May flew by, but not without a bit of exciting reading.
While setting up my company’s booth at the International Reading Association, I peeked next door and saw a postcard for Insurgent, the sequel to a book on my shelf at home.
“The first book in that series is on the top of my reading list at home,” I told an attendant. Some middle-aged guy working for a tiny publisher of books for the special education market had just admitted to reading a book for teenaged girls. Very suspicious.
And it wasn’t exactly true, but I’m glad I lied. When I got home and saw Divergent, the first book in the series, I started in on it very quickly. It was the most exciting teen novel I’d read since finishing Mockingjay, and that was a year and a half ago. (I read the first five Game of Thrones books in the interim, but that won’t compare very well for all the differences, and I reacted differently to Martin’s fantasy, anyway.)
It was so exciting, the next thing I read (aside from manga, stuff for work, or soccer training materials) was Catching Fire, which I just finished a few hours ago.
The bridges between Divergent and the Hunger Games series are urgency, a compelling dystopian setting, clockwork structure, and well-crafted teenage female leads.
The urgency of Divergent is less existential, at first. The problems Beatrice Prior faces are subtler and less immediately lethal than those faced by Katniss Everdeen. Somehow, the wrenching philosophical and emotional issues Beatrice faces rise to the level of urgency of Katniss’. Rereading Catching Fire reminded me not only how well Suzanne Collins wrote action sequences, but also how well she wrote interior monologue. The strands of conflict and significance revealed in the first chapter follow through each to the last, taut and humming. This is the urgency matched by Veronica Roth in Divergent.
Strange laws, a warped society, alien values or ways of expressing them, the transformation of the familiar into the strange—these are some of the elements that go into a believable dystopia. Both worlds—Panem and Veronica Roth’s Chicago—have somewhat simplistic organizations. Panem has twelve, or maybe thirteen (find out for yourself), districts and a Capitol region, spread out across the former United States. Each produces specific commodities or manufactures a class of products, almost as Roman colonies, but simplified. One district manufactures electronics, one mines coal, one produces textiles, and no others duplicate these categories. Two produce food: one terrestrial and one maritime. Readers can accept this unrealistic situation because the rest of the narrative is so immediately realistic, almost tactile. Collins is especially successful at evoking place, both in terms of sensation and in terms of emotion.
Roth’s Chicago is cleverly transformed in physical terms, but still recognizable. The crucial social organization is simplified and easily understood, but simplistic, the Faction as unrealistic as the Districts of Panem. In place of Districts producing distinct products, each Faction in Divergent subscribes to different values and norms of behavior. This, even more than the differences among districts in The Hunger Games trilogy, adds color to the story line.
This is a good point to make a transition from comparing the dystopias to comparing the high degree of organization common to the Hunger Games trilogy and Divergent. I felt that this was what distinguished Roth’s and Collins’ work from other teen fiction. At each stage, significant details are revealed that either set the stage for later, elaborate on a theme from earlier, or both. The heroine (protoheroine?) Beatrice Prior’s early-revealed fascination with the daring members of the Dauntlesss Faction makes more sense as layers of the society, Beatrice’s past, and her family’s past are revealed, adding layer upon layer of significance to events and situations that seem unimportant or ambiguous.
Collins ratchets up the emotional stress with each additional layer, threatening to overwhelm the reader. Roth weaves the strands of significance back and forth a little less intensely, at least within the first book, but in a similar manner.
One of the similarities in appeal between the Hunger Games trilogy and Divergent is in modeling personalities in the books after real-world teen concerns. In the Hunger Games, children are forced into combat in the arena each year. In Divergent, teens choose their faction at the age of 16, and are initiated or cast out depending on their ability to adapt to completely new rules. This is far more subtle a setup than the Hunger Games, and there’s no central villain in the arrangement, but the most notable difference is that the factions behave a lot like social cliques in some ways. Imagine social cliques with their own laws, territories, and lethal induction ceremonies, as well as hangouts, clothing styles, lingo, and forms of entertainment.