Young-adult fiction is the Rodney Dangerfield of literature. It gets no respect in spite of its financial juggernaut status, but since sales statistics suggest it appeals to a wide spectrum of readers, the pre-packaged series keep coming like a zombie outbreak. Veronica Roth’s debut novel, Divergent, is the first of a new trilogy that feels like an occasionally thrilling, but mostly empty copy designed to easily sell to genre fans itching for another series to pick up after devouring The Hunger Games.
Set in a dystopian future Chicago where the Hancock Building is abandoned, Lake Michigan has dried into a giant marsh, yet the Bean is still unscathed, 16-year-old Beatrice (who changes her name to Tris, echoing Katniss from Hunger Games) lives in a society divided into five “factions”: Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave)—a rigid division that rings like a more thesaurus-heavy version of the Harry Potter Hogwarts houses. People are born into one of the factions and stay there until age 16, when they choose the faction they’ll join for the rest of their lives. Tris comes from Abnegation, the gray-clothed, God-fearing, selfless group responsible for running the government, but as the story requires, she doesn’t stay there. She chooses Dauntless, the tattooed and pierced tribe living in a giant cave and managing a trial-by-fire training program. As is typical in dystopian stories, Tris holds a secret that could bring her society to its knees, or something to that effect. To be as blunt as Tris’ descriptions of her world, Divergent is bleak; the “adult” side of the genre shows when Roth kills off characters without letting her characters reflect or mourn, especially in the hurried last 50 pages.
The strongest parts of Roth’s debut blend the elevated drama of teenage decision-making with relentlessly paced action. Several passages make ham-fisted but salient points about a society founded on admirable ideals that strays from those methods when they become difficult to follow, but even those sections feel like echoes of other influential series. It doesn’t help that the genre-required romantic elements bring the pace to a screeching halt. Along the way it’s easy to name-check commercially successful series as their elements pass through this one—Stephenie Meyer here, Phillip Pullman there—all shaken up and presented as something that never feels new. Divergent plays right into the zeitgeist of dystopian young-adult novels, yet it lacks any kind of originality to put it alongside or above any previous series. This debut ultimately contains all the excitement of a checklist.