Turns out this is the first book of a trilogy. I finally got around to ordering a boxed set of the hardcovers for $25 -- YA titles have a tendency to be price pointed lower than more mainstream books, and I plowed through Insurgent and Allegiant in a day each.
How did I not know of these books? Well, it took awhile for me to hear of The Hunger Games or Uglies series. The sad fact is that YA isn't covered as well, despite its enormous popularity. And dammit, just as teens can read "real" books, there is nothing wrong with adults reading young adult books. Indeed, I've heard from a number of people that they find YA more interesting than more mainstream genre books.
As for the whole New York Times bestseller part, there was a time when I read through the fiction and nonfiction lists every week in the Sunday paper. But after they decided to ghetto-ize YA so that they could remove Harry Potter from the ranks of REAL literature, I stopped.
And somehow I didn't hear of the amazing first novels by a young 22-year-old woman writer. Surely they were mentioned in the pages of LOCUS, but they apparently didn't register.
And... none of my Physics students brought Divergent in as a potential Topic 1 Science Literacy Paper book. Well, until this semester, after I'd read Divergent and since the student had also already read Divergent, I told them to read Insurgent and get back to me. (The paper works better if you haven't read the book before, so you can read with a more critical eye.)
But I'm not the only one. Divergent the movie was greenlit before the novel came out, so they snuck into a hit property.
Divergent / Veronica Roth (2011)
Dystopian, I've already mentioned. Like The Hunger Games, this is one of those How The Hell Did This Get Started things. A wrecked Chicago, still connected by the El -- the elevated train system. A population divided into five factions -- each with a different philosophy and emphasis. But starting at age 16, everyone gets to choose their own faction. You know what age Beatrice is. And it really is a choice -- no helicoptoring parents choosing for you. If only college were like this.
Beatrice was raised in Abnegation (The Selfless), a faction dedicated to serve others and to lead, since they don't aspire to. Of course the Choosing isn't done blindly. You are tested in a VR like mind reading machine, where you are given simulations and the tester can see what you see. Beatrice turns out to be Divergent -- That Which Is Not Talked About -- because tests for an affinity for more than two factions. She chooses Dauntless (The Fearless) and becomes Tris, while her brother goes Erudite (The Intelligent). Neither outcome has been expected by their parents.
There is a fascinating and casual mix of ultra high tech and the mundane low tech. It is a world that is both familiar and damned difficult to imagine surviving in.
Dauntless initiation is thorough, rapid and brutal. And Tris has to grow up fast.
And then things get really complicated. It is very clear that everything is not as it seems.
One of the great failures of SF, and I'm looking at you Star Trek, is the bad idea of homogeneous cultures, with maybe one deviant character. Whole planets all dressed alike with the same mindset. In the hands of a lesser writer, Divergent could easily fall into that pattern, even with five homogeneous factions. But they aren't just five factions. They are five factions made up of individuals and even if you still want to make them into a box of chocolates all the same, the individuals in a faction can come from any of the five, so there's a box of assorted chocolates which has some diversity and differing longitudinal slices. You may belong to Dauntless now, but you bring your old faction with you.
It's a clever way to create a character blender.
I have heard people complain that Katniss in The Hunger Games merely reacts to each situation. That she responds, but doesn't create the chaos. Tris is much more headstrong. This series is about choice and by gum, Tris chooses. Rapidly and on the fly.
And the romance elements feel real here -- they are young, inexperienced and constantly being interrupted. Complicated, just like real life.
Insurgent / Veronica Roth (2012)
There is a real Luke I Am Your Father moment, where we really have to start questioning things. Like the new FOX TV show Almost Human, there is a sort of a wall and an outside to the city that we -- including Tris and her friends -- know nothing about.
Also, there aren't just five factions. It's five factions and the factionless -- those who washed out of their chosen faction's initiation. It's a caste system. And by being unfair, it's not only realistic, but drives conflict. And hence story.
It's another theme to this series. Trust, lies, secrets, forgiveness. The unforgivable.
If things fell apart in Divergent, they REALLY fall apart in Insurgent.
Allegiant / Veronica Roth (2013)
If you build it, they will come. If they build it, it will fall.
Try to break the back of the faction system and you'll give rise to a new faction.
There is a sense that this is like the anime The Big O, where an entire population has lost its memory, but now seems to be on a path to repeat the disaster that got them there.
If you know Chicago, there is a richer and deeper enjoyment to this series. The first book features the Hancock Tower, the second the sprawling Merchandise Mart. And Allegiant partly takes place in O'Hare.
This third book is structured differently. With the fractured storyline, Roth switches from one POV character to two. It changes things, adds in a tension as you want to scream some sense at these people and crack their heads together. Complications abound.
I am not about to post spoliers here, but you may hear rumors that some people HATE the ending. Do not let that deter you. It is what it is. Personally, I think it ends on the right note. Ultimately this is a story about choice -- who gets to choose, why you choose and living with the consequences. And most emphatically, who does NOT get to choose. A parable for certain real life political persuasions to consider...
The boxed set includes a booklet The World of Veronica Roth's Divergent Series. Part of it is lightweight fare, interviews and What Faction Are You Quiz straight out of Facebook, I imagine. But the real value for me is the five faction manifestos. We gets bits and pieces of these in the books, but they stand in stark contrast to each other when all spelled out. Besides the philosophy of the factions, each of them is written in a style consistent with their philosophy and worldview. One is written in parable form. They even include additions and deletions and alternative texts. Just as if they were real living documents. Well played.
The booklet appears to have written for Insurgent, so there are no ruinous spoilers for the results. I read it after the third book, but if you get the boxed set, you could read it anytime after the first book, in my estimation.
This a refreshing and packed series -- not just action, but characters and philosophy, too.
Divergent The movie opens on Friday 21 March 2014. And La Kate is delighted to be playing the heavy.