Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Dystopian (page 1 of 2)

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

We’re never too old to try something new. Jeanette Winterson, of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame, decided to have a crack at writing the trans experience last year with Frankissstein. In that spirit, I’m going to try something new with my review, too. See, given the content of this novel, it really doesn’t feel right for me to review it from only my own perspective. I’m allowed to have my own opinion, of course – everyone is! – but I think I would be doing you all a disservice by not calling in someone to speak to this book with me. So, here we have it: the first co-written Keeping Up With The Penguins review.

Writing this review with me is Chent: a very, very, very (very!) dear friend of mine. We sell books together at a local book store, and also share a lot of mutual love over on #bookstagram. Chent read Frankissstein around the same time that I did, at my urging. Chent is a non-binary trans-masc person, like one of the central characters, so he has a particularly important perspective on the most salient aspects of this book.

Frankissstein tells two interweaving stories: a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Shelley in 1816, living with grief and writing Frankenstein; and an imagined near-future with Ry Shelley, a scientist grappling with the new reality of sex bots, artificial intelligence, and capitalist exploitation of those technological developments. Alternating between these two timelines makes for a strange hopscotch of historical fiction and speculative dystopia. Mary Shelley’s life story is fairly well-known, so we probably don’t need to lay too much of that out for you (other than to say that Winterson’s depiction of her, as a brazen outraged feminist who calls Lord Byron out on all of his bullshit, is amazing). Ry’s story is a little more complicated…



Ry was assigned female at birth, but identifies in the book’s timeline as trans/non-binary. It would seem, though, that they pass as masc/male, given that other characters constantly misgender them and mistake their name as being short for “Ryan”. Here’s where the problems begin…

Ry, as a character, is completely flat. Their only notable characteristic is their trans body. It is the only topic of conversation, the only factor at play in their relationships, and that bears little resemblance to the varied, interesting, and complex lives of trans people. Even making room for the demands and constraints of speculative fiction, Frankissstein fails even the most basic test of reflecting anything about actual trans lives and experiences.

Reviewers really, really went for Winterson’s throat on this, how she presented a supposedly-trans narrative. Sheree, as a cis-woman, didn’t want to discount their remarks, but at the same time she worried that their (rightly) impassioned responses might give the wrong impression (or, the right impression, not clearly explained) to other cis-readers. That’s why Chent came on board for this review, to elucidate.

Winterson is a queer woman, a queer author, and in writing Frankissstein clearly sought to queer a canonical work of literature. Unfortunately, she missed the mark by a long margin. In real-life, she has made public comments that were deeply offensive to trans communities, and it would seem that those attitudes have parlayed into her work. Ultimately, Frankissstein is not a trans story, it wasn’t written by a trans author, and – as Chent can attest – it wasn’t written for a trans audience.

In fact, it would seem that perhaps Winterson and her team willfully overlooked aspects of Ry’s story that would be hurtful and harmful to trans readers: being called a “freak”, being called a “hybrid”, the constant and unnecessary misgendering, the fetishisation of Ry’s body… While, perhaps, an argument could be made in favour of the artistic merit of any one of those choices, taken as a whole – in a story that only serves a privileged cis-gendered audience – they seem exploitative and cruel.



The only arguably effective attempt that Winterson made to address trans politics and experience in Ry’s story was “that” incident (if you’ve read the book, you know where we’re going with this, and if not, trigger warning!): Ry is violently assaulted in the men’s bathroom at a bar. This section was really resonant for Sheree. In her view, it made a really important statement about the “bathroom debate”. There have been some truly nonsensical arguments made about the supposed “danger” that trans people pose by using the same bathroom as cis-gendered people (particularly trans women using the same bathroom as cis-women). This scene presented the stark reality: in truth, trans people are at far greater risk of being victimised in that situation than being the perpetrators of violence.

Chent saw it a bit differently. That assault was presented, he felt, as the price Ry had to pay for being who they are. Ry accepted the fact of their rape, without any retribution or resolution to that injustice. It was extremely graphic, no subtlety at all – right down to the use of in-your-face shouty caps – and alienating in its unavoidable gratuitousness. Also, Ry’s emotional reaction and trauma as a result of the rape is completely silenced; in fact, it barely comes up again for the rest of the novel.

