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AllegiantAllegiant by Veronica Roth
Divergent #3
HarperCollins Publishers 2013
Paperback
526 pages
YA Science Fiction; Dystopian Fiction; Speculative Fiction



This review contains major spoilers.

The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of book 2, Insurgent, which culminated in a rather anti-climactic revelation. If you remember, the revelation was the climax of the novel, but didn’t actually tell us anything much. The main problem with it is that, throughout this whole trilogy – and this is something that didn’t solidify for me until I finished Allegiant – Roth failed to create the society of her post-apocalyptic, dystopic world convincingly. It isn’t until you have the truth, as it is revealed in book 3, that you can even judge this. The problem is, in a way, similar to what you experience reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver: these people are aliens – alien to us, the readers, anyway. They are “Other” but this distinction is never clear and so we can never really see their world from their perspective; thus, it never quite seemed realistic (to human nature) and I’m still not convinced Roth managed to pull it together in the final book.

The truth of Tris Prior’s community, her fenced-in, half-ruined Chicago, is that she and all the other people’s grandparents were put there because of a genetic flaw. Genetic manipulation conducted sometime in the past (i.e, our future), intended to solve our worst personality flaws, had unexpected negative consequences. As it is explained to Tris when she and her companions reach the military-science base not far outside the fence, the attempt to correct our genes resulted in damaging them.

“Take away someone’s fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty … and you take away their compassion. Take away someone’s aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation. If you think about it, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.”

I tick off each quality in my mind as he says it – fear, low intelligence, dishonesty, aggression, selfishness. He is talking about the factions. And he’s right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling. [pp.122-3]

Ah, good old genetic manipulation. It’s irrelevant how original or not it is as a trope, because it’s something we’ll never get tired of talking about and exploring: what it means to be human, and whether we should deliberately alter our state of being – whether we should force evolution on ourselves. It’s an obvious consequence of being philosophical, curious and thinking ourselves superior. Stories like this one play it out and you know, I can’t think of a single example that doesn’t deal with negative consequences. But such is the wonderful nature of speculative fiction: to explore and experiment and see. To play out a hypothesis without actually harming anyone. Because a lot of these moral and ethical dilemmas are ones we have to think our way through, not act upon in the real world.

Trouble is, in the case of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, it’s never really explained quite well enough, or convincingly. The bits of information don’t quite add up to the whole. It seems to contradict itself, or simply not take the time to really give readers a good enough grasp of the situation for it to make sense. As a result, many of the new scenarios Tris and Four find themselves in don’t quite make sense. Well, they do and they don’t. For instance, after the genetic tampering made its way down through the generations and finally manifested, not in friendly, compassionate, intelligent, funny, easy-going and talented people (as I’m sure they were aiming for) but in a range of people who were all lacking particular key personality traits that you need in order to be “well-rounded”, a civil war occurred.

The civil war became known as the “Purity War”: those with missing genes versus those considered “pure”, the people whose grandparents or great-grandparents hadn’t undergone genetic tampering. Thus the half-destroyed condition of the United States and its decimated population (the Purity War, in other words, is the “apocalypse”). Afterwards, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare was established and a permanent solution to the “problem” of the genetically damaged people was found: to round them up and put them inside fenced-in communities, like Tris’s home in Chicago, there to sort themselves out in their own way. Tris’s ancestors established the factions, and the Bureau, seeing how well it worked (it restored a sense of order and calm), instigated it in the other secure environments. It was found that the genetic damage would correct itself with time, so they needed to give those people time. Tris is one of the “corrected” people: she is divergent, which means she never fit neatly into any of the factions. The aim was to have everyone become “divergent” – or healed – and re-enter society. The Bureau didn’t expect the factions to try and kill the divergent.

That’s it in a nutshell, but the explanations don’t always gel with what we’ve seen. It’s not that it can’t make sense, but that we feel a bit cheated. Because we’ve been inside Tris’s head all this time, seeing everything from her perspective, listening to only her thoughts, we’re getting the perspective of someone who’s just like us – a person like us who is in the middle of a very strange world. She’s like a human surrounded by aliens, but aliens in disguise. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with Tris’s world, but because Roth couldn’t share many world-building explanations without giving everything away (and she couldn’t, being stuck with Tris’s perspective), there was no way to know that the problem wasn’t so much environmental as medical.

