The premise is that society is broken down into 5 factions, each representing a virtue. The story is that people divided themselves based on why they think war occurred and then picked the opposite virtue of whatever they think it was that caused the war. So if you believed it was selfishness you chose abnegation, cowardice you chose dauntless, ignorance you chose erudite, dishonesty you chose candor or meanness? you chose amity.
It's a little unclear what happened in the past. Presumably there was some kind of war, though radiation is never mentioned so there were no nuclear devices used. There's also no mention of the outside world so Chicago seems to exist in isolation.
Anyway, at the age of 16, every child undergoes a test to determine the best fit. This is merely a guideline, however, although nearly everyone does choose the faction the test recommends. If you choose a new faction you are supposed to cut all ties with your old faction. The saying is factions are thicker than blood. You then spend your entire life trying to embody that ideal.
I always wonder in this type of book how anyone thinks that you can embody only one ideal. Where do people get the idea (and enough of them to form a consensus!) that any given person can be reduced to one thing? Humans are more complex than that. No one is purely one thing or another or even mostly one thing or another.
It is interesting to see how each faction embodies its ideal, although at times I didn't really understand it. I get that abnegation is about being selfless. But if you can't ask for help, isn't that selfishly depriving someone else of the opportunity to help you?
Anyway, the protagonist takes the test and her results are inconclusive, marking her as divergent. She has no idea what this means but is told if she tells anyone she could be killed.
Frankly, given the extremely short nature of the test, I'm surprised there aren't more divergents. There are only 3 scenarios which seems far too short to me. There's no question about why someone chooses as they do. In the first test you choose between taking a knife or cheese. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you take the knife because you're afraid of the next scenario. What if you eat the cheese before the next scenario or can't use the knife? What if you belonged in Erudite but never learned the submissive position for a dog?
I like the concept and I'm sure the author didn't want to spend an inordinate amount of time in the scenario but it still felt like it needed something more. As I recall, Keirsey's temperament test is around 100 questions, though granted, it has 16 possible outcomes rather than 5. Even so, your type can change over time or depending on the situation.
Theoretically the worst thing to be is factionless. If you fail your initiation (or maybe get kicked out?) you become factionless. You're homeless, have to take the worst jobs, probably living hand to mouth.
The leaders of the city are all from abnegation under the theory that if a person is selfless he or she is also uncorruptable. The erudite faction is stirring up trouble because they think all factions should have a role in the leadership, not just abnegation.
It was interesting to see the intellectual faction cast as the bad guys since I expected it would be the more violent faction (dauntless) causing problems, but it was also somewhat troubling to read in a YA novel given the ongoing culture war where in some parts of the country being educated and wanting to learn is seen as a negative rather than positive thing.
And here's where my own prejudices come out. I had seen this book in light of the culture wars as mentioned above. But I became even more convinced when I read the author's acknowledgements at the end which start with thanking God for giving us Jesus. It's possible I'm being entirely unfair but once I had that information it seemed to me like abnegation was to represent the selfless Christians who are being persecuted by the intellectual elite. It's somewhat reinforced by the idea that no one from abnegation would commit suicide and that the only characters who mention religion at all are from abnegation. The analogy falls apart a little once dauntless is involved because generally the military is not seen as an extension of the "intellectual elitists" but our current CIC is certainly an intellectual. I admit it's entirely possible I'm reading too much into things. But I'm still uneasy).
As long as I'm doing spoilers, I didn't mind too much that it took Tris a little bit to figure out the how the serum would be used and why that made the divergent dangerous, but only because she figured it out relatively quickly. It's when I figure it out and several chapters or half a book later the protagonist finally gets on the clue train that I get irritated.
Despite my culture war reservations, the story itself was fun and action packed. I'll read the second book when it comes out.