopian novels is their haunting plausibility—that oh-crap-I-could-see-this-happening-someday feeling. But the society that has arisen in this book is so implausible that I can't ever see it working out in any realistic sense.

The tension seems to hinge on the fact that factions are more important than blood and family, that the faction is your family, and it's actually stated somewhere that to be factionless is worse than death. Which is great and all, except that factions are so stringent about codified behavior that even idle moments must be appropriately spent, i.e. the Erudite must read books and newspapers during lunch and the Abnegation must always give up their seats on the bus to other passengers, etc. And I just can't believe in a society where people's behavior must conform to one of five ideals at all times—and yet there doesn't seem to be any sort of enforcement so far other than, say, familial disapproval and chastisement.

On the one hand, this could be an interesting exploration of how social enforcement can replace governmental enforcement, but the book doesn't seem like it's going in that direction. It seems to be more about internal politics—the Abnegation faction provides selfless leaders for the government (and in fact they run the council and make all the decisions), but they're at odds with the intellectual Erudite who provide teachers and researchers, and then there are the Candor lawyers and law-people, the Amity counselors and caretakers, and the Dauntless, who guard the city perimeter, although the heroine is so uninterested and boring that she specifically notes, "Their primary purpose is to guard the fence that surrounds our city. From what, I don't know" (7).

Which brings us our first-person heroine, Beatrice Prior. As far as heroines go, she's not particularly remarkable. Oh, she's struggling with whether or not to choose Abnegation, since she loves her family and thinks the lifestyle is admirable but doesn't really feel it in her heart. But if she chooses another faction, she'll become an outcast forever from Abnegation to the point that her family will basically disown her—which seems like is pretty much the norm for people who traitorously chooses to switch from the faction they were born into.

Beatrice doesn't have enough personality for me to connect with her for most of the excerpt. She starts to develop a little more chutzpah and individuality later, but 100 pages is a long time for me to develop mild interest and empathy in a main character.

Krispy frequently accuses me of being a prediction-monster and it happened again in Divergent: I could tell exactly where the story was going both from the info blurb and reading 2 pages into the excerpt. Nothing happened to surprise or amaze me, except the laughable "aptitude test" that's so hyped up in the beginning and that Beatrice is so anxious about, and the equally ridiculous cult-ish Choosing Ceremony (which as Krispy noted is basically Hogwarts and the Sorting Hat but without the magic and the songs) where there are giant bowls of elements representing different factions (rocks = Abnegation, water = Erudite, earth = Amity, fire = Dauntless, glass = Candor) over which the choosers must slit their hands with a knife and spill blood upon the bowl of their chosen faction.


For me to believe in a dystopian society, there must be both elements of plausibility and logic. For instance, in Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, we actually get very little background about how the current society came to be: There were the Years of Rage that left the moon half-destroyed and then people agreed that rather than destroy themselves with constant change, they would artificially create an ideal time from the past (i.e. the Victorian Era) and live forever in the trappings of that time period without change and therefore without war—even though there is still technology (albeit generally forbidden) and people of course cheat now and then with it.

In Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, Panem is the country that has arisen from the remnants of North America after some huge unspecified disaster, and then there's the Capitol that rules thirteen satellite districts—well, twelve districts now, since the thirteenth one rebelled and the Capitol blasted it off the face of the earth, and ever after as a reminder to the other districts that resistance is futile they implemented the annual Hunger Games where two children from each district must participate in a mandatory-to-watch televised fight to the death.

Allie Condie's Matched features a dystopian society that at first looks like a utopia, where technology is advanced and everyone is happy and taken care of by the Society. The background is that many years ago, humankind nearly destroyed itself with an excess of choice—too much media, too much information, all leading to too many problems. So after some big huge vague disaster, the survivors formed the Society, which decided that only the hundred best things were to be saved, like the hundred best poems, and the hundred best songs, etc. In current Society, airtrain drivers don't need to know how to cook and factory workers don't need to know how to grow flowers; even the production of crops is handled so that only one set of workers knows how to plant, and another knows how to harvest, and another how to preserve the food—the idea being that everyone must work together and contribute to Society in order to survive.

These three examples are all more-or-less plausible dystopian societies arising from the ashes of vague disasters—you can see the logic that led these people to where they are today.

With Divergent, in the 104 pages the only background info I've gleaned so far is part of the Choosing Ceremony opening speech, where this guy says that decades ago, people realized that it wasn't politics or religion or racism or anything that caused war—it's because people have crappy personalities and are naturally inclined toward evil. So people divvied themselves up into factions according to what they believed was most evil: the Amity faction hates aggression, the Erudite hate ignorance, the Candor hate duplicity, the Abnegation hates selfishness, and the Dauntless hate cowardice.

If this were not a dystopian set in Chicago, I might be able to buy it—like if it were set in some similar-but-not-our-Earth setting, or was set like a thousand years in the future (granted that I'm not sure exactly when this is set, but their level of technology seems comparable to modern standards), I'd be less sneery. But I can't make the leap from our current society to a society like the one presented in Divergent without a whole lot more explanation.