Ultimately, we (Chent and Sheree) still land on different sides of this one, but we can definitely understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Where we can completely agree, however, is the historical fiction timeline. Winterson’s talent as a writer truly shines in her depiction of Mary Shelley’s life. She pays due attention to the ways in which Shelley was mistreated, without painting her as a martyr or a voiceless victim. Winterson doesn’t romanticise Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, unlike so many who have written before her. The reader is encouraged to consider Frankenstein as a cautionary tale. As an adaptation, of sorts, it will make the reader appreciate the original even more. For those who haven’t read it, it will surely encourage them to pick it up.

That strand of Frankissstein is a complex and multi-faceted story all on its own. We both feel that, had we read the Mary Shelley story as a stand-alone novel, we would have loved it wholeheartedly. As it stands, however, we urge you to exercise caution when deciding whether to read Frankissstein for yourself. If you’re looking for a book that will open your eyes and teach you something new about the trans experience, give it a miss. If you want to read a beautiful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s life, go ahead and read it – just skip past the Ry chapters.

Note: thank you, again, to my wonderful friend Chent, for his tireless patience as I pieced together our thoughts for this review. We had a lot of really frank conversations, and I’m so grateful that he took the time to do this. Be sure to check out his #bookstagram and show him the love he well and truly deserves!


The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

All my life, whenever The Handmaid’s Tale came up in conversation with someone I know well, they were always shocked to learn I hadn’t read it already. I’d absorbed enough about it through popular culture that I had a vague idea of what it was about, of course, but no more than that – somehow, I remained miraculously spoiler-free. I hadn’t even watched the HBO series! So, I sat down to this one with a clean slate, and an open mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985. It’s set in a near-future New England (an eerie echo of The Scarlet Letter, perhaps?), re-named Gilead, where a new theological totalitarian regime has overthrown the U.S. government as we would know it in the “real” world (yes, yes, I know, the “real” world now resembles Gilead more than it ever has before, but that point has been made so often that it just feels hacky to even bring it up).

The story follows Offred, a “handmaid” in the house of Fred (get it?), the master whom she is bound to serve in this religious patriarchal hellscape. Basically, widespread infertility has rocked society so hard that they’ve rounded up all the fertile women and started using them as breeders in the households of wealthy elites. Offred is lucky enough to have functioning lady bits, so off she’s carted to Fred’s house, and his wife has to sit around and watch as Fred tries to stick one in her. Fun times!

And where the heck does Atwood even come up with twisted shit like this? The “real” world, of course (turns out I couldn’t help myself, sorry). She drew a lot from the Puritans (interesting-but-only-semi-related-fun-fact: Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s ancestors, was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, but survived her hanging), and other regimes in which women are subjugated on “religious” grounds. Basically, Atwood is challenging us to look at what would happen if casually misogynistic attitudes (prevalent in the ’80s, at the time of writing, and sadly still today) were taken to their logical extremes. Atwood has famously said that nothing in her speculative fictional world of Gilead hasn’t already happened at some point in human history. So, that’s a cheery thought!





Of course, the system extends far beyond a simple fertile/non-fertile binary: there’s a (conveniently colour-coded) hierarchy to assign women their status and roles. The Handmaids (red) are in charge of baby-making, the Aunts (brown) are in charge of “educating”, the Marthas (green) are domestic servants, the Wives (blue) are married to the men in charge and pretty much just swan around trying to hide their drinking problems and brunching, and the Econowives (stripes of every colour) are expected to do the lot for lower-status husbands. The hierarchy for men is less clear, but it seems to boil down to Commanders (like Fred) who run things, and their soldiers/lackeys. The only ones free from expectation (as much as one can in a totalitarian regime) are the Unwomen and the Jezebels, who have committed “crimes against their gender” so egregious that they’re not accepted in polite society. Good on ’em!

