Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Divergent Series


Divergent has been popping up on my radar for some time now. It's the first in a young adult series, by Veronica Roth, that is still ongoing, and it seems to be fairly popular. I'd seen the cover so many times, I could almost have convinced myself I'd read it, just because it's the kind of book I love and how could I have missed it? But I did miss it...until now. And I'm so glad I finally found out why this book won't go away. It shouldn't go away. It's good. It's epic. I'm not sure it would translate to a movie as well as, say, The Hunger Games (though the film rights have been sold), but it's that kind of a compelling read, written in the same first person present tense as The Hunger Games, and also dystopian, but a whole different kind of story. I really hate when books compare themselves to The Hunger Games, and as I like to say, the next Hunger Games will be something as completely different as that was from Twilight when it appeared, so I guess that rules Divergent out (being similar because of genre only). But it really shouldn't. Divergent is different and fascinating, with edgy, strong characters and strong themes that delve into emotion, or the lack thereof, and what it means to be a decent human in a world where humanity is compartmentalized. In particular, this novel explores what it means to be selfless versus brave.

Beatrice belongs to one of five factions (named for five virtues) who live in a future version of Chicago. Her faction is Abnegation (the virtue of selflessness), but that might soon change. At the age of 16, Beatrice must choose the faction she will live in the rest of her life. Most stay with the faction they've always known, especially since changing factions usually means saying good-bye to family forever. "Faction before family." However, Beatrice doesn't feel like she belongs there. The aptitude tests can help her decide what she's best suited for, but Beatrice's test results just confuse the issue. She has always admired the Dauntless (the virtue of bravery), but is she brave enough to jump off moving trains, fight mismatched opponents in hand-to-hand combat, and defy death itself? Then there's Candor (the virtue of honesty), Amity (the virtue of peacefulness), and Erudite (the virtue of intelligence). It's a world where each faction focuses it's passions on one narrow emotion and contributes to one aspect of society in order to better create a world of peace. But all perfect worlds, as time muddies memory, eventually unravel, the best intentions turning toward selfish pursuit. And when Beatrice stumbles upon a secret worth her very life, she realizes the system has already begun to break.

I love when I discover a book that proves fiction can be edgy without being trashy. This one is very clean (just some kissing on a bed, which I'd never recommend or let my kids do, but which is tame compared to most stuff). It helps that the book doesn't have to get its kicks from, or hinge on, its romance. The romance is slowly incorporated, and the focus remains equally spread among all the other plot points. There's also no love triangle. I don't necessarily mind love triangles, but they are overused as a source of conflict in young adult novels. This book has enough conflict without that.

Edgy and clean are not the only things the book has going for it. It offers a fascinating world and setting with vivid, vibrant storytelling. I will confess, I was a tad skeptical when I realized the book's dystopian setting revolves around five factions based on five virtues. They aren't even the type of virtues you'd expect a society to naturally divide itself into. I was, like, how can you make that interesting? But it works, and I think it works in part because of the characters. The story is narrated by a strong central female character, who is a good role model for readers but also a very cool heroine: an independent thinker and the very opposite of the damsel in distress. The book also explores family relationships and ethics, asking and partially answering some hefty moral questions. This is my kind of story: fully entertaining but also full of the right kind of message.

Not everyone can write a book like that. Though I've found surprising gems in the secular (as opposed to Christian) market, and though I prefer to read secular young adult fiction (partly because I think the preachiness of a novel diminishes its entertainment and value as purely good storytelling), I'm always looking for a book that balances the two perfectly: an amazingly good story with a subtle backbone, holding the story together with a piece of Truth. I shouldn't have been surprised when I saw first thing in the acknowledgments a thank you to God. It's just so rare that an author can write a book I like and not leave a clue (other than the subtle moral bent of the story) that she's a Christian. Just to clarify, this is not a book written for the Christian market. The difference is that the value shows through without the preachiness.

So, after loving the book and then, icing on the cake, discovering the author's worldview, I was very excited about her and went snooping around a bit on her website. She's young, 24, and worked on Divergent in college. She claims to be a Christian, and from what I can tell (since I've only looked at a little of her blog), she is truly. You can read a little bit about some of her beliefs here. This especially excites me because I love seeing Christian authors in the secular market. We need to be there!


Since I am a latecomer to this series, I was fortunate to have a second book waiting to be read after I finished Divergent. Book 2, Insurgent, is fascinating in a bit of a different way than the first (the newness of the concept has worn off, after all), but for me, it worked perfectly to finish one and then start the other because Insurgent literally picks up where Divergent leaves off, no time lapse or anything. I don't want to spoil the plot of Divergent, so I won't say exactly what the sequel is about. The title kind of speaks for itself. One of the interesting things about Insurgent is that we get to see more of each of the different factions and what life is like in each. In Insurgent, Beatrice (known as Tris) is dealing with the fallout of some terrible choices she had to make, so there's some internal conflict, which begins to leak into her interactions with others, particularly her boyfriend, adding to the already extensive external conflicts of a cracking world.

