Divergent by Veronica Roth

Originally published at Breakpoint.org, July 7, 2011.

Author Veronica Roth was 22 years old when her popular novel, Divergent, was published. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; she’s tall (six feet); and, according to her bio, she’s a Christian. Beatrice, the protagonist of Roth’s debut novel is sixteen years old. Tris grows up in a sort-of-suburbia; she’s short and deceptively fragile-looking; and her family is “religious.

Obviously, Roth and her character share some affinities, but while Veronica Roth used her youth and talents to become a best-selling author, Tris is busy becoming dauntless, brave to the point of foolhardiness.

Maybe she’s an alter ego. And maybe, to psychoanalyze a bit, the recent spate of bold and spirited heroines trapped in a controlled environment in YA dystopian adventure novels is filling a need, for both girls and boys. These books are giving them strong female characters who retain a sense of passion and romance.

In particular, girls who are growing up and trying to figure out what it means to be female/feminist in a post-feminist, maybe even Christian, context, need ideas and role models. Divergent and similar dystopian novels, by placing readers in an alien but relatable environment, are good places to explore the possible choices that confront young women in our increasingly confused and confusing society.

In the future Chicago portrayed in Divergent, the world is divided into five factions. Each faction esteems one virtue above all others. The members of Abnegation, where Tris’s family lives, value selflessness above all else. Those of Candor prize truthfulness; those of Amity, peacefulness; the Erudite, intelligence; and the Dauntless, courage. At the age of sixteen, each citizen must choose which faction to join for the rest of his or her life. Most young people choose the faction where they have grown up and received their childhood training. But the choice for each person is free — and irrevocable.

This world is a society held in balance by the different callings of the members of the five factions. Each faction has its own job. The Dauntless are trained to be brave in order to protect the city as a whole. Those of Abnegation are servant leaders who can be trusted with power because they are sworn to give up the desire for power. The Erudite give advice and expertise to teach and to research new ideas. The Candor provide honest judges and lawyers. And those who are members of Amity are caretakers, farmers, artists, and counselors. As Beatrice considers her decision about which faction to join, she is faced with a secret about herself and her relationship to her community, which may endanger the entire balance of power and responsibility that has become the foundation for a perfect civilization.

Divergent is the first in a trilogy set in this world of factions, and balance, and virtues carried to their extreme. The plot follows the pattern of several other recent dystopian trilogies in which the heroine lives in a ordered, controlled community, but, as she grows up, is confronted with the cracks and imperfections in her seemingly pristine and safe way of life. The book is not quite as violent as the Hunger Games trilogy, but still fairly high on the action/adventure/mayhem scale. And the romantic subplot in this first book is fun, and certainly tame enough for ages thirteen and above.

The book is not overtly Christian. The main clue that Divergent is written from a Christian point of view is that, in addition to having to fight against the restrictions placed upon her by a controlling and totalitarian state, Tris must also explore the cracks and imperfections within her own psyche. Probably we will see more of this side of the story in the second and third books in the series, as Tris tries to understand herself and form a picture of her own moral code in relation to all of the factions and their virtues and vices. The second book in the series is Resurgent (2012).

Other comparable and recommended books that fit into the dystopian trilogy trend:

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.
The Declaration, The Resistance, and The Legacy by Gemma Malley.
Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Sequels are Pandemonium (2012) and Requiem (2013).
Matched by Ally Condie. Its sequels are Crossed and Reached.

A Single Stone by Megan McKinlay

I read Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island just after I read this book. Both books are partly about keeping the traditions that are handed down, obeying the laws of your own community, and questioning those traditions and laws. But each book comes to a very different conclusion.

In Orphan Island, questioning and breaking with tradition lead to disaster, a disturbance in the natural order of things on the island. In A Single Stone, questions and rule-breaking lead to freedom from tyranny. In the real world, of course, some rules and traditions need to be questioned, but often the law is for our good, and the transgression of that law leads only to evil and heartbreak. Since I believe the latter lesson is one that rarely gets spoken these days, and since I’m a conservative at heart underneath my rebel tendencies, I have more sympathy for the story of Orphan Island than for A Single Stone.

