I am not a published author. Well, I mean, not a Real Live Published Author With a Book and a Book Tour and Invitations to Talk Shows and a Movie Deal and All That Jazz. So my first inclination is to say something apologetic, like “maybe it’s too much to ask”, or “it’s unfair of me to have expectations”, but then I think about people like J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling and Scott Westerfeld, and … and I get all irritated all over again, because … I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
So I just finished reading (literally–like, I turned the last page about 40 minutes ago) the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. The movie version of the first book is coming out sometime soonish, and I figured it’d be a good idea to have read the series before I go see the movie; and besides, I’d read the first book, Divergent, a coupla years ago and thought it was just terrific–so re-reading it and then finishing off the rest of ’em didn’t sound like such a terrible fate.
So I pulled my copy of Divergent back off the shelf, queued up my copy of Insurgent, the sequel (more on that in a minute), and picked up a copy of Allegiant so I’d have the entire trilogy ready to roll.
And y’know, Divergent was every bit as good as it was the first time through. It’s dystopian and quasi post-Apocalyptic YA (if you’ve read the trilogy, you’ll get hung on that description, but for those who are new, let’s just leave it. No spoilers, por favor), which means it’s right up my alley; and it features a female protagonist who is more or less strong and a love interest who is definitely hawt and it gives you the chance to spend some time in self-reflection: basically, society has been divided into five factions, each with a very strong primary characteristic, and as you’re reading, I’m reasonably sure it’s impossible not to play “Which faction would I belong to?” with yourself. (Pretty sure I’m an Abnegation-Amity hybrid, btw.) There is action and adventure and self-discovery and drama and confusion and … well, I mean, it’s post-Apocalyptic dystopian YA, set against the ruins of what used to be Chicago. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be.
So I scarfed Divergent down, swooned at the appropriate moments, got all fired up in my blood at the appropriate moments, hurtled through to the end of the book, and took a running start at Insurgent.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’d tried reading Insurgent before, when it first came out. I only made it about halfway through that time before it bored me right out of its pages, but this time I had a full head of steam and a renewed sense of determination–I was going to read this book, by god, because there’s a whole other book after it, and I wanted to say I’d read the entire trilogy.
But here’s the thing about Insurgent: it suffers from Second Book in the Trilogy syndrome. Basically, there are a lot of characters that got introduced in the first book, and there’s this grand story arc that’s unfolding, and all those characters from Book 1 are going to have to go waaaaaay over there to Book 3, and so Book 2 is pretty much just a lot of running around, going from place to place, filling in some backstory…y’know, the daily stuff. It’s the brown bag lunch of the book workday. It’s a vehicle to get us from the Riveting Introduction to the Story to the Epic and Astonishing Conclusion, and it has all the excitement one expects to find in the aforementioned brown bag lunch–a sandwich, an orange, some chips or carrot sticks or something, a cookie if you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic, and every once in a while some leftovers just to shake things up. It’s just…there. Doing its job. Tra-la, tra-la.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se; the characters really do have to get from Point A to Point B, and there aren’t a lot of ways for them to get there. So voila, Insurgent, truckin’ along and doing its job. Good work, Insurgent.
So I plodded through Insurgent, gave it a skritch on the head for being a good workhorse, and hopped into Allegiant, all excited for the big payoff that you get when you’ve just finished a run-of-the-mill Second Book in the Series. The third book is your reward, y’know, the big finish the author saved all her strength to provide.
Here’s the thing. If you’re going to set me up for a big finish–and make it take roughly 1100 pages (across two books) for me to get there–it needs to be a good, solid Big Finish. I want you to have thought it all the way out. I want you to know where the story is going, and how we’re going to get there. I want you to tie up all the loose ends (seriously, though, did we ever find out anything about Matthew’s supervisor?). And for the love of all that is holy, I want you to know your characters, preferably better than I do.
For Allegiant, Roth apparently lost her mind briefly and decided that we should shift suddenly from having one narrator to having two–but did not go so far as to decide that they needed to have different voices, or be distinguishable in any way whatsoever except whose name is at the head of the chapter (doubly awesome since they’re really very different people, in theory). She apparently decided that…well, she decided a lot of things I can’t really talk about, because spoilers, but I can say that she makes some plot choices that make me think that she sat down, made a list of her favorite authors, and said “I’m going to make my book do all the things they do in their books!”. She gave characters radical personality changes, had people run around in little circles doing god-only-knows-what for reasons she never fully explained, and generally just seemed to lose control of the whole thing and walk away to let it sort itself out.
This, kids, was not exactly what I was dreaming of when I sat down to read these books.
But the most frustrating thing for me was this: every so often, I’d run across a snippet of text that felt for all the world like it had been cut directly from…I dunno, Roth’s personal manifesto or blog or diary or something. Things neither of our narrators would think in the way she phrased them, bits of dialogue that I could not for a second imagine a real person saying unless that character was a college professor (hint: none of the characters are college professors), tidbits that just kinda screamed “please highlight me and use me as a thesis statement for your paper about this book! You know you want to!”. Basically it ended up feeling, after the third or fourth of these oh-so-highlightable moments, like the last 1100 pages of novel had all been an elaborate setup for me to get to Roth’s personal credo…and while I grant that it’s her novel and she can write whatever she wants to in it, that’s a pretty duplicitous trick.
So here’s the takeaway for the whole thing: J.R.R. Tolkien successfully wrote a whole series of books. J.K. Rowling did it. Scott Westerfeld did it with his Uglies series, though (let’s be honest) Extras was a little superfluous. So why for the love of all that is holy do people have such trouble writing a series that doesn’t start strong and then fall all to pieces? Seriously, folks. We’re better than this. I have faith.
TL;DR: Divergent is a great book. Really, really good stuff. Unfortunately, it’s got just enough of a cliffhanger ending to make you think you need to read the other two. Trust me: your time would be better served by hunting down spoilers online, finding out how the plot plays out, and going off to read something else.
Rating: 5/10 Muddy Hoofprints for the series as a whole, because I like the world and some of the characters, and because Divergent really was quite good. 8/10 for Divergent individually, 6/10 for Insurgent, and 4/10 for Allegiant which was that odd mix of “not good” and “aggressively irritating” that made it all but unreadable. Harrumph.