Review: Insurgent and Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

InsurgentHC-jkt-des4allegiant+cover>>Published (Insurgent): May 2012

>>Published (Allegiant): October 2013

>>Finally got around to both: March 2014

I feel like I am not hearing anything new—just the same philosophy that spawned the factions, driving people to manipulate their genes instead of separating into virtue-based groups. I understand it. On some level I even agree with it. But I don’t know how it relates to us, here, now.

“But when the genetic manipulations began to take effect, the alterations had disastrous consequences. As it turns out, the attempt had resulted not in corrected genes, but in damaged ones,” David says. “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.

***

Up front: I’m going to be spoiling elements of the entire series in this review, up to and including the end of Allegiant, so fair warning.

I reviewed the first book in author Veronica Roth’s YA trilogy, Divergent, back when it was first released in mid-2011. Due to an overwhelming number of other books I wanted and needed to read in the interim, and my desire to absorb the series in one large gulp, I opted to hold off on its sequel, Insurgent, when it was released a year later, waiting instead for the release of the final book in the series, Allegiant, which dropped into stores late last year. Now with the first of the books’ film adaptations released in theatres, it seemed a perfect time to finally revisit and polish off the series.

I’m glad I did, too, because there’s a lot to like in Roth’s futuristic dystopia. While it does take a great many things from other, more developed sources of inspiration, and certain elements of the series stumble and fall apart entirely by the end of the third book, I still found myself caring about certain characters more than I ever expected to, and by the end felt satisfied by where they ended up. I don’t think Roth’s relationships were necessarily all that successful, but more on that later.

To go back to the very beginning: The Divergent trilogy takes place primarily in a post-catastrophe version of Chicago, where at the age of sixteen all citizens are forced to choose a “faction.” These factions become one’s home; fellow initiates become one’s family (the phrase “faction before blood” is ingrained in the minds of all, it seems, in this dystopian society). The factions themselves are broken down into five attractive possibilities, highlighting individuals’ potential (and as a result, drawing attention to many of their worst traits as well): there’s Abnegation for the selfless, Erudite for the intellectual elite, Amity for the peace-loving non-aggressive types, Candor for the brutally honest, and Dauntless for the brave, mostly fearless, and moderately masochistic.

As the series begins, Abnegation-born Beatrice “Tris” Prior and her brother Caleb are preparing to choose their futures. While the brainy and deceitful Caleb choses Erudite, Tris embraces her inner wild child (or something like that) and decides on a life with Dauntless. Within the Dauntless community, she trains extensively alongside other possible initiates, faces her deepest fears (with help from a vaguely detailed hallucinogenic serum), and even falls in love with Four—Tobias, one of her guides through Dauntless initiation.

By the end of the first book, Erudite’s villainous leader Jeanine Matthews, with assistance from some of the more arrogant leaders of Dauntless, puts into motion a plan to seize control of the other factions—starting with the elimination of the Abnegation. She accomplishes such a feat through the use of another serum—a form of mind control that turns nearly all of the Dauntless initiates into sleepwalking weapons. Tris and Tobias naturally put an end to the attack, but at great cost to their families and the future of their society.

The second book in the series, Insurgent brings the factionless sect of the population into play in a big way. Led by Tobias’s previously thought dead mother Evelyn, the factionless aim to take down Jeanine Matthews and destroy the faction system by any means necessary (in the process, replacing one tyrant with another).

Insurgent is far and away the most action-packed of the three books, but also the most infuriating. As the growing resistance to the Erudite hits fever pitch, Tris and Tobias’s relationship is tested… and tested again, and again, and again, with lies on top of lies and hair-trigger shouting matches that unfortunately drain a lot of life from the book. Nearly all the life, in fact. Hell, two thirds of the way through Insurgent I just wanted Tris and Tobias to hate-fuck one another and get it out of their systems so they could see how absolutely terrible they were as a couple.

