It is hard to define this book. It is 2/3 prequel to Veronica Roth’s popular teen dystopia. The last 1/3 overlaps the timeline in Divergent. It’s all told from the point of view of Tobias, aka Four.
A skeptical person will ask,
Is this book really necessary? Don’t we already know this story?
Well, yes and no.
Does the book reveal any new information about the nature of this society and upcoming conflicts? A little. It isn’t so much that the information itself is new, but how our characters figure it out. There are extensive passages in which Four spies on faction leaders from the control room. We see the origins of plots that Tris will discover later. And we see much more of the power struggle between leaders and potential leaders of Dauntless, including Four himself.
I always preferred Four to Tris, the narrator in the other 3 books of the series. As a result, I liked the book Four the best. In many ways Four and Divergent mirror each other. Main character must decide whether to remain in the selfless and bland faction, Abnegation, or join one of the other factions. Main character gets abnormal test results. Main character shocks community and family by choosing the daredevil and bravest faction, Dauntless. Main character picks a new identity, strives to adapt to the new culture, fights for a place in the community, finds friends and enemies, overcomes fears, gets wind of a plot that could destroy society, and finds time for a little romance.
But within this parallel framework, the differences are what fans will love comparing. Part of the infamous Dauntless initiation is jumping from buildings and on and off trains. How Tris manages such feats and Four manages them reveals a lot about the differences in their personalities and fears. Four joins Dauntless 2 years before Tris arrives, and we see a gentler initiation. (Gentler being a relative term.) We also see how Four resists the deadlier changes to initiation practices that come about later. And most telling are the differences in what compels Tris and Four to choose Dauntless over Abnegation.
In the book Four, we know Four’s secrets right from the beginning. He’s not the cool mysterious character Tris slowly discovered in Divergent, but he’s a cool brave character who constantly struggles to overcome his own fears and better himself. The book Four ends well before Divergent does, yet the story arc seems logical. It is defined more by character than by plot. In one sense Four begins by running away from home, and he must face home again. He faces an ever-more-complex conflict of loyalties, and comes to a point of decision. He fears human attachment, and takes a risk exposing his true self to another person.
Most people who read Four will have already been through the other 3 books. But now that it’s out, there’s bound to be someone who discovers the Divergent series and reads them chronologically. I wonder how it will shape their experience of the series as a whole. Reminds me of how on one side of the Atlantic kids read Narnia in order of publication, and on the other they read them in chronological order. The plot is the same either way, but discovery of origins becomes foreshadowing, and vice versa.
Readers who begin with Four will not get the surprise of getting to know the inscrutable Tobias little by little, but they will like and admire him even more, right from the start. They may even like Tris a little better. When we see Tris through Four’s eyes, and understand how her qualities complement his, it’s easier to appreciate her. Tris can’t accomplish the same thing from her point of view, because
- It would be bragging.
- She’s from Abnegation so self-awareness it a challenge for her.
This book is an interesting twist on the popular series. It’s worth picking up for fans who want to round out their visit to Roth’s dystopian world and get to know their favorite characters even more.
I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Aaron Stanford. He does a nice job giving each voice its distinct inflections. One of the biggest turnoffs for me in any audiobook is when the actor can’t give voice to the opposite gender without sounding too much like their own. I know this is a difficult physical challenge, but in any audiobook the actor needs to disappear into the character. Stanford does a good job with the adult women and Shauna, Four’s friend. I’m not sold on his voicing of Tris. Perhaps that’s because so much is made of her small stature that I can’t reconcile the prominent masculine overtones, that way I might an older or larger woman. Stanford is cast a little too old for Four, but this character is still his biggest success. He catches Tobias’s attitude so well, which is essential in a book told in 1st person. My favorite line he read (after Tobias touches Tris lightly, revealing some attraction):
[I touch her] because I’m stupid. And inappropriate. And stupid.
His voice just drips with sheepish, annoyed-at-himself teen hormones. I laughed out loud.