The future city of Chicago is controlled by five factions that represent virtues in people: Abnegation is selflessness, Dauntless is courage, Amity is peace, Erudite is knowledge, and Candor is honesty. Beatrice is going through Choosing Day with her brother, Caleb. Teenagers take an aptitude text and learn their faction but some have multitude aptitudes and can choose more than one faction. Beatrice is rare in that she can choose between three factions. She chooses Dauntless and discovers that the pursuit of courage and bravery means winning at all costs even if it involves seriously hurting another person. Life is not precious for the Dauntless and deaths are not shocking nor sad. It is a brutal and cruel faction with members who protect the society. Beatrice likes the challenge and freedom from living a life of complete selflessness in Abnegation. She wants to have fun. Feel the adrenaline rush of jumping off a train. Take risks and be selfish. Ironically she discovers that she is most brave when she acts selflessly for another person. When war breaks out between two factions Beatrice learns that it is good to carry all the factions or virtues within oneself, rather than put more emphasis on one.
The training that Beatrice goes through and the friends she makes reminds me of college and high school when we would do crazy things either because we were bored or hooked on the adrenaline high. Beatrice and her friends ride a zip line from the top of the Hancock building to the ground. Getting into the faction means jumping off a 7 story building into a net. Training to be Dauntless means learning to fight where the teenagers beat each other to a pulp. You'd think that was the hard part but the hardest is doing the simulations that force each member to face his or her fears.
The author captures Beatrice's internal struggles with feeling like she can't fit in with her Abnegation family. She thinks that something is wrong with her because it is really hard for her to put others before herself. What is interesting is that she thinks selflessness should come naturally and that it isn't something that needs to be worked at. Her personality works against the faction that works so hard to be quiet, plain-looking, meek, and complacent. Children don't run around and play tag and people don't hurt each other's feelings. There is so much restraint it is easy to see why she doesn't like it.
Themes consist not only of Beatrice learning to be independent and finding her own way in life, but the ugly side to competitiveness. The other initiates in Beatrice's Dauntless faction are so brutally competitive that they go too far. One boy fights Beatrice and beats her insensible. Beatrice beats another girl insensibly out of rage. Another boy is so jealous of the boy that is number one that he stabs him in the eye with a butter knife. When Beatrice does well in the mental side of the competition several boys try to kill her. Teamwork and having each others backs don't exist in their faction. Beatrice is learning to be a killer. "Ender's Game" explores this idea of turning kids into military fighters and how they struggle psychologically with taking another life. This story doesn't go into the same depth as "Ender's Game" because of the page time given to Beatrice's budding romance and the war doesn't happen until the end when Dauntless are killing others, but it does explore the notion to a certain point. While Beatrice is not being taught bravery through selfless acts by one instructor she does learn it from another teacher. The initiation process is off kilter and it becomes apparent why by the end of the story.
While I really loved the character development and details of the world building, the plot is not very original and follows typical conventions making it predictable in parts. The serum was easy to figure out, along with the romance, and the fact Beatrice would pick a different faction to name a few. This is the only reason I didn't give the story 5 stars. I highly recommend it and found it enjoyable with interesting themes. I also think it is a clever comment on how our society puts so much weight on testing. In this society test results determine your future and is pushed to an extreme. Our society has shifted toward more testing as well. The freedom to choose you own destiny and what it means to lose this choice in a rigid society makes for good discussion. Make sure you have plenty of time to read this book, because it is hard to put down.