Point of View: a Discussion of Divergent and The Testing

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I enjoy discussing books with other readers. In this post, a discussion with book blogger Ian Wood of Ian Wood’s Novellum on why we reviewed Divergent by Veronic Roth and The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau so differently:

Ian Wood’s points:

I was interested to read this novel initially, but when I was done with it, I wasn’t honestly sure whether to rate it positively or negatively.

Since I already had volume two to hand at the time, I decided to hold-off on any rating of vol 1 until I’d read the second one.

Insurgent turned out to be so bad that I ended up rating both of them negatively. I never had any interest in reading volume three after that. I also saw the movie (but only because I got a chance to see it for free!).

I noticed that you’d rated them very highly (five for Divergent, four for Insurgent) and I was really curious about what it is you see in them that I didn’t. I’m always up for a good education!

My issues with them would take too much space to go into any detail, but in brief, they centered on what I thought was poor writing (indeed, nonsensical in some parts of Insurgent).

In Divergent I had issues with an assortment of things ranging from relatively minor, to what I considered serious.

Under minor, I would list for one thing, that the naming of the factions was inconsistent (‘Erudite’ should have been ‘Erudition’ if it was to match the others, for example). I’d be curious to hear a librarian’s take on that!

Under more serious I’d list their “training”. It seems to me that the training wasn’t any such thing. They essentially threw everyone to the wolves and considered those who survived to be “trained”!

To me, this didn’t fit the situation they were in. If the city had been at war with someone, then I could see a need to get the toughest people up and running asap, but there was no war going on, nor where there any dire policing needs, so I just didn’t get why there wasn’t any actual training – on how to fight and how to fire a gun, for example.

It seemed like the “training” they did offer was designed for something truly dangerous and risky, but no such situation existed or arose. They needed no training at all for the drones they became at the end of the story.

There was nothing in the writing to suggest that the Dauntless faction even did anything! It seemed like all they ever did was to run around doing dumb daredeveil stunts and play games. To me, it was completely unrealistic (within the novel’s framework). I couldn’t imagine an organization like that forming either an effective army or an effective policing force!

Another thing which bothered me was the under-representation of people of color. Chicago is about one third African-American, yet you’d never have figured that out from the relative proportions of races represented in both the novel and the movie – you’d think it was pretty much exclusively white!

It’s not that I demand complete and exact authenticity in a novel I’m quite willing to let the writers get away with a lot if they entertain me, but this story went too far over the credibility line for me, and offered very little in return to make up for my forbearance!

My thoughts:

Great points and I do agree with you on nearly every one. My thoughts/response:

Divergent started at the very beginning of the YA dystopian curve, only a few years after Hunger Games lit up the subgenre (2011 and 2008 respectively). What worked for me is that it was a wholly unique concept – something we had not really seen before. I enjoyed the writing of Hunger Games and it was clearly superior to Divergent – but a negative for me with Hunger Games is that it was a Westernized retelling of Battle Royale – a movie I had seen in the original Japanese form and preferred to the watered down Collins book. So I was already predisposed to like Divergent on the originality alone.

Plausibility and logic clearly suffered in Divergent. I read the first novel before the rest had been published and expected it to go a much different direction in future novels; one that would have made sense of the world building. On hindsight after now having read all three volumes, that clearly never happened and so the book was rated much higher alone than it rated as a part of the series as a whole.

So yes, the originality of the concept did carry the story for me. I forgave a lot in Divergent that I wouldn’t in YA dystopian books read later (and I’ve admittedly read some incredibly bad ones over the last few years, sadly).

And really, I’ve talked with other readers and we’ve had a field day picking apart the worldbuilding issues (chiefly, the mathematics that demonstrated the Dauntless faction would only have had 5 members by the time Tris got there if their policies of casual death/daring-do had still been in place for only a few years. That, and the whole Erudite faction was just stupid (our conclusion there).

I rated the book highly, however, for the reason that I enjoyed the book and the characters. It was engaging and I wasn’t bored or disengaged at any time. It’s the equivalent of a Twinkie – something you enjoy knowing that it is rather pointless, doesn’t do anything for you, and there were a lot better things you could have read/eat at the time. In other words, a guilty pleasure.

I think we do give too much lee-way right now with YA novels; it’s as if authors get a free pass for logic, world building, and character growth. As an example, you and I both rated a recent dystopian, The Winners Curse by Marie Rutkoski, as a 1-star disappointment. The reason I can give Divergent a higher rating than The Winner’s Curse was that the characters in Divergent were interesting and less illogical than the world building, at least. Whereas, in the Winner’s Curse, the characters behaved so completely illogically that there was no redeeming the story.