The history and structure of Gilead is relayed entirely from Offred’s perspective, as well as her own personal story – thus, The Handmaid’s Tale (and things from here on are going to get spoilery, so exit your browser now or forever hold your peace). She points out that dividing women in this way, so visibly and without recourse, stops them from empathising with each other (which, in turn, prevents them from banding together in resistance). Still, her exposition, her explanation of how all of this came to be, is gradual – sometimes frustratingly so. I get that Atwood didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with all the details of her world at once, but in some ways, I kind of wanted her to! Just give me the lay of the land and let’s get on with things! (And that’s why jumpy timelines and I don’t normally get along…)

And jumpy it is: in between drip-feeding us fascinating insights into how Gilead works, Offred tells us the story of both her past and her present. In her past, as the Gilead takeover was happening, she smelled blood in the water and tried to flee to Canada with her husband and child (they’d been adulterous, had a kid out of wedlock, Offred wanted to be able to do stuff like make her own money and read books – all the shit theological totalitarians hate). Ultimately, she was caught and separated from her family. Serving as a Handmaid was her punishment (or “reward”, depending how you look at it – she was “saved” by her functioning ovaries from being exiled to “the colonies”).





In Offred’s present, her life revolves around doing the daily grocery shop (because stretching one’s legs is good for the womb, somehow), and The Ceremony every time she ovulates (i.e., a rape ritual, intended to impregnate her). That is, until her Commander goes off script, and asks to start seeing her on the side. They’re not supposed to have any interaction outside of The Ceremony (she’s not a concubine, after all, she’s a Handmaid), but he’s all keen to get together and play Scrabble, and he gives her lotion and booze as bribes to keep her quiet about his indiscretions. Offred later learns that he tried a similar carry-on with his former Handmaid, and she killed herself when his wife found out.

But Fred’s wife is none the wiser, for the moment, and even decides she likes Offred enough to make her own illicit overtures: she suggests that Offred try to get their driver, Nick, to impregnate her (seeing as Fred’s clearly struggling to get the job done). Offred and Nick develop a relationship, getting it on every chance they get, and eventually start sharing secrets.

Atwood keeps on world-building, right up until the final chapters – I know I complained about that just a minute ago, but I’ve got to give it to her, the writing craft is absolutely superb. It turns out, there is a resistance, and Nick might be able to get Offred out, smuggle her to safety. But can she trust him? He could be a spy – an Eye, as they’re called in Gilead – and it could all be an elaborate ruse to catch Offred out. In the end, Nick shows up with a car full of Eyes, and tells her to let them “arrest” her because they’re actually undercover members of the resistance. She figures she doesn’t have much choice, she’s bundled into the car, and away she goes. Her fate, in the reader’s mind, was left completely uncertain (until the sequel was released last year, anyway).





The real master-stroke, the knock-out punch, is the epilogue that reveals the “truth” of the story’s frame. It turns out Offred’s narrative was recorded onto a series of cassette tapes, and the transcript is being presented at a conference for academics that study “the Gilead period” of history. Atwood implies that Gilead collapsed, at some point, and a more equal society then emerged, with restored rights for women and freedom of religion. The academics, like the reader, have no idea what happened to Offred in the end, and these tapes are one of the few records (or “testaments”, eh?) they have on what went on in those dark days.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a vital book – even if the jumpy timeline(s) and drip-feed world-building annoyed me, I absolutely acknowledge its brilliance and ongoing relevance, on par with Nineteen Eighty-Four. It won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release. Plus, it’s been challenged and banned too many times to count (always a good sign!), because it’s too sexually explicit, it has “adult themes”, it presents a negative view of religion, yadda yadda yadda…

That’s not to say it’s beyond reproach, of course (literature, no matter how good, never is). One particularly interesting critique I read, from Ana Cottle, positioned The Handmaid’s Tale as a manifestation of white feminism. Not only did Atwood barely acknowledge the absence of women of colour in her story (thankfully rectified somewhat by their inclusion in the HBO adaptation), she also borrowed heavily from the lived experience of oppressed women of colour (Cottle specifically mentioned African-American women, but I think her critique is applicable more broadly) and slapped it on women of relative privilege. To loosely paraphrase, the reason we find The Handmaid’s Tale so confronting is that the abuses perpetrated against women of colour are suddenly perpetrated against white women, and that blows our tiny minds. It would probably take a PhD thesis to fully explore this idea and do it justice, but I still thought it worth mentioning.

