Novel * Veronica Roth * Y.A.T. Dystopia * 2013
Hot off the revelation at the end of Insurgent, the final novel in this trilogy has quite a lot of ground to cover in order to wrap this story up in a satisfying way. Like so many stories before it, Allegiant has trouble maintaining its grace and energy through to the conclusion, and as a result this last volume feels a little flat compared to the first two books. I was really hoping this wouldn’t be the case, even though it had been heavily hinted at me by those who had already finished the series. Prior to this, the series has excelled in presenting a well thought out, if limited dystopian world of intrigue and rebellion. Tris and her dysfunctional brigade of friends, enemies, and bystanders are all well drawn characters. Events unfold in a naturalistic way, considering the confines of this strange, isolated society. Of course the bombshell of Insurgent managed to throw everything up into the air. Up to this point, these books have asked every relevant question about this faction-based society, and now it is up to Allegiant to answer them.
The central problem that arises from this situation is that Allegiant then becomes Exposition: The Book. Like many (I would even venture to say most) stories that build from a place of carefully cultivated mystery, when the time for answers rolls around, disappointment is left in its wake. Roth does an admirable job in attempting to craft a wider world here, but I think the problem is tied directly to the way in which she has told her story. Don’t worry, I’ll get into specifics in a moment, but from a wider perspective Roth has to this point told a very focused story. Every action by every character has been in relation to the world of Chicago that we’ve been reading about for two full books. We’re as invested in this world of factions and unrest as we are in the characters. And then, all of a sudden, we’re thrust into this whole other thing with all these other people doing totally different stuff. It’s jarring, but it also cheapens everything that’s happened in the first couple of books. At the very least, the character growth of our principal characters is still important. The scope of the world has changed drastically, but these are still the same essential people who have been marked by their experiences. Speaking of which, that’ll do for a preamble. I’m guessing if you’ve read the first two books of a trilogy, you’re going to read the third, even if you know it’s going to be disappointing. And to be clear, the book isn’t bad, and Allegiant in no way undermines the trilogy as a whole. It’s well worth the time. That said, let’s get into it.
I will admit that my biggest problem with Allegiant is likely different that the problem most people will have with it. As I’ve already mentioned, I feel that Roth is less effective as a writer the larger the scope of the world gets. Which is to say I liked Divergent the most largely because it was so tightly focused on Tris and her training. It felt like a very personal book, and because Tris was so open and flawed, it made for a very engaging read. Chicago in that first novel was also super intriguing. The factions and the reasons behind them are a unique way to organize a post-Apocalyptic society, and the way that society began to fall apart not only made sense in a practical manner, but also illuminated the ways in which real societies end up disintegrating over time. Human nature is a bitch, it turns out. Meanwhile, Tris grew up fast, and found herself learning how to be a leader, and a friend, and a lover. That’s a lot to take in for a sixteen year old, and she does an admirable job.
A little too admirable, sometimes. I think the aspect of the novel that strains believability the most are the scenes that involve Tris and Tobias getting into fights only to make up in the most level-headed, well-reasoned manner possible that often sound like a therapist wrote them. I might be old and out of touch with the youth, but I still remember being a teen. It was terrible. You make poor decisions based on emotion and then double down on them, even if you know it’s the wrong thing to do. That’s adolescence. Tris and Tobias sometimes act in ways that many adults can’t manage. In a sense, I get it. There needs to be conflict between these two which also needs to be resolved before the ending, and I cannot tell you how happy I am that Roth doesn’t resort to the tired-ass trope of an obnoxious love triangle to create this conflict. The resolution to this conflict also needs to be solid enough to last a lifetime, because holy shit you guys Roth actually went and did it.
There’s a few different ways stories like this can play out, and I have very conflicting feelings about protagonist-killing. On the one hand, I’m impressed with the courage of the author to go ahead and do it. Honestly, if you think you’re invested in a character after reading about them for three books, imagine what that person means to the author writing for them. It takes real fortitude and conviction as a writer to pull the trigger when the story demands it. On the other hand, I’m very rarely sure that a story requires that kind of sacrifice. Having Tris die obviously lends the narrative a certain weight that it wouldn’t otherwise carry. Maybe? Like I said, I’m conflicted. Part of me has always been disappointed that J.K. Rowling didn’t allow Harry to sacrifice himself at the end of that series, but then I still kind of respect her for saying fuck it and going for the full cheeseball ending. If they’re going to live happily ever after, you may as well mean it. I’m not sure what that level of ending would have been here, had Tris lived. As it stands, there is a new world being built without her, but I’m not sure what kind of world that is, either.
Uncertainty seems to be the word of the day, then, but much of that stems from the larger world that is described in Allegiant. Compared to the faction-based society of Chicago, the larger world is an incoherent mess. This can’t be helped, considering the time limitations involved. The first two novels took place in Chicago. We were shown how that society works, we lived it vicariously through Tris as she navigated both the functioning and disintegrating versions of it. Then, all of a sudden, we’re told all this other nonsense about Purity wars and genetic defects and whatever. One thing I do appreciate is that the characters are just as bewildered by all this as the reader. It’s a nice touch, but while they quickly adapt to their new surrounds, I never quite did. I still have so many questions. What happened to the rest of the world? Are you telling me that adventurous outsiders never managed to sneak into one of the experiments? They didn’t seem exactly airtight, after all, and it would only take one person to get in and start talking about airplanes and shit before people started asking questions. Speaking of airplanes, there’s no way somebody wouldn’t screw up and reveal the outside world to these people. Also, other things. I’m not going to nitpick it to death. The larger point is, it doesn’t seem like as much care or thought was put into the wider world of the Divergent books as was placed into the faction system of experimental Chicago, and as a result, the state of the world by the end of the series feels incomplete.
There are worse things, of course. For the most part, I’m happy with the time spent on the trilogy. Roth excels at getting to the deeper human truths behind post-Apocalyptic fiction. Her dystopic vison of the future is entirely based on ingrained human behavior. The factions are a stroke of genius in that they explicitly name and examine the types of human thought and action that define not only us as individuals, but how we organize into societies. The expanded world touches on these themes, even if the structure of the future United States is a bit hazy. The factions of the wider world are not as pronounced as they are in the experiments, obviously, but they are still drawn into positions based on genetics and social status. These are some of the lessons of the Apocalypse, and they’re discussed well here. That said, it’s still a shame that Tris isn’t around to help direct the society that she helped to create. I think.