October 16, 2012


Veronica Roth


(October 16, 2012)

This is volume two of a projected trilogy that starts with the excellent Divergent. Like Hunger Games, this young adult romance starts from a schematic premise — a dystopian ruined world that is rigidly organized along the lines of personality tests — and accomplishes surprising things. This is not the book that Divergent was, but few books are.

Tris Price, who says she is 16 but whom we understand to be a good deal younger, was born to abnegation and born for dauntless: her parents were members of the Abnegation faction but, on Choosing Day, she chose to join the Dauntless faction. Rejecting her parents’ beliefs was tough. Winning acceptance in her new faction was brutal. And now that she has gained that acceptance, now that she is a member of society, the whole thing has fallen apart and the whole known world (which encompasses central Chicago and perhaps some of Lake County Illinois) is falling apart as the factions fall to war.

Of course, there is a young man in the case, and that young man has problems — not the least of which is that Tris insists on setting tests for his love that no one could pass.

A misfortune of Roth’s schematic premise is that Tris is a Romantic heroine in both senses: not only is this the story of her awakening to love, but this is the story of heroism to which, and for which, she was literally born. She triumphs because of her intrinsic wonderfulness, and since Roth is doing SF, we’ll eventually learn that this is not an accident.

Some details annoy. The story takes place in a nicely-drawn Ruined Chicago, but too much of the geography is either unclear or wrong. It sounds like Erudite Headquarters is the Old Public Library, which makes lots of sense. But the description actually sounds more like the Gage Building, or maybe the Metropolitan Tower beneath its Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Or is it the Santa Fe Building? The choice doesn’t matter (although details of each building could lend resonance to certain scenes if you let them), but the lack of specificity blurs what would otherwise be a very nice sense of place. Similarly, there are lots of trains, running endlessly along ancient tracks, never stopping. Dauntless use those trains to go places. The homeless live on them. But these don’t seem to be running on tracks we know; why, before the disaster, would Chicago have torn up all its transit and replaced it with new transit? One suspects instead that the author assumes there’s a train that goes wherever her characters need to be.

Still, Tris is an impressive young lady. She’s been through a lot. So has poor old, beat-up Chicago. It’s time to see what happens when we move out into the larger world. The name of volume three has not been announced, but surely it’s bound to be Emergent?