In the end, I totally understood why all my friends were so shocked I’d never read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was so far up my alley, I almost laughed when I finished it. I’m glad to have read it now, and hope to do so again – it seems like the kind of book that would benefit from many re-reads, spaced out over time. As the world changes, and the reader changes, the story it tells will change too, I’m sure.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale:

  • “Handmade tales. Love this book.” – Annmarie Iamonica
  • “I didn’t enjoy the moral content.” – j3a3r
  • “This book is dark and twisted what are they thinking to come that far for womens rights then give up” – Michael Robertson
  • “Boring, weird and just more weird and boring !!!!!” – Amy R.


Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills

Dystopian fiction has a new face: cli-fi, or climate change fiction, is forcing us to confront our new reality. These books bring together the scary science of what we’re facing with the art of literary writing. Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills is the best example I’ve discovered so far. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2019, a stunning achievement for a strange and unsettling but beautifully rendered book.

Dyschronia is set on the South Australian coast in the fictional town of Clapstone. The main character, Sam, is a young girl and a teenager for most of the book, but this is not Young Adult and it’s not a coming-of-age story – definitely one for the Adult Adults. Sam is being raised by a single mother, Ivy, and she is afflicted by a mysterious illness (“dyschronia”, from which the novel draws its name). What looks from the outside to be symptoms of a migraine actually brings with it visions of a dark future. Sam can see what’s coming, and it ain’t good.

So, already we’ve got a lot at play here: visions, familial bonds, the struggles of small-town life… but what makes Dyschronia truly extraordinary is the point of view from which all this is told. Mills uses the “collective first person”, a throw-back to the days of Greek chorus storytelling. The residents of Clapstone think and act and speak as one, an interdependent entity. “We had dreams for Clapstone,” they say, “why didn’t Sam tell us?”.

For those of you who haven’t lived in a small Australian town, it’s hard for me to describe just how damn clever this technique is. There is definitely a feeling, especially when the town is under threat or facing imminent natural disaster, that the community bonds cross over into something more. You start to think, and speak, in terms of the collective. So, while Dyschronia is a contemporary surrealist sci-fi book, it’s also very much based in social realism (it seems like there’s no way those elements could merge, but in this one, they do).





Sam’s visions aren’t straightforward either. Her experience of “dyschronia” isn’t like looking into a crystal ball. Instead, she ends up straddling the present, past, and future simultaneously, and trying to piece it together isn’t easy for her, especially seeing as the visions are accompanied by crippling pain. Her eerie foresight isolates her—I mean, who wants to hang around with the girl that has to lie in a dark room and see the future every time she gets a headache? There’s some suggestion that Sam’s illness, while officially considered to be “idiopathic”, could actually have been caused by environmental contamination.

But, as anyone who would use time travel to win the lottery can attest, there are upsides to having hints as to what’s coming. After a spate of suicides (that Sam kind-of saw coming), the local asphalt plant—basically the only economic driver of Clapstone—shuts down. The remaining residents struggle to stay afloat, and Ivy’s new boyfriend, the charismatic out-of-towner Ed, tries to find a way to use Sam’s visions to “save” them all (i.e., line his own pockets, because yes, he is a confidence man). He wants to turn Clapstone into a seaside resort, with a theme park and everything, and basically bullies Sam into having visions so that she can tell him how to make it happen.

Then, one morning, Clapstone wakes up to find that the sea has retreated, like an apocalyptic tsunami in reverse. Here’s another unbelievably clever twist from Mills: she inverts our expectations of “rising” sea levels, just to keep us on our toes. The change has left a desolate landscape of soggy sand and decomposing marine life. Hardly conducive to increasing local tourism! Ed does a runner, and leaves the town with a half-built theme park, a bunch of investors waiting on returns, no foreseeable prospect of profit, and now the government bureaucracy breathing down their necks.





The townsfolk finally recognise Sam as a “real” oracle, now that they have no other choice, and end up depending on her visions to bankroll their survival. Sam feels powerless, even in that exalted position: she feels like every decision the town makes, every subsequent turns of events, is inevitable. She comes to (rightly) question whether she actually has any control over what will come to pass. Whether Sam’s visions are predictive or self-fulfilling is the central question of Dyschronia, and Mills leaves it up to you. I mean, I lean towards the latter, but other readers might feel differently—there are no “right” answers with this one.

