Divergent Trilogy – Review

Over the years I’ve tried to read books that are popular with my students on campus, from The Hunger Games to The Fault in Our Stars.  This year it seems like all of my students, mostly female though a few males, are reading Divergent.  I wanted to be able to enter the conversation so I read them.

The first book, Divergent, starts in the classic “not too distant future” where things have not gone well.  Unlike other dystopian novels this one centers on and stays within the confines of Chicago.  Of course, none of the characters call it that, they simply refer to it as the city.  In this city the entire society is grouped into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation and Candor.  Each faction values one particular character trait.  Children are born and raised in a faction but upon their 16th birthday they must choose which faction to be in for the rest of their lives.

There is a sixth group of people, the factionless, who are not part of any faction.  They serve as the untouchables, the lowest caste, in the story.  If you fail out of initiation to your faction you end up here.

It is easy to see why this book is popular – it has so many elements of other recent bestsellers as to wonder if there is a formula out there that all these authors have access to.  We get the sorting hat ceremony and grouping with like-minded people (Harry Potter) set in the dystopian future world where a young heroine must fight against all odds to some sort of victory (The Hunger Games)  In preparation for this we see lots of training for war (Ender’s Game).  The heroine here is Tris.  She grew up in the self-denying Abnegation faction only to turn to the wreckless warrior Dauntless faction.  We learn early on that Tris is “Divergent” which means she possesses faculties of more than one faction.  In other words, she does not fit societies desired mold and this makes her a threat.

I enjoyed Divergent much more then the other two books in the series.  Upon reflection there were some red-flags there that point to larger problems in the second two books, but overall I found it an exciting and fun read.

For me, the problems came right away in book two.  By problems I mean plot-holes large enough to drive a truck through.  First of all, the climax of the first book comes when the Erudite (smart people) faction injects all the Dauntless with a serum, turning them into mindless, obedient robots.  The Erudite then begin to use the Dauntless to murder all the Abnegation.  Thankfully Divergent folks are immune to such serum so Tris, and the love of her life Four (yes, that’s his real name), save the day and stop the killing.  In the second book we discover that half the Dauntless have joined the Erudite, leading to a split in the faction.

No explanation is given as to why they would do this.  And it defies understanding.  You are brainwashed, forced to murder people, come out of the brainwashing and decide to join those guys?  The story had presented maybe a few Dauntless members who would go for joining Erudite, but having half was simply unbelievable.

Another huge plot hole comes when we find out Uriah, a member of Dauntless and friend of Tris, is also Divergent.  Okay, so where was he at the end of book one?  If he is Divergent, he wouldn’t have been under the serum.  This would not be a plot hole if he simply explained where he was (“So all my friends were killing people and I tried to stop them but, gee-whiz Tris, you and Four stopped them first!“).  No explanation is ever given.

There are other problems: who is keeping the trains running as society falls apart?  What exactly does Candor, a people who always tell the truth, do in society?  Are they all lawyers, and if so, how has a society with 1/5 lawyers even survived this long?

I found the third book a bit better then the second if for no other reason then they leave the city, thus expanding the world and giving us the opportunity to see what else is going on.  It turns out Chicago is a huge social experiment in the hopes of creating genetically pure people to then reinvigorate society.  How exactly this works is not really explained other than some vague talk of genes, but at least we find out what is out there.  Of course, therein is the problem with this book.  It takes us in a whole new direction from previous books with little explanation and introduces us to new characters who are not developed enough for us to care whether they live or die.

Further, the gaping plotholes return.  Tris and her friends get ahold of some memory serum which they let loose on all the people at O’Hare airport (headquarters of the people running the Chicago experiment).  The goal is to wipe their memories so they won’t destroy Chicago, and all the people in it.  Destroying their memories will make them forget they care about genetic purity.  But it won’t stop the people above them, the US government, from not caring.  There is talk of other cities and other experiments and some sort of national government, so why would destroying only one location help much?  Couldn’t the government just send in another team and get the work back on track?

Overall, I can see why this series is popular and I enjoyed the first book but the second two were disappointing.  I hope if any of my students read this they do not hate me.

Divergent – 3 out of 5 stars

Insurgent – 2 out of 5 stars

Allegientt – 2 out of 5 stars.

The MaddAddam Trilogy – Dystopia for Grown Ups

Before I begin this review, let me address my young adult friends for a minute.  A few years ago you read The Hunger Games and loved it.  I enjoyed the trilogy too, even though the very end was a bit disappointing.  Then you went looking for more dystopia so you moved on to Divergent.  I am reading those books right now.  Soon you’ll be wanting to move on to the next big thing.  How about you move on to something a bit more grown-up?

Margaret Atwood first did this whole dystopian thing while most fans of Divergent and The Hunger Games were in diapers, if not even born yet at all.  Her book The Handmaid’s Tale was chilling and fantastic.  More recently, Atwood has published her own dystopian trilogy (I use the word dystopia but I believe she prefers “speculative fiction”) : Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam.

I’ll say it again – if you want to move on from “young adult” dystopia to mature, adult stories, then these are the books you need to read.

Oryx and Crake tells the story of a world in our not-too-distant future, a world filled with genetically modified animals and other scientific creations that (supposedly) make our life better.  It is a world the reader can imagine living in.  The protagonist of the book, Jimmy, grows up in this world.  Right from the start we know something went wrong though, as Jimmy tells his story through flashbacks.  And the  “present day” from which he tells the flashbacks has him living in the woods near a beach where he may be the only human left on the planet.  There are other intelligent creatures though, as near him lives a new human-ish creature known as the “Crakers” because they were created by Crake.  This book is Jimmy’s telling of his friendship with Crake, his infatuation with Oryx, and how the world as we know it became that future dysopian world so popular in much recent fiction.

But there are no factions or battles to the death here.  There is simply a wasteland filled with pigs made intelligent by possessing human brain tissue, other animals created in labs and decaying buildings of a once great civilization.  The story here is all the more chilling because it is so believable, we can imagine this world (or at least, where the story starts) as coming to be.

The second book, The Year of the Flood, goes over much the same ground as the first book, but from the perspective of two other characters, Ren and Toby.  In the initial book we see the world from the perspective of Jimmy and Crake, both of whom live at or near the top of society.  Ren and Toby live on the fringes of the same society.  This book is frustrating and a bit confusing at times as now there are two characters living in the present dystopia and telling stories through flashback whereas in the first book it was just Jimmy.  It is also builds on religious themes just touched on in the first book as it delves deeply into the community named “God’s Gardeners.”  In a world where everything is manufactured in a lab and modified and enhanced, groups such as the Gardeners rise up to go back to a simpler day.

By the end of book two we meet up with Jimmy and the end of book one and the story begins to move forward.  That brings us to book three, MaddAddam, where Toby remains central along with Zeb, a character we saw a lot of in book two.  Again there are many flashbacks as we get a lot of Zeb’s backstory which fills in more of the story of Crake and the God’s Gardeners.  We also get a lot more speculation on what it looks like when a religion is created, as the Crakers continually ask to learn more about their maker, the great Crake, and through the stories told them by Jimmy and Toby we see a whole mythology grow.  I’m not sure if I found the conclusion to the book satisfying and it left many questions unanswered, but it is hopeful and memorable.

These books are highly recommended both as gripping stories and as provoking thought on religion.

Oryx and Crake – 4/5 stars

The Year of the Flood – 3.5/5 stars

Maddaddam – 4/5 stars