And now, number two on my list of works I can’t call good but also can’t help enjoying in a mostly intentional way….
Wait, this one needs some additional disclaimers. I'm a huge defender of YA dark sci-fi and dystopia. I love them for being an influential, largely female-led fictional subgenre that doesn't revolve entirely around romance. I love them for being action-packed adventures and for often having well-executed, heavy, emotional character storylines. I'm a proud fan of The Hunger Games (in spite of its notable worldbuilding flaws and the multitude of pointless new characters in book three), and Delirium and Uglies may be my two favorite book series yet to be brought to every non-reader's lips through the magic of screen.
...And then there's Divergent.
Why it's guilty:
In this specific, narrow subgenre where everything is accused of being derivative, poorly contrived, or both, the Divergent series is one of the most derivative and poorly contrived of the well-known examples.
(You can check out my full reviews of the Divergent and Insurgent books and the Divergent movie, should you so desire).
If you don't know, this particular dystopia revolves around people being divided into five factions according to their most dominant personality traits.
So, basically, it's a somewhat less hardcore and more convoluted Panem from The Hunger Games, with a Sorting Hat.
The bad news is that once the nonsensical fake-out principles of this dystopia, which we were supposed to accept as the real ones for the whole first book, start getting picked apart and explained in the later books, it's like trying to watch a political thriller serial starting in the middle, with all the subgroups suddenly vying for power.
Then there are the more general problems. Characters are largely defined by faction, with side attributes more told than shown and side plots that are unsatisfyingly resolved, the story is cluttered, the accept-yourself message gets corny especially in the movie version, and the romance with the mysterious and brooding instructor, Four, borders on sleazy.
Why it's a pleasure:
There are a few noteworthy redeeming qualities I could go into here. There's the way the series actually sort of turns the trope of the ordinary protagonist being the most special person in the world on its head, by revealing that Tris's specialness is that she is a normal, whole person, and it's the rest of her world that's messed up.
Then there are the great performances in the movieverse, and the surprisingly merciless stakes of the bookverse (characters do die, unexpectedly, sometimes important ones, sometimes senselessly).
But it really it comes down to two things for me.
First, I have a soft spot for surreal adventures through the psyche, which is one of the Divergent series’ recurring devices. They're not the deepest of surrealist sequences, but they're decent, plentiful, and not dull.
And if I can get an evening's fun out of fast-paced, semi-nonsensical action when it follows an ordinary male hero, motivated and maybe occasionally assisted by female eye candy, as long as there are enough entertaining elements mixed in and my brain is on half power, then...