With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, published May 1, 2012
Plot: Set immediately after the close of its predecessor, Divergent, in a future-Chicago with crumbling but recognizable landmarks, Insurgent opens as tenuous peace has dissolved into cloaked warfare. The dystopian society is rigidly divided into five factions: Dauntless (brave warriors), Erudite (relentlessly intelligent researchers), Amity (peaceful famers), Abnegation (selfless governors), and Candor (fiercely honest but otherwise undefined), though citizens who fail to pass teenage exams end up as Factionless, living in the streets with little support. The Chicago setting is far enough in the future that society has crumbled and the population has dwindled, but not enough time has passed to completely alter the familiar landscape. At 16, Tris Prior elects to leave Abnegation, her parents’ faction, and enter Dauntless, proving herself in a myriad of physical trials while covering up that she’s actually Divergent, possessing personality traits that could put her into multiple factions—a more psychological and technological issue than Harry Potter’s inner turmoil over choosing a Hogwarts house.
At the end of Divergent, Erudite uses a mind-control serum to turn Tris Prior’s Dauntless compatriots into zombielike soldiers and assassinate nearly all the Abnegation government leaders. Dauntless is now divided between Erudite traitors and Dauntless rebels hiding in Candor’s headquarters at Merchandise Mart. The peaceful Amity cultivate crops and try to stay neutral in the battle, offering a safe haven to anyone who leaves their faction. Erudite seeks out the Divergent for reasons still shrouded in mystery. Tris continues to swing back and forth on her fledging romance with Tobias, her Dauntless mentor who goes by the nickname Four. Tobias’ abusive father Marcus, the only remaining Abnegation leader, enlists Tris to help uncover a secret her parents died to protect.
Series status? Insurgent is the second in a planned Divergent trilogy. Roth has taken to affectionately calling the upcoming third and final volume—tentatively scheduled for fall 2013—Detergent.
YA cliché? There are plenty, starting with Tris’ sudden decision to chop off some of her hair, as an outer representation of inner personality change. Tris is the prototypical female-badass lead, but with a shaky emotional core that comes out in private moments with her boyfriend. She has identity issues, mommy issues, and at times crippling self-doubt, even as her faction lauds her. The whole Divergent aspect of the society has the familiar ring of the Chosen One archetype, but Tris becomes less extraordinary as Roth reveals more characters—including Four—to be Divergent as well, uniting them as a group against the evil Erudite leader hell-bent on capturing them and putting them through the lab-rat ringer to discover what makes them immune to other forms of mind control.
Bad sign: Insurgent gets itself in trouble early by almost entirely rewriting events from the first book and giving them secret underpinnings only just revealed. Those reversals attempt to fashion illogical turns of events into a larger patchwork of double-dealing and conspiracy. In particular, Tris’ mother coming to her aid in a dire moment in the buildup to Divergent’s bloody climax takes on a completely arbitrary new meaning once Marcus reveals the Abnegation mission to cover up a stereotypically “dangerous” secret. Insurgent is also plagued by a few instances where the most interesting events occur away from Tris’ perspective, including the climactic discovery that forms the final cliffhanger. It’s supposed to be epically dramatic, but since Tris is nowhere near the events leading up to a public reveal, it induces more head-scratching confusion.
Good sign: Divergent’s relentless pace continues throughout Insurgent, except for the moments when infuriating romantic squabbling between Tris and Four brings that pace to a screeching halt. Hundreds of pages go by in a blur of gunfire, espionage, and less-ham-fisted proclamations about equality and peaceful civilization. Some of the best moments in Divergent featured fun, diverting adventures in Dauntless training—Tris scaling the Navy Pier Ferris wheel during a massive game of capture-the-flag, or zip-lining from the top of the Hancock building. Those moments are less frequent during Insurgent, but one spontaneous paintball fight between the remaining Dauntless does allow a brief reprieve for some catharsis amid all the dour conspiracy theories and knife-wielding.
Young-adult appropriate? The Tris/Four romance is incredibly tame, especially for teenagers locked inside a revolutionary war. The violence comes fast and heavy, with guns, knives, blood, and even straight-up executions. That makes the reluctance to go all-in on the romance typically suspect. Tris and Four do share a bed several times, though Tris’ narration skirts any explicit details.
Old-adult appropriate? Roth is subtly different from Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins when it comes to dispatching characters in an offhand fashion. Katniss Everdeen has a steely resolve and hardened attitude toward the cruelties of her world. Tris, on the other hand, is emotionally fragile, still shattered from killing a close friend who was mind-controlled at the end of Divergent. But that doesn’t stop Insurgent from piling up bodies even faster than the first book in the series. As the factions fight against each other, nameless and faceless citizens become innocent casualties—and in a few cases, right after they get just enough face time to progress past Redshirt status as characters.
Could use less: Twisting and turning. Every 50 pages or so features a revelation supposedly more earth-shattering than the last, as the series shifts slowly from post-apocalyptic survival story to a futuristic utopian conspiracy story. Even more frustrating than the political backstabbing and alliance-shifting is the pendulum back-and-forth of Tris and Four’s relationship. Four is only 18, but he acts like an even more petulant early teenager, chastising Tris for her brazen actions, then acting hurt when she doesn’t trust him enough to be completely open and honest when they’re alone together. He’s a stereotypical emotionally manipulative boyfriend, and though Tris separates from him for the rush to the finale, they squabble about so much insignificant junk that it’s nearly impossible to root for them. At least there isn’t a love triangle—but don’t count that out for the final installment.
Could use more: Explanation about the world. Roth spends so much time teasing mysteries about what’s outside the immediate area of the city without actually providing anything concrete that it threatens to undermine the constant barrage of violence and immediate danger for Tris and her friends within the walls. Those world-building details might not be important to everyone, but when the crux of the finale hinges on information about why the outside world is so shrouded in mystery, it brings attention to how little it has been set up. Next to nothing is known about what happened to the world outside this version of Chicago, which puts pressure on Roth to find not only a satisfying resolution for her characters, but also a compelling explanation for how this contrived society could exist in a world apparently mired in moral disarray.
For fans of: The Hunger Games. The easiest way to summarize Roth’s Divergent series is that it has a much narrower focus than Suzanne Collins’ massive hit series, while maintaining the attitude of fighting against a corrupt government. Instead of the sweeping nation of Panem, there’s an insular city-state secluded from a mysterious outside world about which information is scarce or nonexistent. Insurgent has shades of other dystopian societies—the Alliance from Serenity, and even M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village—but this is The Hunger Games’ little cousin, through and through.