Divergent‘s protagonist is a girl more capable than she realizes, more attractive than she hopes and in more danger than she than she fully fathoms. We have seen these traits and situations before in Claire (City of Bones), Lena (Beautiful Creatures), Bella (Twilight) and Katniss (Hunger Games). Is this all just copycat and lack of originality? I don’t believe so. These are great traits and good narrative situations. We like our heroes and heroines to be humble yet capable. We are encouraged that those who seem to struggle with similar issues to us prove able to withstand power, evil and disappointment. All of these stories are written by women; it may be that they want to create a great and encouraging role model for girls. It wasn’t that long ago that female teen protagonists were pretty rare. Of course, this isn’t the exclusive province of women writers; Juliette from Hugh Howey’s Wool shares similar traits. Whether this was an explicit desire or an organic result of where these women are in their lives, I don’t know. I do know that it makes for an endearing character and interesting story as long it is fresh, covers new ground and done well. That’s the case with Divergent. There is a reason we see the theme of “us against the world”; at times in our lives, it’s nearly universally felt. So, Ms. Roth (as well as the aforementioned authors) deal with universal themes; it shouldn’t surprise us that there are shared qualities among them. (For any interested in the movie review, it here.)
A couple of my teenage boys were a little skeptical about Divergent, thinking it was an “also ran” especially with the movie posters and trailers up (“Isn’t that just an urban Katniss in the black garb?”). Despite their skepticism, the boys liked the book. The more they read, the more they loved it. Why? It’s a great story. Narrative rules the day. Moreover, these aren’t generic characters. Tris, like many her age, feel different, as if she doesn’t fit in. In her case, this is an accurate assessment. She is not alone in this, but certainly feels alone in her community. Tris has her own traits: she’s competitive without being aggressive; she loves action but not violence. She isn’t fully confident but much of this stems from her not fully knowing or controlling her abilities. Tobias (Four) has his own peculiarities; while he is reminiscent of Faramir (pushing against the what is bad in his world while nobly working within it), his way of managing his challenges is his own.
There is yet another element that is reminiscent of another series: the caste system of factions: Abnegation (Gryffindor), Amity (Hufflepuff), Candor (Gryffindor) Dauntless (Slytherin) and Erudite (Ravenclaw). Copycat! Not so much; we’ve had caste systems in Wool and many other books partly because we’ve had them in the real world. Whether you look at the European guild system from the middle ages on, the college system within British universities or the Indian caste system; birth and vocation set you together with some and apart from others. It is ludicrous to think that history, books read and the culture around us won’t impact what we create, copyright law not withstanding. As I wrote in Originality and the work of those who have led the way, creative work has always built on and used elements of prior work. The real question is that is this done in an original way and done well as is the case with Divergent. Once again, the story rules.
I discuss other difference below, but they contain spoilers so they are set at the end.
If we reflect on the elements that make a book: character and their relationships, phrasing (writing), narrative (story line) and setting (or world), we see that Ms. Roth has created a richly detailed and interesting setting in which full-blooded characters run into realistic challenges and she does so with solid writing. A great way to see this is how Ms. Roth depicts the Divergent world’s Faction system; she rarely uses monologue to give backstory or explanatory speeches. Rather we’re introduced to the Faction system through Tris’s eyes and her not fitting in. We develop a deeper understanding of the system and how it’s used as a method of control (Wool anyone?) as we see the story develop. We see how the Faction system effects relationships and characters. We see how it bonds Tris and Tobias even as it pushes others apart. So the full impact of the Faction system is revealed over time through the narrative even as it drives the narrative. Really well done. This is so much better than a long description from a narrator or character(s) and one of the reasons why we like Divergent and Ms. Roth’s writing. I also appreciate that while the world Ms. Roth creates has post-apocalyptic kinds of problems, it is not an utterly dark, depressing dystopia; I’ve had enough of those for awhile.
I switched between the Kindle version and the Audible (thanks Whispersync for Voice for making this easy) which was narrated by Emma Galvin. Ms. Galvin narrates with clarity, defining each character with voice inflection and pacing. Her voice seems to embody Tris even as she handles all of the characters, including Eric, Peter and Tobias, well. If you love audiobooks, you’ll love this narration. Nicely done Ms. Galvin.
Another distinguishing feature of this novel is the root problem and the view of its solution. There are a number of works that start with the premise that we’ve had World War III, barely survived as a species and have massive central governments trying to control people to fix things, some of which are: Equilibrium (movie), Hunger Games (book,movie) and Eylisium (movie). In most of the movies or books, freedom is the goal for its own sake. Divergent differs somewhat; it is OK with central control via the faction system until Erudite tries to take control and kill everyone. It is defense. There is value seen in ordered community, but there are balances to be made. Hunger Games series also has a slightly different take in that the rebellion government is not all it’s cracked up to be. In both cases, I think there is recognition that government, even alternate good guy government, can’t solve the underlying problem of the human condition: we are fallen sinners. Now, neither point out the solution, namely the saving work of Jesus Christ; that in trusting in him we begin to be renewed that is fully consummated at His return:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Humans cannot be controlled successfully by government; countries in the former Iron Curtain would suggest this (as would Putin’s Russia). Only a change in our nature, the root cause of the evils that ensue, will bring about true change and that can only be brought about by God.
Genuine examination of an issue (or set of issues) without defaulting to popular answers is a wonderful trait in Divergent. Another example is that, while Dauntless is the tool of oppression and killing; it’s the Erudite who initiate and guide the coup. Dauntless are not seen as inherently evil while Erudite or Candor being seen as inherently good. Dauntless is not Slytherin.
I suspect that the movie will be good, especially since the actors portraying the main characters are good experienced actors without being superstars. That gives me hope that they’ll steer a bit closer to the book as opposed to a vehicle for a star. As nearly always, the book will be better and I heartily recommend it for your reading whether you fit the YA profile or not.
UPDATE: The movie was really good; the review is here.