The Hunger Games.
I'm happy to report that Veronica Roth's debut novel Divergent is one of the good ones. And because I've harped on this ad nauseam in practically every single review of a dystopia I've written lately, I feel the need to state this right away: this book tells a complete story. That's right folks, it's the first in a trilogy, but there is still a beginning, a middle, and an end. I feel like hunting down Veronica Roth and personally thanking her for this favor.
Now that I've gotten that important tidbit out of the way, I suppose you'd like to know what Divergent is actually about. In a future Chicago, the people have been divided into factions that each value a different personality characteristic: Erudite values learning, Dauntless values courage, Amity values kindness, Candor values honesty, and Abnegation values selflessness. Something terrible happened in the past (what that terrible thing is, we don't find out, but it's implied that it's a big war) and the faction system was created to prevent that terrible thing from happening again. Each faction believes that a lack of their own chosen characteristic was the cause of the strife that plagued the world before - Erudite thinks ignorance is to blame, Dauntless thinks cowardice is to blame, and so on. It's an interesting idea that I don't fully buy into, but Roth's writing and plotting is good enough that I was willing to suspend my disbelief.
Beatrice Prior, our protagonist, was born into Abnegation. She's about 16 years old (people in Abnegation don't keep track of their birthdays since that would be selfish) and will soon choose which faction she wants to be a part of, along with all the other 16 year olds. Most people choose the faction they were born into, but not all. Those who don't choose their parents' faction are usually ostracized by their family (you see the problems beginning already).
Prior to the choosing ceremony, all 16 year olds undergo a test whose purpose is to help them decide which faction is best suited to them. The test isn't decisive - it's merely meant to guide the person. Beatrice's situation is unique: the test tells her she is best suited for not one faction, but two, making her a divergent, something very dangerous in Beatrice's world. Luckily, the person administering her test is a kind soul and erases Beatrice's results, entering in a manual result for one faction. Beatrice then struggles with her decision at the ceremony - which faction will she choose?
Initiation into the chosen faction follows the ceremony, and it's anything but pleasant. It's a long, drawn-out process that takes weeks where the initiate must prove she belongs in that faction. During initiation, Beatrice discovers that her secret status as a divergent means more than just the fact that she might belong in two factions. She also begins to uncover secrets about the faction system and their leaders (I love a dystopia with some juicy secrets that are revealed at key points in the story). The stakes are high and the trustworthy people few.
Divergent is action-packed the whole way through, aside from the first few chapters that set up the premise. Beatrice's initiation into her chosen faction is particularly well-done. The initiation challenges both her body and her mind, and the process also allows the reader to get to know the other initiates and their foibles and fears. While many of the ancillary characters aren't fully fleshed, Beatrice herself is a dynamic character who grows and changes throughout the book. There's also a romance, but it doesn't overwhelm the story and it makes sense in context. What's more, Beatrice relies on herself rather than her love interest during initiation and what follows, and even supports him at times.
There's a lot of comparisons with other dystopias that can be made - I personally don't mind that there's a lot of derivative dystopias out there as long as the author can write well and add a unique twist - but I actually found myself thinking of the Harry Potter books as I read Divergent. In both series, children/teens are divided into houses/factions based on personality characteristics, with one particular characteristic overriding the others and determining much of the person's future. The problems with this system of separation are similar in both sets of novels: rather than fostering teamwork and togetherness among each house or faction, the system fosters hatred of other houses or factions and derision of their most valued characteristic. The special hatred between Slytherin and Gryffindor in the Harry Potter novels is mirrored in Divergent with the hatred between Erudite and Abnegation.
Divergent avoids a lot of the pitfalls that other recent dystopias have fallen victim to: it tells us something about how we live now (how labels can divide us, the importance of teamwork, the difficulties of friendship during competition, and the dangers of a herd mentality), the characters' actions make sense within the context of the novel, it tells a complete story, and the female protagonist is active rather than passive.
I would have liked to see more world-building. As I mentioned before, I don't completely buy into the premise, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that Roth doesn't tell the reader what happened to create this very unique society. Julia Karr's XVI - another dystopia set in Chicago - does a much better job of this, but her world is also more closely related to our own, so the world-building comes a bit easier. I hope that future installments will give me a better picture of the decimated Chicago and greatly expand upon the snippets we saw in Divergent. Overall, though, Divergent is a book that stands out from the pack, and I look forward to the sequels.