While I was reading this, I got hung up on a few things like this. If, knowing the whole story, you were to go back and re-read all three books together, I’m sure it would work a lot better, because you’d have explanations for the way people behave. The danger, of course, with this kind of premise, is making it too black-and-white. As a person whose genes haven’t been tampered with, I always found it hard to understand how Tris’s people could have formed such neat factions (or, indeed, how anyone could say “I am THIS faction” and that completely sums them up). The explanation does make sense, it’s the only way to explain it, because the people weren’t – according to the story – properly human.

Always ironic, isn’t it, the way these stories play out: try to make people into better humans, and you end up making them worse; not only that, but the unmodified people then set themselves up as “superior” – in this case, “pure” – and fail to see that by dividing people and establishing such drastic social and psychological barriers, they are becoming inhuman themselves.

This was something that I struggled with, in this book. My slight disappointment comes not because the explanations annoyed me, but that they were so ripe for exploring. It comes not from Roth having to hold back on the world-building out of necessity and plot, but that, when those considerations were no longer a problem, she still held back. She held back in so many ways, when it wouldn’t have taken much for her to take a step closer to the kernel of truth at the core of the entire premise. I would have liked her to follow through, not hold back – not as much as she did, anyway. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to delve into these thorny issues, but instead Roth remained firmly, stubbornly subtle. It wouldn’t have taken that much to really make this a powerful story, to crystalise the issues and make readers really think. There’s no need to dumb it down or hold back just because your target audience is adolescent; the opposite is true, in fact. Teenagers are smart, their brains are going through some major renovations and development, and they’re thirsty for some mental exercise – even if they pretend otherwise. I wouldn’t have liked this watered-down speculative fiction as a teen, and I don’t care for it as an adult, either.

I’ve come all this way and I haven’t even mentioned the plot, or the characters, or the ending – an ending which, I’m sure, surprised or shocked or even upset more than a few readers. Truth is, for as much I was disappointed at the way the revelations and world-building were handled, I still enjoyed this book for all the things it did well. Tris’s character continued to develop and become more assertive, to the point where I actually started to like her.

Four faces his first real dilemma in Allegiant and has much to overcome within this one volume – he learns that he isn’t in fact divergent, that he hasn’t been “healed”, and he starts to fall in with genetically damaged people who object to the way they’re treated at the hands of the “purists” (another really interesting concept and consequence that fell short of thought-provoking brilliance). He goes through a lot and comes out of it a stronger person, which was really good to see as his character was always a bit static before. I still don’t find him to be a particularly strong character, though – if anything, he got weaker the more we got to know him, as if all his charisma was purely on the surface and his character wasn’t half as interesting (or maybe it’s because he has “damaged” genes, hmm??) We also get to know him better because he narrates his own chapters. Disappointingly, his voice isn’t dissimilar enough from Tris’s that it’s always apparent who’s speaking – there were times when I actually forgot, and had to look for Tris or Four’s name to know.

The plot is interesting, but for the sake of a fairly fast pace, it skims past things that would have helped flesh it out more, like the shanty camp Tris visits with the soldiers. There’s some real social-justice-commentary going on in Allegiant, but it only ever brushes the surface and I thought that a shame.

…I start walking down one of the aisles, as most people take off or shut themselves inside their lean-tos with cardboard or more tarp. I seem them through the cracks between the walls, their houses not much more than a pile of food and supplies on one side and sleeping mats on the other. I wonder what they do in the winter. Or what they do for a toilet.

I think of the flowers inside the compound, and the wood floors, and all the beds in the hotel that are unoccupied, and say, “Do you ever help them?”

“We believe that the best way to help our world is to fix its genetic deficiencies,” Amar says, like he’s reciting it from memory. “Feeding people is just putting a tiny bandage on a gaping wound. It might stop the bleeding for a while, but ultimately the wound will still be there.”

I can’t respond. All I do is shake my head a little and keep walking. I am beginning to understand why my mother joined Abnegation when she was supposed to join Erudite. If she had really craved safety from Erudite’s growing corruption, she could have gone to Amity or Candor. But she chose the faction where she could help the helpless, and dedicated most of her life to making sure the factionless were provided for. [pp.347-8]

Yes, all very valid, Tris, but what else? Aside from understanding your mother better, what else is going on here? It’s a key and highly relevant social justice comment in this scene, and you’ve turned it into a small but sweet reflection on how great your mum was. Understandable, but does that have to be all?

