Well, almost nothing. The ending was what she was building up to, and since I had a problem with the build-up itself, I sort of do have a problem with the ending by extension, but that’s just semantics. Actually, I was so burned by this series after Insurgent that I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book at all, so when I accidentally spoiled myself over THAT THING before I had even cracked the spine on my brand new copy, it had the opposite effect on me it had on most readers. It actually made me more excited to see how she was going to pull it off. And I was still disappointed. Sigh.
I do have to give Veronica Roth credit. She may have fumbled the execution (a lot, in my opinion), but I do think she had her priorities straight. She was dedicated — perhaps too much so — to seeing out her themes and serving the narrative, as opposed to taking the easy way out in the way she ended her story, which is what her readers wanted her to do. The problem here is that the structure of this third act in the story is just a big old mess, and the way she crafts her words and her sentences and her dialogue, I think, actively worked against the goals she was shooting for.
From here on out, be warned, spoilers ahoy.
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Tris totally bites it. She croaks. She is annihilated. She goes belly up. She buys the farm. She’s checking out the grass from underneath. She goes the way of the dinosaurs. She’s popped off. She’s permanently out of print. She’s shuffled off the mortal coil.
She’s stone dead.
As stated above, I am okay with this turn of events. Every YA trilogy ever written* has its heroine survive, as if a happily ever after is the only thing that matters in fiction (which is an extremely naive message to feed a young adult). This is one of the reasons I like Mockingjay as much as I do. It’s a book about war, so to have Katniss live happily ever after would have been a betrayal of message. Roth doesn’t cop out on her story. The Divergent Trilogy has always at its heart been about identity, and Tris’s journey has always been about finding the core of her true self amidst the chaos of her life, and a society that insisted on cramming her into little boxes of pre-specified sameness (even if the reason for doing so turned out to be a pretty dumb one, but more on that later). Authentic identity comes from within, not without, and Tris’s self-sacrifice (one freely chosen) I think is actually a fitting capper to that journey. Also as stated above, I think the lead up to said event was almost completely ineffective.
*At least the ones I’ve read/heard of.
First of all, the most notable structural difference between Divergent and Insurgent and this one is that there are two first person present narrators (Tris and her paramour Four) instead of just Tris. This was the wrong call, for several reasons. Firstly, because it signals to the audience that SOMETHING IS DIFFERENT. Until Allegiant, this was Tris’s story. Four was a 3-D character in his own right, but the story wasn’t about him. So why the switch? Well, the most pragmatic answer would be because Tris dies on page 375 and the book has to go on after that. Her death is not the end of the story, so instead of introducing Four’s voice after Tris dies, Roth made the decision to do it for the whole book. This felt wrong to me. If Four was that important, if his emotional journey was that central to the narrative, if he was going to be the survivor in the relationship, we should have been getting his POV all along. I’d probably have to think about this some more, but if Four is the one that grows and survives in this book, doesn’t that actually make him the protagonist? Shouldn’t the protagonist have a POV? I don’t know the answer to that question, but the fact that I’m asking it means what was there in the text isn’t working.
Another reason I think including Four’s POV was the wrong call is that, in terms of style, there isn’t all that much difference between his voice and Tris’s. First person present POV washes character voices out anyway, but I don’t think Roth had the experience necessary to pull it off. The whole thing would have come off better if both of their POVs were in some sort of third person. But that last part may just be my particular bias.
I’m having a really hard time pinning the rest of my thoughts down into coherent words, which now that I think about it, may be related to the other main problem I had with the book (and Insurgent). Divergent had structure up the wazoo. It had a clear beginning, middle and end. It had rising tension and cues in all the right places. It had a clear set of manageable goals that I thought it brought across nicely. It was delightful. Insurgent and Allegiant had none of these things. What I said in my review of Insurgent holds true for this one:
I just felt so lost the entire book, like I never knew what to expect page to page, but in a bad way. Only the most experimental avant-garde authors fuck around with structure, and there’s a reason most people don’t read those assholes anyway. We like structures. We like expectations, even if the only point of expectations in a book is to frustrate them. I felt like Insurgent just flowed along with things happening here and there along the way, and even though it was a fast read, the good stuff wasn’t necessarily emphasized at the right times or in the right ways, and the frustrating stuff was more often than not front and center.
I still can’t put my finger on it. Allegiant just felt so aimless. This is doubly bad in hindsight because by the end it was abundantly clear that Roth had aims in mind the whole time — we just didn’t know what they were.
This is also related to something else I want to talk about, which is that a good author, a good storyteller, knows how to manage reader expectations. If your reader is half-way through one of your books and still can’t tell what kind of book it is, you’re doing something wrong. When I was half-way through The Fault in Our Stars, I didn’t believe for one second that it would be the kind of book with a happy ending. We were not escaping a book about cancer without a little death. When I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I didn’t for one second think that it would NOT have a happy ending, and I was positive Rowling wouldn’t kill Harry, because it just wasn’t that kind of book. Its aims and themes would not have been served by that kind of event happening within the structure of its narrative. Until the end of Allegiant, I had almost no idea what kind of story Roth was trying to tell, and looking back with the ending in mind, I can kind of see her laying the pieces down, but it wasn’t enough.
Perhaps all of this isn’t Roth’s fault. She was not the only one responsible for managing reader expectations — that burden should also be shared with her editor, her publishing company, and anyone advertising her books. All of those people should have actively worked to make sure her readers were not under the impression that Allegiant was a happily-ever after sort of book. They should have realized the majority of readers subsist on a steady diet of shitty YA fiction where they boy always gets the girl, and things always work out for the best. A lot a lot a lot of readers went in with underlying assumptions: that Tris would end up with Four, that Tris would solve the mystery of the factions, that Tris and Four would end up together and have lots of sex and babies. And it’s not just the non-critical readers who had those assumptions. They were my assumptions, too, and I’m academically trained for this shit. With that in mind, this book was practically bound to fail before it was even out of the gate.
There were other problems, too. I didn’t think anything in this book that was introduced was developed nearly enough. Not the characters, not The Experiment, none of it. The factions being the result of this experiment came out of nowhere, and was not explained to my satisfaction. For that matter, the basis of the Experiment itself was hard to swallow, and it was built on top of the flimsiest understand of genetics possible. Put simply, I don’t believe for a second these events could actually happen in the real world, and Roth lost a lot of credibility with me by making it so. (The rest of the science in the book was aggressively dumb as well — Death Serum, seriously?) It was also really hard to care about how these new revelations made the characters feel, both because the characters themselves were so flimsy, and because the thing they were upset about was so flimsy. Four’s mental crisis felt forced because we’ve spent so little time previously in his head, and the Four/Tris relationship crisis felt manufactured for drama. Large sections of the book were also (paradoxically) overwritten with the purpliest of prose. I’m sure there was more, but it’s been two months since I’ve finished, so I think I’ll leave it at that.
To sum up this overlong and self-indulgent review, I do want to say that my negative reaction to this book was greatly enhanced by the fact that I did love the first book so much, and the potential I saw in it feels completely wasted to me. I will probably read more books by Veronica Roth out of curiosity. I will hope that she doesn’t follow similar patterns in the future and that she grows enough as a writer to fit into her own ideas.