By the end of the second book, with previously established villains done away with and a rather out-of-left-field revelation as to the state of the world outside the protective fence surrounding Chicago, the entire story is tossed on its head, leading directly into the third and final book in the series, Allegiant.

Picking up right where Insurgent left off, Allegiant immediately throws a wrench into the mix by changing the established narrative format: the first two books in the series take place entirely in first-person, from Tris’s perspective; Allegiant also takes place in the first-person, but splits chapters between both Tris and Tobias, offering a new side to the tale—and accentuating, intentionally or not, Tris’s more aggravating traits, such as her absolute inability to see the grey in the motivations and actions of others. This decision to alter the established format helped to keep the narrative moving in more interesting and varied directions than Insurgent, and additionally helped to avoid one of the larger problems with the Hunger Games franchise—that everything interesting happened when Katniss was unconscious, leaving her and readers to experience events after the fact and not in the moment.

Despite the welcome change in format, however, Allegiant offers the most uneven story of the trilogy. What began as an interesting metaphor via the different factions, for how as youths we learn to differentiate ourselves from our friends, family, and classmates based on our skills and aptitude, is stripped away, revealed as a mere shroud for an elaborate government endeavour to salvage humanity’s survival by seeking out the genetically “pure” among the greater population. These, of course, are those who were hunted in the first book for being Divergent, for being able to think and act outside the confines of their faction’s straightforward characteristics and thought patterns. The reason for all this is due to the Purity War that previously decimated North America. Only with help and dissemination of the strongest genetic specimens will the world crawl out of its current state of disaster, where GDs—the “genetically damaged”—threaten to repeat the sins of the past, weakening the species as a whole.

At least I think that was the point of all this. To tell you the truth, the plot, like the character’s actions themselves (so much betrayal!), becomes quite muddled thanks to an overreliance on a rudimentary analysis of genes and the threats associated with genetic manipulation. And beyond all this talk of genes are the serums—chemical concoctions for all types of necessary actions and recourses, along with convenient inoculations against the serums when the plot calls for it. If I sound a bit annoyed by this, it’s because the serums, when introduced in the first book, are extremely vague—and the more Roth expands and relies on the different types of serums in books two and three, the more convenient, and subsequently less interesting, they become. In fact, serums of all types are referenced so often in Allegiant (seeing as they are the crux of every plan, good and evil alike), and detailed so minimally, that they quickly become a multi-faceted deus ex machina—a set of skeleton keys for every eventuality. They wind up distracting from the characters themselves—it’s as if in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final battle was not between Harry and Voldemort but the spells Expelliarmus and Avada Kedavra.After a while, I got so sick of the word “serum” I started mentally replacing it with “jellybean,” improving my enjoyment of the book considerably.

As the story expands, introducing readers to Roth’s vision of the decimated world outside of the Chicago experiment, Allegiant is faced with a clear crisis of identity: on one hand, by allowing us insight into both Tris and Tobias’s heads, it strives for more intimacy than either of the previous two books; on the other hand, it wants to grow and expand into something larger, more epic in scope, now that they’ve managed to escape their faction-orientated lives. However, in both cases the narrative doesn’t quite succeed: for me, Tris and Tobias’s relationship ended in the second book—the horrible way they treat one another, blowing up at one another so many times I lost count, lying continuously to one another for this, that, and the other reason… the author was never able to convince me there was still love between them, not even in their post-coital glow (yeah, I know, she doesn’t come right out and say it, but they totally fucked, right?); and in regards to the larger narrative, by abandoning the factions and focusing almost exclusively on the goings-on at the Bureau monitoring the Chicago experiment, the narrative somehow becomes smaller, as individuals and alliances and all the chaos from inside the city are removed for a story that supposedly involves the entire United States government yet feels encapsulated within the lives and machinations of just a few dozen people. The bulk of the third book could take place at a research station in the middle of Antarctica and it would feel about as small and restricted. The artifice of the factions, while implausible, offered more convincing stakes than anything that happens on the Fringe or at the Bureau.