It should be clear by this point, but just in case it isn’t, Dyschronia has a super-jumpy timeline. Normally, that would drive me nuts, BUT this is one of the very few cases where I think it’s done superbly well. It’s clear that the back-and-forth serves a purpose, serves the story. Sure, there are moments of confusion and disorientation—for Sam, and for us—but try not to double back as you read. You haven’t missed anything, I promise. All the pieces will come together before the end.

I really appreciated the way that Mills looks at the effects of climate change on “ordinary” people (the kind some might call “the quiet Australians”, ahem). Who will protect them? Who can they rely on to come to the rescue? In Dyschronia, we see the government and corporations shift the townspeople back and forth like pawns. They end up lost in the never-ending chess tournament of bureaucracy. This is a particularly terrifying book in that it all feels very plausible, even with the time-travelling and whatnot.

Honestly, there’s so much going on with this one, it’s difficult to cram it all into a single review. Dyschronia is one of those books that you could read a dozen times, and still see something different on each go-round. You’ll come for the beautiful, lyrical writing, but you’ll stay for the complexity and intricacy of the world that Mills has built. It’s Australian speculative fiction, with echoes of Erin Brokovich and The Time Traveller’s Wife, told in a classic Greek chorus style, about a future that feels all too imminent.




The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Here’s the whole truth: I didn’t feel optimistic going into The Maze Runner. My husband had seen the movie, and he told me it was terrible (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its movie, but still!). Plus, some ugly accusations about Dashner surfaced in 2018 as part of the #MeToo movement. But the book was already on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I figured I may as well go ahead. If nothing else, I suspected it would be over quickly…

… and I was right. On all counts.

The Maze Runner was first published in 2009, the first book in a young adult dystopian series of the same name. Well, it’s the “first” in the sense that it was the first to be published, but it’s actually third in narrative order (so there have been two prequels and three sequels, if that makes sense).

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a stark metal elevator. He has no memory of who he is (other than his first name), or how he came to be in that situation. Right away, I started poking holes in the premise. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that he could remember his first name but not his last, or anything else – right? I tried to tell myself not to be such a cynical snot, but the whole premise was just so flimsy, right from the outset, that I couldn’t help myself.

The elevator brings Thomas to the Glade, a large courtyard full of boys roughly his age (we’re told later that Thomas “looks” to be about sixteen, but he talks and acts like he’s twelve). He learns that a new boy arrives each month in the same way that he did, and in the same condition (with the memory loss and everything). The elevator also brings them supplies, but no, they can’t use it to escape – they’ve already tried. Thomas’s new home is surrounded by four high concrete walls, forming a square in which the boys are held. Outside the walls, they tell him, is the Maze. They send “runners” out into the maze every day to try and map its pattern and find a way out, but the pattern changes every night. They don’t stay out there after dark, because that’s when the “Grievers” emerge. Thomas is intrigued.

Yep, this is the ol’ newbie-has-to-save-the-day trope.



The “Grievers” are spoken about a lot, and even encountered a few times, but they were really hard to visualise based on the descriptions Dashner used: slimy, but mechanic; lurching, but fast… like villainous monsters designed by committee. And while we’re all rolling our eyes (you’re with me on this, right?), let’s throw something else on top of the shit heap: the boys that live in the Glade have developed their own nonsense slang, a very obvious and very lame attempt by Dashner to give the impression that his characters are very cool and swear-y, without using any actual profanity that would offend the delicate sensibilities of school boards and over-protective parents. It’s completely transparent, nothing like the masterful effort in, say, A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, The Maze Runner had very strong Lord Of The Flies vibes, right down to the bumbling, chubby best friend.

Anyway, the day after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator comes cranking up again. This time, it deposits a girl named Teresa. She carries a note saying that she’s the “last one”, and promptly lapses into a coma. The elevator stops bringing supplies, the skies turn grey, and the doors to the Maze stop closing at night (leaving everyone in the Glade vulnerable to the Grievers). Teresa remains steadfastly unconscious for about half the book. When she finally wakes up, she and Thomas decide that they “feel” like they already know each other. Oh, and they can communicate telepathically.

