Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Roger Ebert famously said that "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it." In other words, the subject matter itself isn't the core, it is how that subject material is treated. In the same vein, you can have a bunch of books that all share certain similarities, and could accuse them of being lazy (and sometimes that's the case), but I prefer to look at the genre and see how the person has used the conventions of that genre. Well? Poorly? Paint-by-numbers?

(This is putting aside the immense pleasures of the truly original - but for something to stand out as truly original, there has to be a lot which is not.)

So thinking about this review led me into a digression on this field of YA dystopian fiction. It's a mini-genre that has been around for a long time, but there's been an explosion of material recently, perhaps spurred by the immense success of the Hunger Games. And YA dystopias are distinctly different from other dystopian worlds.

I make no claim to be an expert in YA dystopias, but I have read a few, and here are some tropes which stick out to me:

1) There is a public ritual in which people are picked/chosen/opt into something, and this marks the passage, more or less, to an adult life.

Suzanne Collins altered this in interesting ways with the Reaping, which has nothing to do with talent, or aptitude, or anything except cruelty. In the Pretties universe, what happens, happens to everyone, unless you buck the system and opt out.

But in far more YA dystopias, this is the moment when you pick, right then, when you're 15 or 16, pick irrevocably, your future life. This seems to be the most distinct thing about a lot of YA dystopiana - a reflection of worrying about what you're going to do with your life, and the feeling that if you make the wrong decision, you're screwed. Forever.

2) Society is divided into different groups, each of which fulfills a different function.

The Districts in The Hunger Games, (these one are going back a ways, as I probably know better the dystopiana from the time I was a teen than I do the present-day stuff), the class structure of Monica Hughes' The Devil on My Back, the aptitude structure of the companion book, Dream Catcher, the genetic streaming of Carol Matas' The DNA Dimension.

3) A group exists outside of this structure - those who have run away, escaped, been relegated to slavery. Their existence helps the protagonist (in most of the books I'm familiar with, teenage girls) realize that something is deeply wrong with the way society is constructed, that life is controlled by forces that want to suppress individuality and rebellion.

4) The main character doesn't quite fit in, whether or not they realize it. Or maybe they're forced to a painful awakening.

Not all the books that come to mind fit this mold exactly, but these are common themes.

Which leads me to Divergent, which I really did enjoy. It isn't earth shattering, but it's a good entry into this genre.

The ritual of choosing a "Faction" is preceded by an aptitude test that tells you what group you should belong to, but you do get to choose from between the five Factions, each one devoted to a specific virtue.

Each faction performs a different function, from the selfless service in government of the Abnegation, to the ruthless honesty and criticism of Candor, the pursuit of knowledge by Erudite, the love and togetherness of Amity, and the courage and defense of the city by the Dauntless. (Yes, it does annoy me that the names of the factions don't harmonize grammatically.)

There are the factionless, the group of workers who didn't succeed in the faction they chose, and now live lives of drudgery, hunger and poverty. And there are also the Divergent, who don't fit neatly into these five categories, and must hide that about themselves.

The main character, Beatrice, who renames herself Tris after leaving her old faction to join the Dauntless, is one such person. This makes her journeys amongst the Dauntless more perilous, as she attempts to survive the initiation without letting any sign of her Divergence show. (Also, of course, while falling in love, but it wasn't insta-love, so it gets a pass. Teenage girls are allowed to fall desperately in love, it just bothers me when it's Eternal and Forever before a word is even spoken.)

I liked the character of Tris as well - she's not always likeable, she makes decisions that differ from many you see young female protagonists make. These attributes actually endeared her to me.

Her Divergence helps her become aware of how deeply wrong things are in this city, and small dropped details help flesh out a world that is even more ominous than Tris actively realizes, including the minor revelation the locks on the city walls are on the outside, to keep people in.

By the end of the first book, Tris has taken part in some pretty damned big happenings, and the faction system at least partly lies in ruins. I look forward to seeing what happens next, and hope it's as interesting as this was.

This book didn't reinvent the wheel, but it is a solid entry, the writing served the story, and it explored the tropes of YA dystopiana in interesting ways.

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