I know I’m complaining a lot, but really, despite the aforementioned issues, I did enjoy my time with the series, more or less. Mostly because for all its narrative missteps, I appreciate what it feels like Roth was shooting for. The divide between the different factions in Divergent is at first ideological, but by Allegiant and the introduction of the genetic war, it’s clear Roth is attempting to comment on not just ideological differences but also divergences between classes, races, and even sexualities (a short subplot involving Amar and Tris discussing the former’s attraction to Tobias and being unable to divulge his preferences due to Bureau rules and regulations—any relationship not for the passing on of “improved” genes is not encouraged—offers a small but essential bit of insight into just how far off the deep end the Bureau really is). The interesting social subplots that might have developed from this increased focus are unfortunately overwhelmed by a lot of action and unnecessary verbal altercations, but I appreciate even the mere threads of their existence.

There were other issues, too—the adults never quite felt like adults, merely children older and more adept at deception; the punishment for Tobias’s “great crime” is ridiculously lenient and feels like a throwaway element for the sake of adding extra drama to the proceedings, to drive yet another wedge between he and Tris—but the final stumbling block I found is with something I’ve heard others complain about. I’m speaking, of course, of Tris’s death.

What’s that you say? Fuck you, Andrew, for spoiling the ending? Didn’t you read the warning at the beginning of this bloody review?

Anyway, yes, Tris dies—not from death jellybeans (serum) as expected, but from a couple of gunshots to the back (try as I might, I can’t think of another YA character shot as many times throughout a series as Tris). She sacrifices herself for her brother, Caleb, as her final act of bravery, to show him that she had in fact forgiven him for almost getting her killed in the second book (which makes her a better person than me). However, I didn’t mind that she sacrificed herself for Caleb, shit stain that he is. Actually, I felt it fit quite well with her character. No, my problem with Tris’s death is that because of the narrative’s previously discussed limitations, and the surprisingly small scope of Allegiant’s government-indicting tale, her death felt somehow… insignificant.

But let’s end this rambling diatribe on a positive note: I very much enjoyed Allegiant’s epilogue, which picks up with Tobias two and a half years after the fall of the Bureau, as a cautious balance has been achieved between the world within the fence and the world outside. It is in this final section that Roth achieves something I’d thought impossible since the middle of Insurgent: she made me care about Tobias and Tris’s relationship again. While it’s too little too late for Tris, the epilogue offers a satisfying resolution for Tobias, forcing him to face several of his fears at once and still stand strong.

Overall, though the series has its ups and downs, it is more successful, and enjoyable, than its two closest competitors: The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. While the first book, Divergent, is undoubtedly the strongest of the three, followed by Allegiant then Insurgent, the series will successfully scratch your YA dystopia itch. I wish the world were more thought out in terms of details, and that the scope of things were increased so that the situation felt as dire as we were instructed to believe, but Roth’s trilogy offers a mostly satisfying tale, occasionally overburdened by uncooked ideas, yet nicely wrapped up in its final pages.

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One thought on “Review: Insurgent and Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

  1. You are so right about the serums! Oh my God, I never want to even see that word again. They used to be just a little incidental plot device but in the last book they become the plot themselves. It’s so annoying and so contrived, and it makes the conflict really hard to take seriously or even care about when it comes down to who is going to use what serum against this serum to stop that serum. I do not care. And the memory serum especially – she may well have just called it the deus ex machina serum, because that’s all it is in this story. Just a convenient way to magically whisk away any problem or plot hole without bothering to come up with rational ideas or explanations. And the main conflict of the story – which is meant to be the conflict that sums of the entire series – is solved this way, by magically whisking it away by literally hitting a reset button. I have a very hard time taking any of it seriously when the whole thing is simply done away with in such a lazy way. It’s like if the Harry Potter books had Harry and the gang solve their problems and defeat the bad guys by finding an actual spell that literally just makes the bad guy go away.

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