Although Veronica Roth’s Divergent series has become phenomenally popular in its own right, it cannot escape the requisite “next Hunger Games” comparisons. A Neil Burger-directed movie adaptation of the first novel is set to release in March 2014—exactly two years after the release date of the first Hunger Games film. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy concluded with a novel that literally blew up the setting of the first two books, taking place in a previously secretive location. And the same holds true with Roth’s final installment, Allegiant, which mostly leaves her small, isolated post-apocalyptic Chicago in favor of traveling a short distance down Interstate 90.
After two novels squarely from the point of view of the genre-mandated rebellious-yet-romantic protagonist, Tris Prior, Allegiant alternates its point of view between Tris and Tobias “Four” Eaton, her love interest. This split was presaged by the announcement of a prequel story collection from Four’s perspective leading up to the Divergent film, but it feels like a choice predicated on endgame necessity.
Allegiant doesn’t waste much time in pulling the wool from their eyes, revealing the larger design of Roth’s world beyond Chicago and providing snippets about how the world arrived at the experimental premise. It’s a combination reveal along the lines of The Truman Show and The Architect’s monologue from The Matrix Reloaded, and one that doesn’t change the game so much as it retroactively leaves all the tension of the previous novels inert. Those key revelations cement the bulk of the story in its new location, along with the cavalcade of supporting characters whose genders seem determined by the YA teen-romance superlab.
Instead of Children Of Men-style infighting between revolutionary splinter groups, Allegiant is more concerned with competing ideologies on how to fix the largest problems facing the world and how eugenics create second-class citizens who are deemed impure and broken. There are hints of a thoughtful message about humankind’s inclination toward savagery and thirst for power buried in the ceaseless pages of Roth’s trilogy. But as constructed for the ravenous YA audience as it is, that message becomes so watered down that it renders Allegiant into just another packaged treat for its target demographic.
The city functions as a war-torn world in microcosm, scrambling for order and operating under simple, frightening circumstances: more guns equal more power. But from a reserved distance, with the ability to observe everything unfold, Roth has all the subtlety of George Lucas when ruminating on the politics of war.
The novel subtly raises deeper, intelligent questions about how society functions on a macro scale, and how leadership gets increasingly bogged down by bureaucracy with every step up the ladder. But it hacks away at explaining those observations with inelegant structure and saccharine romance that feels tossed in by a line editor keeping page counts between kisses. At one point in the final third, Four observes, “Fatigue, a weight behind my eyes, creeps up on me suddenly. I have been a part of too many uprisings in my short life.” The steady stream of violence as narrative punctuation dulls the individual moments of impact.
Roth squanders the boldest, most unexpected move of the entire series by telegraphing it, with the split points of view, placing an emphasis on Tris and Four never lying to each other again, and their respective roles in the plan leading up to the finale. It’s easy to read right over the big moment as it happens and think, according to genre conventions, Roth won’t go through with it; she’ll find some clumsy way to pull a J.K. Rowling and have it both ways—provide the gut-punch and the hopeful resolution. To her credit, she doesn’t, but the big move doesn’t feel like the natural end of the plot Roth’s been building toward over three books. It’s not satisfying—though it’s clearly not meant to be—but what’s more disappointing is that it doesn’t serve a larger dramatic purpose beyond one character. Taken as a whole, the trilogy fails to live up to the taglines promised on the cover of each book: “One choice can transform you.” “One choice can destroy you.” “One choice will define you.”
There is a novel somewhere inside the Divergent series with astute observations about authority based on false principles and rebellious opponents ready to annihilate their way toward something better. Roth makes smart and incisive observations about dereliction of social duty to a vast impoverished population. But she had a clear choice: expand and strengthen those points in an attempt to reach for Orwellian or Bradbury-esque magnitude, or couch kernels of thought inside a comfortably packaged teen romance designed for maximum marketing potential. Allegiant is the death knell that signals Roth chose the latter.