Jena is one of the chosen seven. She’s been trained and molded for this job ever since she was born, and now she leads the other six girls who also have been chosen to tunnel into the mountains to search for the precious mica that sustains life in their isolated village. The village has maintained itself, precariously, cut off from the outside world by a ring of impenetrable mountains all around, by using mica as a fuel for the long, cold winters. Only the chosen seven young girls can fit themselves into the tight crevices and low tunnels inside the mountains to bring back the harvest of mica that allows the villagers to remain alive.

This is the way it is, and this is the way is has been from time immemorial. That’s what Jena has been taught, and she believes the Mothers who teach and train the children to become useful to the village as they grow up. But what if the Mothers are wrong? What if they’re deceiving the villagers or perhaps even deceiving themselves? Can the world be different? Is there a way through the mountains, and is there something or someone on the other side?

Again, it’s a good book, by an Australian author, but I preferred Orphan Island. Both the premises and the conclusions were more intriguing in Orphan Island than in A Single Stone. Read both for comparison’s sake.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Here are my thoughts from 2014 on the book called The Circle, soon to be released as a motion picture. Perhaps the movie will fill out the characters and retain the thought-provoking ideas.

***************

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, improbable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

In Book one of this series (or maybe it’s just a book and a sequel), The Fog Diver, Chess, the foggy-eyed tether boy, and his crew escape from the slums of evil Lord Kodoc, and the slum kids make it to the “promised land” of Port Oro. However, in The Lost Compass, Chess continues to be a target for Lord Kodoc’s diabolical plans to rule the world above the fog. And the Fog itself continues to be both a menace and a possible concealer of rich and useful secrets. Furthermore, the citizens of Port Oro may want Chess to pay them back for their rescue of Chess and his friends and for their healing of Mrs. E, Chess’s mentor, by doing something that will risk the loss of everything that they have gained.

The characters in this series are the draw for me. Chess is brave and bold, yet self-effacing and unsure of what his true destiny is. Hazel, the crew’s captain, is described as “bossy”, but she’s bossy in a good way. She usually has good ideas and knows what to do and how to do it. Bea, the gear girl (engineer), is my favorite. She talks to engines and other machines—and they talk back to her. Swede is the pilot, more than competent and kind of grumbly. And Loretta, a raw and uncivilized slum brawler, is an extreme example of what a kid without a home or family or love could turn out like. Her attitude is summed up in this quote from a discussion of information found in books: “Books . . . What’s the point? You can’t wear’em, you can’t eat’em, and you can’t even stab someone with’em.”

The Lost Compass depends on the same kind of sci-fi and pop culture jokes and the same kind of non-stop action as The Fog Diver. If you read and enjoyed The Fog Diver, you will also enjoy this more than adequate sequel. The ending feels complete to me, but Mr. Ross may have one or even a dozen more novels in this series yet to be revealed. The very last words in the novel are: “Maybe our story wasn’t over. Maybe the world was bigger than I’d ever imagined.” Take from that what you will.

The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Wild” is a noun, not an adjective in this novel, and it means a group of animals who live together in a sort of ecosystem. Kester Jaynes is a boy, the son of a former veterinarian, who lives in a home for troubled children in a society that has become somewhat troubled, perhaps insane, itself.

The animals have all been destroyed because of the the “disease worse than a nuclear bomb” called red-eye. The animals were carriers, and now most of them are gone, except for insects and a few species of birds. However, one night Kester discovers that even though he is unable to speak even a word to humans, he can communicate with animals. A flock of pigeons and a cockroach rescue Kester from lockdown in the children’s home and take him to where the Last Wild is meeting in a desperate attempt to save themselves from becoming the last victims of red-eye.

Kester, through a series of odd events, becomes the leader of this Last Wild, and they set out together to find Kester’s father, who may hold the clue to a cure for the disease. Or Mr. Jaynes may be working with the evil Selwyn Stone Enterprise, makers of “formul-A”, the only food source for human beings now that the animals (and most all of the farms) are all gone. Kester is not sure what’s going on with his dad, but he journeys in faith that somehow his father will help the animals of the Last Wild.