Insurgent tackles a few more big moral questions and also touches lightly and briefly on the subject of God. There is one scene, in particular, that just struck me with its absolute Truth but that could have easily been missed or misunderstood by those who don't share the author's beliefs in God. It contains a simple statement, almost too vague for a Christian, but I thought it was spot-on. Basically, the author, through Tris, declares that whatever happens after we die has nothing to do with us, or at least with our trying. Isn't that the fundamental difference between Christianity and any other belief system? The world believes we have to earn heaven, and Christianity says it is a gift.

I kind of saw the end of Insurgent coming, and it wasn't as big a cliffhanger as I would have liked. However, the third book of the series has a lot of potential to work with, and whether or not you guess the end of Insurgent does not make the book any less of a good one. The whole setting is different from the first, and some might like it less for that. But I think that helps keep Insurgent from being just a repeat of everything we might have loved in the first book. It stands on its own two feet.

According to Veronica Roth's website, her third book comes out in the fall, October 22nd! Too bad I raced through the first two and now have to wait! (Hint, hint to my family, it will be at the top of my birthday wish list this year.) Four stars for each of the books in this series, and bravo to one of my new fiction heroes: Veronica Roth!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mortal (The Books of Mortals #2)

If you read and loved The Circle Series by Ted Dekker, his newest Books of Mortals fantasy, co-written with Tosca Lee, is right up your alley. The series begins with Forbidden, reviewed previously HERE, and Mortal is the sequel. The third book, Sovereign, will be released this June. If you haven't read Forbidden and plan to, skip this review for now until you are caught up.

Mortal begins nine years after the events in Forbidden. Rom is now leader of the Keepers who have allied with the Nomads in a group numbering over a thousand brought to life through Jonathan's blood. They call themselves Mortals. The rest of the world is essentially dead, purged of all emotions except fear, which keeps them docile and obedient. In a few days, young Jonathan is set to come of age and take the throne to rule the world, but evil has been waiting for this moment to rise. Saric, supposed dead (truly dead) by the Mortals, is more alive than they could possibly guess. Through alchemy, he has devised a way to feel emotion, albeit a darker version than the Mortals experience, and he's amassed a loyal army from his own blood. The Mortals have dedicated themselves to serving Jonathan, in awe and thanks for the life he's given them, and all their efforts have been poured into preparing to live a life under his rule. But when Jonathan's succession to the throne is suddenly called into question and an army stands in the way of what should have been an easy transition, the Mortals are suddenly thrown into chaos. It doesn't help that their soon-to-be sovereign is reluctant to step into the spotlight and doesn't seem cut out to rule. In fact, the boy seems to have plans of his own...plans that could get him killed.

Ted Dekker's fantasy series are far different from his thrillers, and this one is perhaps even more different than his usual fare because it's co-written. Yet his fantasy series are very similar to each other. In some ways, The Books of Mortals seems like a repeat of The Circle Series. Both are somewhat allegorical, containing symbolic representations of similar Christian ideas. Both take place in a world that has fantastical elements (like superhuman power) but is actually our world at a different point in history. The story arcs of the two series are even similar: characters awaken to a new, vibrant life, but they rebel against any further change, and further change is always required. Thematically, as well, the stories are parallel. Further change comes through sacrifice and blood and appears, to those on the outside, to be unnecessary, even a regression. In fact, the only difference I see between the two series is the packaging of the plot itself, and to be honest, though The Books of Mortals series rests on an intriguing premise, The Circle Series is, as far as I'm able to compare the two with one yet unfinished, the more complex, interesting series. That's not to say The Books of Mortals isn't entertaining and insightful. But comparing the two, it seems like it's been done before, and done so well as to be a difficult act to follow.

As for Mortal itself, I didn't really get into the book until halfway through. It's not as punchy as a Dekker thriller. It takes its time setting the stage for the second half of the book. That's just how fantasy is, often, but since I'm normally grabbed pretty quickly by a Dekker book, I noticed the slow going even more than I might have. The second half of the book, however, is thrilling. The payoff begins. Everything unravels. The characters' lives get worse before they get better. It's the type of conflict that keeps you reading, and it's everything good storytelling should be. Not comparing it to the books of The Circle Series, it's a crazy ride by its own right in an intriguing world with edgy, conflicted characters who explore the deepest themes of life in the ultimate good versus evil plot.