But the ending, oh the ending! I really liked it. And it wasn’t completely unexpected, because it’s the main purpose behind using first person present tense – a tense that has become hideously over-used recently, like a ghastly new fad that everyone copies without knowing why. Want to know what the point of using first person present tense is? It’s so you can kill off your narrator. You can’t, technically (though you can because we’re all about breaking the rules in English), kill off a first person past tense voice, because technically they’re relating, or retelling the story. Though that’s not really true either.

But let’s stay on track: Tris dies at the end of Allegiant, and while she didn’t have to die for the sake of the character, she did for the plot. It was the right move, and it made for a much stronger ending than the previous two books – and a very strong ending for the trilogy. Our engagement with the story becomes more emotional as well as intellectual. There’s always that moment of utter disbelief, that faint hope that some miracle will occur a la The Matrix and the character will come back to life. From a craftsmanship, writing perspective, it was a great ending. From a plot perspective, it was a strong ending. But it does make me glad I wasn’t more attached to Tris, or I would have been extremely upset.

All of that said, it could just be me. Maybe other readers found the world-building enough, the social commentary thought-provoking, the explanations sound. In which case, Roth did well. I can only speak to my own reading experience, which is a mixed one. I really enjoyed this book – didn’t love it, but it was actually quite riveting at times. I wish it hadn’t softened its punches so much and connected the dots more, and I wish that the characters had been more interesting, overall.

4 out of 5 giraffes

________________________________________

Other Reviews:

“If you liked the first two, this is absolutely worth reading (or, alternatively, if you hated them and want to do a hate read, you will find plenty of fodder.) I think part of my problem is Divergent was one of the first books I read when getting back into YA and at the time I thought it was the bee’s knees. Since then I have read a whole bunch of YA and come to realize that there are many books out there that I like a lot more.” Cuddlebuggery Book Blog

“Even though I was stunned by the massive turn of events, I am over-the-moon pleased with the finale. … If you feel unhappy or blighted by the finish of the trilogy, I understand. But remember, all that was damaged, all that was lost can be mended. The characters live on to recover and to find happiness. And not just in the pages of a book, because the true beauty of a good story is what you make it.” Nerdy Book Club

“Honestly, the main reason to read this book would be if you need closure after the first two, or if Insurgent leaves you with such an outrageously cruel cliffhanger that there’s just no way you’re stopping there. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and my expectations were just too high. The fact remains, though, that I believe this book is by far the weakest in the trilogy. It’s not a terrible book, but don’t go into it with the high hopes that I did; you’ll only set yourself up for disappointment.” The Ranting Dragon

Allegiant is filled with turmoil and revolution, discovery and revelation. Fans of this series, like me, will keep reading on just to discover how Roth chooses to end it. It’s quite the roller coaster ride that she takes us on, I’ll admit. I just had to know what would happen to Four and Tris and the entire crew, and Roth delivers quite an ending. While I’m not necessarily 100% sold on it, I do think that it’s authentic to the character and an interesting choice.” Alexa Loves Books

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1 comment to Review: Allegiant

  • Hmm you make a very good point about how genetic manipulation and the determination of what being human really is is something that will never grow old. I do agree with that. What I don’t agree with is how sloppy Roth’s “genetics” and “science” were in this book. As in, they had no real basis for science. It would have been better for me if she hadn’t tried to apply this idea to real science, because that just made all the plot holes stand out, imo. Like you said, if Roth wanted to go down that route than she should have gone all-out.
    I was actually pretty upset with the ending. Tris isn’t my favorite protagonist ever, but after spending 3 books inside her head, I’d grown attached to her. I give Roth credit for making a different sort of choice there, but I do think she could have accomplished many of the same messages by ending it in a different way.
    Overall it seems as though you definitely had a much more positive experience reading this. But I do agree with (or at least understand where you’re coming from) on much of what you said. I think it’s in Allegiant’s nature to be a divisive book. 🙂
    Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books recently posted..Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott LynchMy Profile

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