Beatrice Prior lives in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian Chicago where a long time ago the society was divided into five factions based on the virtues they value most, to prevent discord and war. Amity stands for kindness and friendship, Candor value honesty, Erudite – knowledge, Abnegation – selflessness, and Dauntless – bravery. In an annual Choosing Ceremony, all 16 year olds have to make a lifelong choice: they have to pick the faction most suited to them and forever be loyal to it.
Beatrice comes from Abnegation, but struggles with her place in the faction she was born in. Before the Ceremony, all the initiates undergo an aptitude test. The consequences of the aptitude test and Beatrice’s choice of faction forever change her life; and she realises there is more to all the factions than meets the eye.
The story is fast paced, action filled, where the protagonist barely takes breaths between one activity and another. There are a lot of tough-girl moments, with plenty of violence. For young adult fans that enjoy entertainment, it may be a fun read. And it did manage to be entertaining and mildly interesting. But, the faults in the book are too many to overlook. I will not go into specifics to prevent spoilers, but will refer to key story points.
To begin with, the premise itself begs to be critiqued. How can humans ever be divided based on just five qualities, and then exist within the paradigm of their principles throughout their lives? This kind of social system is highly insubstantial and over simplified. Human beings experience a myriad of emotions, and it is not possible for them to live without discord for long. With so many individual voices, friction is inevitable. And in such a society which breeds segregation and competing beliefs, war is inevitable. So how could this Chicago exist for so many generations, without a war breaking out before? Even if we believe that people have a dominant trait, there should be the occasional displays of other aspects of human emotions and behaviour by everyone.
The concept is interesting on a superficial level but entirely implausible. Dystopian stories are meant to provoke thought, reflection, but there should be a substantial amount of logic and possibility to achieve that.
The characterisation is uninteresting and not compelling enough. Beatrice often comes across as selfish and not likable. She passes judgement on everyone she meets. As the heroine, the main voice, you don’t feel much for her. Most of the other characters don’t register at all.
There is zero world building. You have no explanation of how this world came to be; who divided the factions and why. The few explanations are vague and not sufficiently developed. The idea of the government being represented by just one faction is ridiculous especially since there is no obvious corruption of the system presented. The Abnegation faction members are the only leaders. What about the other qualities? Doesn’t a government require intelligent, friendly, honest and brave leaders too?
All work is divided between factions. There is absolutely no intermixing of people, neither on a personal nor on a professional level. Erudite are the scientists, teachers, researchers, developers, etc. Amity are the agrarian folk; Candor only seem to be lawyers, though it is unclear (and where would be the need in such a society where they avoid confrontation?), and the Dauntless keep the city safe and protect it, but from what is never mentioned.
All the activities that Beatrice goes through as part of initiation are mostly childish. Basically, the initiates learn to beat each other senseless, throw knives and shoot guns, apart from various thrill seeking activities in the name of training. Even worse, it takes just a month for Beatrice and the others to become proficient and become warriors. Death and other horrible incidents are experienced and absorbed by the characters with frightening ease. This causes the emotional moments to not touch heart and the impact is negligent. Also because the characters are not properly developed, their deaths have no impact. There is far too much random violence without proper justification. The story only picks up steam towards the end. The villain is also a one dimensional character who fails to impress or make an impact.
The book does have some deep observations about constricting societies and identities, but nothing in the story is particularly thought provoking, except societies’ tendency to put people in boxes. There is a certain amount of complexity to the theme, and the observations on human behaviour.
Overall the novel didn’t have much of an impact, story-wise, plot-wise, character-wise. It was mostly a lot of juvenile action with a bit of romance thrown in. But if you don’t think much about the faction system, it makes for a passable, decent first novel.