So, this book is a post-apocolyptic father-quest with an evil corporation as antagonist, and the plot involves a weak but honorable boy traveling across country in the company of his animal friends and protectors. It sounds like a lot of other stories of its kind, and the formul-A and the cockroach friendship didn’t help my enjoyment of the novel. However, the sequel to this book, The Dark Wild, just won the Guardian Prize for for Children’s Fiction in Great Britain, a place where they may like their children’s books a little darker than I do and where they may not be as familiar with actual, Houston-size cockroaches. I can imagine those Britishers thinking that a cockroach would make a nice little pet, but they are wrong. Mice, yes, maybe, cockroaches, no way.

Anyway, if your toleration for roaches and pink slime (which is how I imagined the formul-A) is better than mine, and if the premise sounds interesting, you might want to check out The Last Wild. The roach friend and the nasty food are about the worst of the details of the novel. Oh, there are the dying stag and the crazy white pigeon.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Horizon by Jenn Reese

The #weneediversebooks movement has been a popular phenomenon on Twitter and among kidlit and YA bloggers this year. The idea is to encourage publishers and authors to write and market more and better literature for children and young adults that shows and features diversity in human beings. In other words, children want to read, or adults want them to be able to read, about the many cultures, racial groups, religious groups, ability groups, and others that make up the human race. Books, especially book characters, as a whole, should reflect the marvelous diversity that exists in the human family.

One question has been where does this movement for diversity intersect with speculative fiction? In particular, since I’m reading a ton of it for the Cybils, where do diversity in characters and cultures and middle grade speculative fiction intersect? Is it just about more people of color or more people with disabilities as characters in our fantasy and science fiction books? Or can diversity be approached in another way, a way that is particularly suited to speculative fiction?

In Horizon author Jenn Reese shows a world of diverse “humans”, a world in which, by the end of the book, most of the very different creatures with very different cultures an cultural expectations have learned to live together peacefully. (I could argue with the implication that if you simply get rid of the evil dictator, evil in the rest of the world will die a quick death, but I won’t go there.) Instead I want to just list some of the peoples that Reese includes in her fantasy world:

The Coral Kampii live under the ocean but near the shore and are given beautiful tails instead of legs at puberty. Their society is closed off, conservative, and isolationist.
Equians are intelligent horse-like people who live in the desert and worship the sun. Their primary values are honor and loyalty to the community, or herd.
The Deepfell live in the deeps of the ocean and are related to but also enemies of the Kampii. They have bodies that have adapted to the pressures of the ocean depths.
The Serpentii are a snakish people who also live in the desert, usually in caves. They have been long at war with the Equians and are by this time nearly extinct.
The Aviars are bird-people with a rather militant and Spartan female-led culture.
Upgraders are technologically enhanced human-like cyborgs who seem to be the enemies of all of the other more human species in this world. Or are they?

So in Horizon these different groups work out their differences and some of them ally themselves together to fight the evil Karl Strand, a mad scientist dictator who wants to rule the world. Written like that, the plot may sound a little hokey, but it’s certainly not. The interactions between the different characters and between the different people groups are complicated, nuanced, and intriguing. Characters must overcome their prejudices, learn to accept their dissimilarities, and work together, capitalizing on the things that divide them and make them diverse, while also overcoming the things that handicap them. For instance, the main character, Aluna, is a Kampii with a tail (think mermaid) which is a disability when she is on land. However, her friend, Vachir, an Equian, carries Aluna, tail and all, into battle where she is able to use her other abilities to fight and win battles.

When we talk about “diverse books” or “diverse characters”, it’s not enough to ask only simple questions, although these are a start, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Are there any people of color in the Above World books? I’m not sure skin color is ever mentioned, except for the Kampii’s colorful tails. Are any of the characters disabled? Well, in a way, they all are “differently abled”. The Kampii can’t walk. None of the people can fly, except the Aviars. The land peoples can’t live in the water, and the water peoples can’t live on land without technological aids. The Equians don’t talk in words, only whinnies. Are there diverse cultures? Of course, but they aren’t the cultures we know in our world, even though some of them resemble real cultural groups in our world.

