A young woman’s action-filled quest for identity in a society of rigid virtues gone sour.
This first person narrative is chock-full of action. Tris is coming of age in a dystopian society that has divided people into personality attributes rather than race, creed, birth or socioeconomic status. Each person is born to a family that ascribes to one of five virtues that are meant to maximize the individual’s potential in a way that benefits the entire of society. After basic schooling, the individual is given a test to inform them as to their strongest leanings. After this test and before adulthood, the individual is given the right to choose which of the five virtue-factions they want to join. They can stay with the one they are born into, or change sides to a different one. However, once a choice is made the individual is to give total loyalty to their new faction. You are to feel loyalty to those that are like you even over bonds of family. A different kind of society—yet not so different since factions have existed in all times of history with varying reasons for loyalty and community.
Most of the story is spent around the character’s choice of faction and what that means to her. As it turns out, her test results were inconclusive, and in a sense she does not belong to one faction over another and probably can fit into more than one. Her prime struggle is that of identity. A key theme in many books of this ilk.
The immediate plot revolves around Tri’s struggle as she earns her way through the initiation rights of her faction of choice. She suffers abuse at the hands of her piers, instructors and the various outside obstacles she must face. These are countered with the relationships and bonds she forms which are also continually tested through the trials and tribulations of the initiation process.
The romantic interest, “Four,” is in some ways a typical misunderstood silent-type. Yet, he did feel real and genuine enough. Believable. Interesting twists evolve as romantic feelings evolve between the protagonist and this attractive, initiation instructor. The romantic element is plays out well enough, if a little stretched out.
One of the strengths of this book is occasional drops of realism. As other reviews have pointed out, the protagonist is of slight frame and build. Her attributes mainly come from her personal courage, wit and ability to be creative and lead. Despite her inherent talent for greatness, she does not become some instant badass that can swipe bad guys away with the back of her hand. She has vulnerabilities that make her real. Opponents can beat her in sheer bids of strength, but she has opportunity to ply her attributes in other ways that demonstrate her equality or superiority.
The story also hints at bigger problems. There are a few drops here and there about what is going on in the greater world. Yet, for the most part the story is very insular, staged around a single city. While, I know this narrative is about the character’s inner struggle to find herself, the plot felt a little stifled after spending so many pages inside the fraternal workings of the protagonist’s faction. They were interesting in some ways, but not compelling. I was curious to know about the differences in the factions, and how they developed their new initiates into ascribing to their philosophies, but it got old. The author tried to make the stakes high (death and alienation), but ultimately the characters were playing games that didn’t feel all that original or deep. It lacked a true “philosophical” or “vocational” feel (in some ways).
Much is made of “simulations” that the characters must undergo, which test their strengths and loyalties. Everyone is getting injected with this colored liquid or that colored liquid. Then they are transported into a virtual reality type environment where surreal things can challenge them. All these injections are part of a bigger plot that gets outside the initiation rituals and ties Tris into the seedy underbelly, which lies behind the altruistic vision in which the factions were founded. Yet, this comes into play late in the book, and was somewhat hard to swallow. A lot of what is seen technology-wise, didn’t feel all that new—and didn’t feel like it had a unique spin on it.
The author includes some show-stopping drama. These moments are sort of sparse and jarring, but they instantly ground the story. The occasional horrific act that befalls the protagonist (or her cohorts), remind the reader that even though the initiation rights are a sort of game, the stakes are indeed high. I feel like this book would have been better if it was cut down some, with more focus on these heavier elements.
All in all this is a book, heavy in adventure and action. The character development is made in a first person narrative and the protagonist is believable, but it’s slow going with her. Her struggles are relatable and appropriate to her age, but there is something in the overall tone of the story that works against that a bit. However, the moments of serious drama are thoughtful, and give the reader some good nuggets to chew on though a few of the lighter parts.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website. (www.nodeodorant.com)