For Ted Dekker, who often likes to blow your mind by making everything you thought you knew about God wilder and more uncomfortable, Mortal is not his strongest portrayal of Truth, though it's certainly full of the right stuff. For me, it was only a three-star read. But that doesn't mean I won't own and treasure this series, like I do most of his other books, because when it comes to Truth, Dekker hits it on the nail.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (Entire Series) on DVD

My husband and I just finished watching the very last season of the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. We had to watch all the episodes on the last disc in one go because the end is just crazy!

I was hesitant to even review this TV show (based on a Japanese manga book series) because of its violent and gruesome content, and I wouldn't recommend it for most of my readers here. As far as anime goes, it's pretty tame and clean on the sex (there isn't any, and about the most you see is cleavage). There's a bit of language, but not the worst kind. In fact, I don't think the F-word is used at all, but don't quote me on that. Still, I would rate the show R (it's actually rated TV14) for violence and disturbing images of evil.

The premise is rather complicated, so if you are already a fan of the show, you'll notice how much I leave out here as I try to make it as simple as possible. Ed and Al Elric are two young brothers who live at the turn of the twentieth century in an alternate version of our world where certain humans can use alchemy to achieve inhuman feats, such as reshaping metal into a sword or creating flames with the snap of a finger. When the boys' mother dies, they try to bring her back to life through alchemy, but what they "bring back" is an abomination that costs the older brother, Ed, an arm and a leg, literally, and costs Al his entire body. Ed binds Al's soul to a nearby suit of armor, thus saving his life in some form. Determined to get their original bodies back, the two boys, barely in their teens, one with a metal arm and leg, the other apparently an empty suit of armor, set off to find out all they can about alchemy and the fabled, powerful philosopher's stone. But the journey leads them through unexpected twists and turns, and evil lurks around every corner, waiting to destroy them or, worse, use them for its own nefarious purposes.

Just a side note here (but it's important!): Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is not quite the same as Fullmetal Alchemist, in case you look it up. The original TV anime is simply called Fullmetal Alchemist, and it ends very differently from Brotherhood because it caught up to the manga books and had to veer off on its own and make up an ending. Once the manga was finished, the show was rebooted with Brotherhood, the ending following more closely to the book. Where the two TV series diverge from each other, they become completely different shows. I've seen both. From what I can remember of the first, comparing the two, Brotherhood is darker and bloodier with a completely different thematic focus. Note that this review is about Brotherhood.

So, interesting as it may sound, if the show is so graphically violent, why am I reviewing it at all? Amazingly, this is a show about right and wrong, about morality, about how far is too far, and about the value of a single human life, among other large-scale moral questions. In other words, it's actually perfect material for this blog.

In Ed and Al's world, alchemy's greatest rule is that everything must be traded for something of equal value: equivalent exchange. In the attempt to raise their mother's body back to life, the boys lose parts of their bodies. What they try is not permitted among alchemists for good reason. The show explores what equivalent exchange looks like throughout every aspect of the world and whether or not it is a decent rule to live by.

(Minor SPOILERS) Later, when Ed and Al realize what the philosopher's stone really is, they refuse to use it to get their bodies back, and they become the voices of reason and right in the show. At times, they stray, but ultimately, they choose right. It's not easy for them. They have to make hard choices, and again and again, they prove that the easy, obvious choice is not always the best. They refuse to cave before evil, and they refuse to use evil means to get their way. They are the counterpart to the adults on the show who think they have to kill sometimes for the greater good; the Elric brothers are always looking for ways around that, looking for the good in people. Several times, they spare their enemies, which sometimes leads to surprising benefits later. Equivalent exchange at work again.

The religion on the show is not just a little hokey, and religion mucks things up a bit at the end. But at the same time, some Christian values creep in there: redemption; the value of giving more than one receives (not equivalent exchange!); compassion, even for the vilest of creatures; loyalty; and giving up what makes us who we think we are. The series also tackles heavy themes of loss and grief, sacrifice (both forced and freely given), and choice (do we choose what's right, even after we've messed up and redemption seems hopeless?). It's rather beautiful, after the dark.

And that sums up the show for me: beauty amidst despair, hope in the darkest places, pure goodness breaking apart the forces of evil. Despite the violence, this is a show that is overall uplifting and deeply moving. It's not for everyone, and I certainly don't agree with all of its message. But for what it is, it has value and merit. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the series and look forward to every disc in the mail, but I really want to emphasize that this is not typical fare for this blog, nor is it something I recommend you watch. Also, it's definitely not for kids. Anime is not animation, though both are animated (I may be speaking to the veterans here, but you never know).

If you do choose to watch it, knowing full well what you are getting into, I hope you appreciate it as much as I do because there is certainly entertainment and worth here.