Is speculative fiction, particularly this Above World trilogy, a good way for middle grade readers to explore diversity? Absolutely. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in a scene in which the different characters are trying to build a city that will serve all of the world’s people groups:

“She pored over the city’s planning schematics every night. The ramps and elevators had been her idea, so every person could go every place, whether they had wings or tails or hooves or legs. Given enough time, she’d probably find a way to let the Aviars live underwater if they wanted.”

Now that’s an example of accommodating and celebrating diversity. #weneeddiversebooks

The first two books in this series were Above World and Mirage. I suggest reading the books in order.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Cybils: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. The category description for YA Speculative Fiction says:

Magic, aliens, ghosts, alternate universes, time travel, space travel, high fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, horror, and sentient animals are just some of the many topics that belong here. If a book could happen today or could have happened in the past, nominate it in YA Fiction. But any story that’s impossible, improbable, or merely possible – but not quite yet – belongs in Speculative Fiction. Magic Realism is tricky, but more often than not ends up here. The age range for this category is approximately 12-18.

Here are a few YA Speculative Fiction books that may deserve a look, but haven’t been nominated yet. If one of these is your favorite, please nominate it for a Cybils award.

Parched by Georgia Clark.
Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski.
Destined for Doon by Carey Corp and Lorey Langdon. Reviewed at The Book Nut: A Booklover’s Guide.
Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan.
Mindwar by Andrew Klavan.
One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.
Merlin’s Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. NOMINATED
Rebels (The Safe Lands) by Jill Williamson.

Do carry on with nominations for all your favorites in all of the categories, but only those books published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014 are eligible.

Parched by Georgia Clark

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after . . . a disaster that ruins the world. Possible apocalyptic disasters include nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster.”

“A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.”

Obviously there is/can be some overlap here. Hunger Games is dystopian fiction, but it is hinted that some apocalyptic disaster caused the government of Panem to become what it was. Divergent also falls into this in between category, with most of the emphasis being on the uncovering of the dystopia underneath the seeming utopia of future Chicago. Parched is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

Disaster: fifty years of climate change leading to world wide drought and a severe shortage of water.

Ostensible utopia that is actually a dystopia: Eden, a city enclosed by white walls and a clear protective dome under which water is kept for the exclusive benefit of the Edenites. Outside Eden is the Badlands where millions live in violent anarchy with a growing shortage of water.

Government: authoritarian, led by a dictator named Gyan and a group of functionaries called the Trust.

Hero/heroine: Sixteen year old Tessendra Rockwood, an Edenite who, because of the tragic accident that killed her mother, has left the protective environment she grew up in to live in the Badlands outside the city.

Rebel group: Kudzu, a group of teens who are determined to change their world by means of non-violent resistance.

Technology: Eden is highly technological with robots called “substitutes” that perform most of the menial labor in the city, and the development of artificial intelligence is on the horizon for the scientists of Eden. Inhabitants of the Badlands exist on the edges of civilization, using primitive low-tech weapons and the cast-off technology of Eden to survive.

I thought Parched was well-written and solid in its world-building and characterizations. I did figure out one of the two major “reveals’ in the book before they were revealed, but I’m not sure every reader would. And sometimes Tess acts sixteen year old dumb while at other times she is brave, strong, and skilled way beyond her years. If the “border crisis” in Parched is meant to mirror and comment on the current border crisis in the U.S., it’s eerily prescient since the book was published in March of this year just before the border crisis began to dominate the news in mid-summer.

There is teen romance in Parched (no triangle, thank goodness), but it’s an interesting and somewhat restrained romance. There is some mild bad language, which could have have been left out, but unfortunately wasn’t. The language, violence, theme of rebellion against a repressive government, and romance make this one firmly YA, although both younger and older readers who like Orleans by Sherri Smith or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities would also like Parched.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, unbelievable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Note: I do not usually give “stars” or numerical ratings to books, and after reading The Circle, I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t believe all of the people on Goodreads who say they have read the book and are still giving it a numerical rating. The sheer farce of assigning everyone and everything a numerical value and “liking” or “not liking” it is well-parodied in The Circle. So, just don’t do it, folks. Books are not numbers. (Although I kind of like “like” buttons . . .)

And, yes, I know that the gadget I’m using to allow you to share this review on social media sites, says “sharing is caring” just below this post. Irony or the beginning of the approach to Armageddon?