Ah yes, another post where I muse about something I’ve just consumed that’s already been around for years. Warning – this post contains some spoilers about Divergent and Game of Thrones.
Although Kaiju jokingly (I believe) gives me guff for reading young adult novels, there are some “grown-ups” out there who really do look down upon literature targeting teens. That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of excellent stories out there that are quite enjoyable for older folk, as well, and I think Hollywood’s relatively recent interest in cinematizing some of the more standout novels reflects that fact.
The most well-known contemporary young adult series is undoubtedly Harry Potter. I’ve been a big fan for years and have never been able to convince Kaiju to jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunate! Some other notable series include the Hunger Games (which I have yet to read), the Maze Runner (check), and Divergent, which I just finished reading the other day. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are some classic young adult novels from earlier days – the Giver and a Wrinkle in Time being foremost in my mind. I submit that there’s no shame in an adult enjoying any of these works, or even more superficially juvenile fare like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
A Song of Myself
My cohort and I have had words about GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire series. We’ve both read up to the latest book, and we both have kept up loosely with what’s been happening on the show, despite refusing to watch it. I think Penny Arcade has trodden this ground already. Upon reflection, he finds the series’ bleakness, grayness, and proclivity for rape to be major turnoffs that have soured him on the whole thing. I can definitely respect that. I haven’t tired yet of the heavy, greasy ambiguousness of it, but I have a thing for dynastic dynamics and political intrigue in my fiction. That’s probably why I loved the Book of Words series so much despite having yet to talk to someone else who’s heard of it. But I understand why he is turned off.
There is a trend in adult-oriented entertainment today to relativize, in line with the culture of the Self. That is, the villain isn’t bad; she is misunderstood (see Wicked or Into the Woods or Maleficent). And that good guy? Not so good after curb-stomping that orphan when no one was looking, is he?! Perhaps this is partly because the audience likes to be kept guessing; or perhaps it’s largely because we want to rationalize away our own sins. At any rate, in Ice and Fire, it’s rarely ever clear who’s good and who’s bad. In fact, you could probably argue that no one is good. Everyone just is. And the noblest characters, like Ned and Robb Stark, die just like all the rest. I think it remains to be seen whether or not their deaths will hold some greater meaning later on, but for now they’re just more bodies on the pile.
And I think this is where young adult literature can really be a breath of fresh air. Despite the common “coming of age” and “young romance” themes that are more often than not to be found, there are usually clear “good guys” and “bad guys” and valuable moral lessons to be had. In the young adult stories previously mentioned, the protagonists have concerns beyond themselves. They may, of course, have to worry about self-preservation, but there is some greater good to be accomplished, and someone else to think about and fight for. There are valuable takeaways to be gleaned! There are, of course, exceptions; I couldn’t get through the Golden Compass because of its asinine antagonism to religion, and I’m not sure if Twilight has anything to offer beyond sparkly vampires and werewolves.
Now to Divergent.
I felt that there were some scattered holes in this story, to be honest, though none gaping enough to ruin it. The first thing that bothered me was the Dauntless initiates’ “shooting practice,” or whatever they termed it. The initiates, trainees of sorts who are learning the ropes and competing to enter into this faction that values bravery above all else, are given a session to learn how to handle guns. The lack of detail about the actual guns (handgun or rifle, for example), seemed to suggest a lack of experience or research on the part of the author, Veronica Roth. I had to really suspend my disbelief as she described the scene. It seems that the training is essentially limited to “here’s some guns, now fire at that target.”
Even in a dystopian future society in which courage to the point of recklessness is valued above all else, I’d hope one would be taught basic gun safety, so as not to accidentally injure or kill oneself or one’s comrade. Also, how to aim, reload, and in some cases even fire successive shots; these are not always self-obvious things. This stood out to me.
Another point where I felt that either I or the author were missing something came near the end of the book. Tris is divergent, which means that she is some special breed who transcends the faction system. Beyond that, divergents can manipulate simulations. Much as how many people in real life are unaware when they are dreaming, most people in this world are cannot tell when they are experiencing a simulation. In addition to this awareness, divergents seem able to change things within simulations. Tris is repeatedly warned that divergents are weeded out and killed, and that the Dauntless leaders would be looking for signs of divergence; therefore she must be cautious. This seems to be thrown out entirely during her final simulation, however. Despite being observed by her faction leaders, she consciously manipulates her simulation, much like a lucid dreamer. And they don’t even seem to notice or care. So much for that story point!
That said, I liked Divergent. There is some sappy teen romance, some annoying teen angst, and some over-dramatic and predictable deaths. But there’s also decent character development and what I found to be an engaging and well-paced plot. I also noted that one of the “good” (or better) factions preserved certain religious elements and traditions.
I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that Ms. Roth’s first sentence in the book’s acknowledgements thanked God for his Son and for his blessings. People publically thank God less and less these days, it seems, so it feels all the more impactful when they do. Maybe that’s neither here nor there, but it raised the author’s standing in my book.