Alz's Conclusion: I was very cynical throughout this entire excerpt, but the book did manage to pick up the pacing a little and raise both tension and stakes in the very last ten or so pages. I hope that the story will continue to pick up and that more social themes will be explored, and that there will be a boatload of worldbuilding to make the setting more plausible and palatable. While I wouldn't break down bookstore doors to buy Divergent the moment it hits the shelves, I'm interested enough that I'd maybe get it at my leisure from the library someday or steal it from Krispy if she happened to acquire it.


Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks for letting me know about the promo. I'd been looking forward to something edgy and thrilling with this book. It was the "society" that intrigued me most, actually, so it sucks that you didn't feel convinced by the telling.

Didn't read the spoilers yet, but I will be back after I read.

Thanks, Alz!

ali cross said...

Whoa. This makes me so, so sad. I was really looking forward to reading Divergent. But I'm 100% with you on the need for plausibility. Argh. :(

Lydia Kang said...

Thanks for the honest review. I always know I can come here for a no-holds-barred review. You rock.

Sophia Chang said...

Ah, the joys of blogging pseudonymously and without photos.

1) Thanks for the spoiler warning lol I definitely skipped that part of the review

2) OHHHHH is THAT what happened in Incarceron? Like I said, I was too distracted by the narrator's horrific faux British to understand what was happening in the book. This is the ONE TIME I actually read the spoilers b/c I couldn't figure anything out. And I still never got that. I just thought it was some dumb Shyamalan-esque arbitrary choice to live like Old Sturbridge Village.

Angela said...

How disappointing.

Golden Eagle said...

Thank you for the review! I hadn't heard of this book before--although, after reading this, I don't think I'll be checking out the promo. :P

Ina said...

I appreciate how honest and contextualized this review is. Dystopian societies most definitely need to seem plausible.

To Sophia the Writer:
I'm curious. Why do you feel like Catherine Fisher, who is Welsh, had a faux British narrative style in INCARCERON?

Alz said...

Tere – Once Beatrice made her choice and was dealing with what that meant, the story was more interesting and plausible because it was dealing with a slice of society and not society as a whole, and the details and social expectations were more plausible within that smaller scope. Which is why I only got more interested in the story in the last 15-20 pages.

ali – I think that if I could just suck it up and totally suspend my disbelief, the story would've been okay—not spectacular or remarkable, but okay. Unfortunately it's more likely that I'd grow a foot out of my forehead than be able to suspend my disbelief for a bizarrely implausible dystopian society.

Lydia – You're welcome. I read the promo pages and had mixed feelings (and Krispy reminded me that it was going to be Wednesday and we needed a post!) and so I wrote up a review. It helped me pinpoint the source of my mixed feelings as well as parse them out a bit.

Sophia – Yep, that's what happened in Incarceron. The back story wasn't very specific, but it was sufficient for the story and I liked it. There was setup and enough detail to give me a general idea without digging into a sordid history—which worked because this story wasn't about the past disaster, it was about the present.

Angela – I didn't have many expectations for Divergent, but there was enough going on at the end of the preview that I'd give the book a chance. (Though being the cynical soul that I am, it'd be a small chance from the library.)

The Golden Eagle – I'd heard of this book online and Krispy told me how the reason it's getting more attention is because the movie rights were bought before the book was even released or something like that. It made me raise a brow, especially after I read the promo, but I can sort of see why—the different factions dress very differently and act very differently, and the environment and settings are pretty detailed; I think these visual differences could translate very well to the silverscreen. But storywise? Hmm. I dunno yet.

Ina – I'm glad that other people agree on the need for dystopian plausibility. I don't need a lot of detail or an infodump of backstory, but I do need enough hints of what came before and how and why things became this way for me to swallow the setting. I suppose more details could come after the first 104 pages, but given how extreme and specific Divergent's society is, I feel like I needed a tad more info upfront.

Sherrie Petersen said...

People keep raving about this book without a lot of specifics so I was happy to see this detailed review, spoilers included :) Great job breaking it down and explaining what worked and what didn't.

Unknown said...

Ina- Thanks for stopping by! :)

I think Sophia's talking about the audiobook, not the actual writing itself. At first, when I read Sophia's comment, I was also like "Incarceron didn't sound faux British, and isn't the author from the UK?," but then I realized Sophia had mentioned before how she didn't like the narration style for Incarceron in the audiobook. It made it really confusing. :)

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Emy Shin said...

I read the ARC version of DIVERGENT, and did end up enjoying it. However, the book did start slow, and it was around the 100-page mark that the pacing picked up, the story flew more smoothly, and Tris became a more sympathetic heroine. I do agree with you, though, about the need for a more plausible dystopian society, and though there were more explanations later in DIVERGENT, it was still difficult to see how the society came about.