May 2012: This was my second time through Divergent, and it remains the only post-Hunger Games YA dystopian novel to even come close to matching my excitement for that series. I almost didn't re-read in preparation for the sequel, but I knew that I liked it so much the first time that I'd be asking for trouble jumping into #2 without refreshing my memory. (Sidenote: Getting old sucks. My mind used to be a steel trap for book plots -- they went in and they didn't come out. But as I get older, I have less and less room up there or something. The ole hard drive is filling up. It sucks.)
Divergent follows Beatrice "Tris" Prior through a future version of Chicago (no word yet on how far in the future, although I expect that to come in book 3) where society has split into five factions: the Abnegation (whose members value selflessness), the Erudite (who value intelligence), the Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), and the Dauntless (bravery). When a citizen comes of age, they take an aptitude test that determines which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives. Switching factions nearly always means leaving your family behind.
Tris, who has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family, tests as Divergent -- possibly fitting into more than one faction -- but her test results are kept secret by her proctor. Being Divergent is dangerous, although Tris isn't really sure what it means. The story really starts when Tris decides to switch factions: to the Dauntless, whom she has always admired from afar, as they do crazy things like jumping off of trains and buildings and such all the time (and because their wild and seemingly carefree lifestyle is a huge contrast to Tris's buttoned up existence in Abnegation). As she goes through Dauntless initiation, she has to simultaneously navigate the obstacles thrown at her by her instructors, and she's also got to stay on top of the complex social politics of the Dauntless initiates, because if you fail at Dauntless initiation, you're cast out of the faction system and become one of the dreaded factionless. On top of all that, she has to somehow keep her Divergent nature a secret, even though it quickly shoots her to the top of the rankings. It gets violent and rather terrifying, and it's one of the reasons the book reads so fast.
The other reason is that Veronica Roth -- who began writing this series when she should have been paying attention during her college lectures -- is actually a good writer. She has a clear instinct for how to write believable, flawed characters, she's structured her story so that it never lets up and hits you in all the right emotional places, and the world she's created (while slightly derivative) isn't just there to serve those characters and get them into cliched situations -- it's a world created with a purpose. It has thematic backbone. There's no love triangle in Divergent, but there is a love story, and it's a good one. Both parties are fully fleshed out, and there's more on their minds than romance. If YA dystopias are your thing, check this series out, and even if they're not, you still might want to check it out. If you don't like it, you can come back here and punch me in the face. I promise I won't mind.
September 2011: This is the first post-Hunger Games novel I've read that I feel actually lives up to its premise. Honestly, if this book hadn't been written in first person present tense (MY MORTAL ENEMY), I would probably have given it five stars. Divergent has some really great characters, great world-building, great themes, and most importantly, Divergent (like The Hunger Games before it) has depth. Substance. I absolutely flew through all 487 pages of it.Through the first twenty pages or so, it seemed like Roth's book was going to fall into the same trap every other dystopian YA romance has, where it is almost painfully obvious that a nonsensical world has been created (one dystopian future being very much like another, at the end of the day) almost solely for the purpose of making the heroine seem special, or worse, providing the heroine with an opportunity to fall wonderfully and tragically in love. I knew almost from the moment he appeared that Four would end up with Tris, but I didn't mind because Tris's growth, her struggles, were not centered on her love life.
Like The Hunger Games, Divergent deals extensively in themes of powerlessness, ethics, and choice, but Tris's arc also reminded me very forcefully of Harry Potter, with all its emphasis on bravery and kindness. As Gretchen said in her spot-on review, the Dauntless are like "Gryffindor(s)-gone-rogue," but it's more than that. While she may not be the world's best writer, Roth is not attempting to give us a love story, she's attempting to give us a story about humanity, and I am totally behind that 100%. Tris is extremely flawed, and wonderfully so. She feels like a real person. (Would have felt more like a real person in past tense, but whatever, I'll hop off my soap-box now.)
Divergent also reminded me of Ender's Game at points, but I think it would be unfair of me to continue comparing it to other novels at this point. After all, I stayed up until 3:30 AM finishing the dang thing, I think it deserves to be recognized on its own merits. After about 100 pages of it, I was reading it for itself, and not for what it could be, or what it reminded me of. That's probably just about the best praise I could give it at this point. Despite its formulaic set-up, and its status as one of hundreds of YA dystopian books, and more popping up every day, Divergent feels authentic.
Motherfucker, I hate waiting for sequels.