As the newly minted writer of a young adult novel (or middle readers’ novel … whatever), I’ve been doing a lot more reading in the YA genre of late. I’ve been particularly fascinated and encouraged by the relatively new trend of dystopian scif-fi YA novels featuring female protagonists. I was briefly obsessed with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy. At first, I feared the books would be a tame rip-off of Battle Royale, and while they are derivative of the Japanese novel by Koushun Takami and film, they’re still very compelling and well-written.
Matched by Ally Condie is another popular YA title that fits in this trend. The latest of this bunch is Divergent by Veronica Roth. As soon as I read the synopsis and heard the comparisons to The Hunger Games, I was all over this book. Here’s what the good folks at HarperCollins Canada say about Divergent (and they are good folks; I know a bunch of them):
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.
Roth (who is twenty-two or something disgustingly young) was in Toronto last month in support of the novel. Tragically, I was overseeing some other book event across town. But luckily, I also have amazing friends. At the book event, Roth apparently noted aloud that someone should set a dystopian story in Toronto. Two of my amazing friends from the publishing world informed her of my comic, Quarter-Life Crisis, and thanks to my good friends at HarperCollins, a copy of that book and an advance reading copy of The Dead Kid Detective Agency are winging their way to Ms. Veronica Roth. Maybe one day we’ll learn what she thinks of my Torontonian dystopia.
But less about my vanity, more about Divergent: Roth is an extremely talented writer. Just thinking of how much better a writer she is than I am and how much better she’ll be when she reaches my advanced age turns my stomach with jealousy. And what a killer concept she has! Factions devoted to five virtues, children splitting from parents, families rent asunder, all in a dystopian future Chicago. This is pure fiction gold, friends!
Furthermore, I appreciated how immensely badass our heroine, ‘Tris’ Prior is. Scratch that, I appreciated how badass the entire book is. Kids get stabbed in the face, dangled over waterfalls, shot in the head. Roth pulls no punches in her dystopian vision. And while the novel (the first of a planned trilogy) is essentially a very compelling training montage, it nicely builds character dynamics, shows off Tris’s strong character and constructs a strong architecture and rich back story for the future books.
As much as I like it, the novel is not without its faults. For one, the end feels extremely rushed. Once the training ends, what follows is crammed into about 60 pages of thrilling action. Action is the word: the final act of the book has a higher body count than the three Robocop movies put together. That’s usually not a problem, but the pacing and placement of all the gunplay (the book is a bit gun-crazy) and killing feels off. And as badass as Tris may be, the novel suffers from a coating of Twilight glaze. Tris’s are-they-aren’t-they romance with her instructor was probably more intended for 14-year-olds than 30-year-olds, so I feel bad slagging it, but it grew a bit tiresome. At one point, the instructor, Four (yes, that’s his name), brushes his fingers across Tris’s neck, and I had to flip back to make sure I understood the significance. Is this a big deal? Has he touched her neck before? I know he patted her back once before and that set her a-tingle, but I think the neck is new. I couldn’t handle it.
And I would have liked to see more of the Amity and Candor factions; they seemed to get short shrift, which is too bad. They seemed like two of the more fascinating factions. Perhaps the future books will delve into these groups more. Despite my misgivings (which I may or may not have just ranted about), I am looking forward to the second installment, which (Roth just revealed on her blog) will be called Insurgent.