RANT ALERT: this telepathy thing is the worst! It’s some of the laziest hack writing I’ve encountered in all my reading life. I suspect Dashner just retro-fitted some Special Significance(TM) to it elsewhere in the series, but I’m just going to die without ever finding out and I’m okay with that. For The Maze Runner, it seemed like a deus ex machina cop-out to allow him to have his two central characters communicate privately whenever the plot needed them to. Booooo!



Anyway, I need to charge ahead with this plot summary before my eyes start to hurt from all the rolling. Thomas manages to figure out that the Maze walls move to spell out a super-special secret code. He also figures out how and where the Grievers get in and out off the Maze. He draws the logical conclusion that the easiest way for the boys to escape is to follow them. He also gets himself “stung” by one of the Grievers, on purpose, so that he can go through “The Changing” (I’m biting my tongue, I’m biting my tongue…), because it is rumoured to bring back memories of the victim’s pre-Glade life. Sure enough, he remembers the crucial bits and pieces that allow him to put a plan together. How convenient.

And away they go, down the Griever hole. Thomas, Teresa, and Chuck (the bumbling, chubby sidekick) find a computer at the bottom, and they punch in the Maze code. Hey, presto: the rest of the boys from the Glade appear. They all learn that they are part of a WICKED experiment. No, I’m not suddenly being enthusiastic with the adjective; it stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (and if that acronym wasn’t backwards-engineered, I’ll eat my hat).

Chuck bites it, like Piggy and all other chubby sidekicks before him. In fact, he does a Dobby, throwing himself in front of the knife that was intended for Thomas. All the surviving Glade boys figure out that these WICKED government guys are bad news, and just as their cogs are turning, another team of grown ups shows up to “rescue” them.

Their saviours whisk them away to safety, which gives Dashner the chance for a whole stream of exposition to explain what the heck is going on (and set up the next book, conveniently enough). Apparently, a bunch of sun flares have ruined Earth, somehow. The world is a wasteland now, and there’s a disease (called “The Flare” – Dashner’s creative hits just keep on rolling) that’s got half the population all fucked up. The Glade boys are taken to a safe house, fed a decent meal, and they’re happy enough with that.

Then, an epilogue reveals that this apparent-rescue and supposed-safe-house are all an extension of the Maze experiment, set up by those WICKED people. *ominous chord* The End.

Ugh. I’m so glad to be done with this book – even writing this review made my eye twitch.



Here’s what I can say for it: the chapters are short. The story moves pretty quickly. Well, it has the illusion of doing so, at least. You could call it “fast paced”. But that’s all I’ve got, folks. The Maze Runner is a real stinker.

I’ve seen it compared to The Hunger Games, and although that wasn’t my favourite book of all time, it was streets ahead of The Maze Runner. In fact, the only way that Dashner bested Collins, in my view, was that he started working in the set-up for the sequel about seventy pages before the end, instead of cramming it into the final chapter. That tells me he’d always envisaged the book as part of a series arc, which is something, I suppose.

As I mentioned up top, there was a film adaptation released in 2014. I watched the trailer on YouTube, and it’s exactly as terrible as you’d expect. All in all, I’d say don’t bother, with the movie or the book. Don’t even bother buying it for the tweens and teens in your life. They’d be better off with almost any other young adult book out there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maze Runner:

  • “my mummy likess this book and me. she thought that it was wonderful. i recommend u read it. Ya yeet.” – Ms Samantha M Thomson
  • “Very disappointing. Just a lot of action. Almost like he’s trying to get a movie deal.” – consumer scientist
  • “If you like terrible prose, a dumb plot, and unrealistic dialogue, this book is for you!” – W V S
  • “All the violence and hate of the Hunger Games without the pesky storyline or plot. I kept hoping the story would develope, but no. Left disappointed.” – John
  • “Yuck, I think I’d rather have a root canal than read another book of this series.” – Amazon Customer
  • “DO NOT READ! Boring, tedious. We bought this for a multi-hour car trip and had to stop the audiobook because silence was better than this story.” – Judy-Lynn Benjamin
  • “I didn’t order this book, so I don’t know why it asked me to rate it . And my name is not Dylan .” – Dylan Chilano
  • “I utterly HATE this book no reason.” – Amazon Customer

Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, and I guess it does (in that they’re pretty much equally not to my taste).

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. The film adaptation was no better. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer


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