Katherine Tegen Books, 2011
In Tris’s dystopian world, society is divided into five factions, based on reverence for courage, selflessness, intelligence, peacefulness, or honesty. People choose their lifelong factions at sixteen, after a test intended to predict where they would fit best. Tris’s test results come back inconclusive, offering no help in her decision to stay with her family or go her own way, and when she begins to learn about the mounting tension between the factions, she realizes that this may be the least of the trouble her results cause her.
If that premise sounds like you’re going to have to read the book to make sense of it, sorry, no, that isn’t going to help. It really makes that little sense. How did these factions form? Well, apparently, whatever government existed at the time agreed unanimously that it wasn’t religion or imbalances of resources or any of the other usual culprits that were causing wars; it was the human personality itself. Then they divided into factions based on what they thought the biggest problem with the human personality was, and somehow this all but eliminated conflict, rather than intensifying it, at least until Tris’s time.
On top of the psychological symbolism eclipsing all possible worldbuilding logic with its prominence, Tris also goes out of her way to explain the symbolic significance of everything she does, just in case we missed it. Even with all that help, it’s not easy to understand her. She’s regularly stricken with random alternating fits of heroism, callousness and despair that don’t lead into one another in any intuitive way and certainly don’t explain the reputation for unflappability she acquires among the other characters. One can only assume it has something to do with the fact that they’re all even more inscrutable and unpredictable than she is.
In spite of everything quantifiably bad about this book, I couldn’t help enjoying it. Yes, I’m going to see the movie. Yes, I’m already reading the second one in the series.
The action, as well as being frequent (which is common), is also immersively well described (which is not). Most importantly, it’s got guts, figuratively speaking. From the very first broken-backed redshirt, there’s a real, effective sense of high-stakes suspense that’s skillfully played for all it’s worth. People get hurt, they do bad things, they die, and when they do, it’s not ignored or explained away or emotionally undercut by whatever means necessary, just because it’s YA and some author thought that teenagers’ heads would be a safe and happy place to work for some reason. Almost every time I expected Veronica Roth to flinch and look away, she surprised me, and I have to respect that.
I debated a long time over the grade on this one. There are so many reasons it deserves worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to give less than a B- to something that gave me so much (mostly intentional) entertainment.
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