Had I read Divergent today, I’d likely have rated it 3 to 3.5 stars. Not terrible, a bit original, with likeable characters, but clearly lacking in the worldbuilding. After reading the whole series, that would likely go down to 2 stars since Divergent appears to be one of many YA series that start with an interesting premise but the author fails to develop into a cohesive and reasonable trilogy.

And Ian’s response:

 I’m a movie fan, and I’ve seen Battle Royale but I didn’t like it. I really liked the Hunger Games Trilogy and the movies so far.

I do share your view of the atrocious state of YA dystopian fiction! It’s sad but unsurprising, I guess, and it’s so derivative. That’s why I mentioned The Testing because it seems to me to be of that nature.

Having said that I rated the first volume a worthy read on my blog, but the second volume (Independent Study) I rated negatively, and I never went on to read the third one in that trilogy.

The first novel seemed very much like Hunger Games, but it did have some differences and some entertainment value. The second volume just made the main character look dumb and incompetent, so I lost all my enthusiasm for it at that point. I really don’t have time for YA books which purport to deliver us a strong female main character and then spend the entire book showing how dumb, weak, and dependent she is.

By “strong female character” I don’t necessarily mean one who is physically strong or who can kick butt, although those can be fun. I just mean one who isn’t a complete wuss and wilting violet.

I don’t mind out if a character begins life like that if she (or he) grows over the course of the book, but when she gets worse (as Tris did between volumes one and two) it’s not enjoyable for me.

I’ve talked with other readers and we’ve had a field day picking apart the worldbuilding issues

There were several poor writing examples which stood out to me in Insurgent. One was the absurd climbing across the ‘bridge’ episode as Tris and crew tried to sneak into the Dauntless compound several floors up.

Another was the fact that Four was in the compound and had a chance to assassinate their leader and bring this thing to a close, but he failed to act (for reasons unknown – other than to drag-out the story, of course).

A third was when the Amity compound was attacked by Dauntless and they fired some shells inside containing a gas, and Tris picked one up, but instead of tossing it back outside, she tossed it further into the building!

I admit that I was impressed that she (from what I hear) sacrificed herself in volume three – that was unexpected, but she did some really dumb things in the first two volumes which had me laughing more than empathizing and it did not warm me to her at all.

The Daultless faction had its issues, but the very basis of the story – that everyone could be classified into one of five factions and those who disagreed were outcasts- was untenable for me. Initially I was willing to go along with it to see what the story held, but it didn’t work.

The funny thing about Erudite, for me, was that every one of them appeared to need eyeglasses! Not only was this a huge stereotype, but it didn’t make any sense when set alongside the remarkable scientific advances they made! What? They never recreated contact lenses or had Lasic surgery?!

My recollection of The Winner’s Curse was so vague I had to just go back and re-read my review on my blog. It was short! And yes, you’re right – characterization as appalling. I agree that there were some interesting characters in Divergent by contrast. I’m not sure the author always did the most interesting things with them!

I thought that the slave’s relationship with the owner was so completely unrealistic as to be ridiculous!

And more from me on The Testing:

I updated my blog post to reflect The Testing and Divergent.  Probably best to keep detailed discussions to those two books for sake of the blog posts!

The Testing was a book I enjoyed despite the derivative nature. For me, the main protagonist has to act in a way that is logical and smart. I’ve read enough bad romances in the past that I’ve come to really detest the ‘spirited’ heroine who creates drama for herself and others – who does actions like talking back to antagonists or making snarky comments to love interests that would, in reality, be distasteful to a suitor or simply get her killed by a captor/antagonist.

In the first book of The Testing, at least, Cia is resourceful, intelligent, and doesn’t do egregious amounts of impulsive and stupid things just to make a point by the author that the heroine is tough. Perhaps not being a teenager means I respect intelligence rather than impulsive action. But that also means the book has to be written by an author with writing chops.

Like you, I also felt it began to fall apart by the second book, Independent Study. Nor did I continue the series to the third book. Cia does some really stupid things, completely disregarding the danger and chance to lose everything, in order to blindly solve the mysteries of the school. Nor, as you noted, was she as strong a character, sadly. it didn’t help that i found the Tomas character completely inscrutable – by two books he should have developed more of a personality.

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One Response to Point of View: a Discussion of Divergent and The Testing

  1. Very interesting discussion! When I first read Divergent I think I gave it 5 stars, too, based mostly on enjoyment. If I were to go back and review it now I would probably give it closer to 3.5 stars. Insurgent was much worse, but I think I still rated it highly because of my lingering feelings from the first book. The last book, however, I felt was so awful that I like to just pretend it doesn’t exist.
    I started reading The Winner’s Curse once, but couldn’t get into it after a few chapters so I put it back on the TBR shelf. It’s gotten so many rave reviews that I thought I must be missing something. Glad to hear it wasn’t just me!

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