Confesssion moment: I really only skimmed the last bit of Reached. I was amazed by how much I didn't care about how it ended. It's too wimpy to abandon a series in the final stretch so I stuck with it. In the end it was worth it, just not by much. Condie still has an incredibly lyrical style of writing that's just lovely. It might have redeemed a shorter novel. Reached clocks in at 500 pages. A little long to be worried about poetry.
As I read this I started really wondering about all of these dystopian series that I love. One by one book three (usually the final book) just isn't cutting it. Sever was confusing, Reached was boring, and I still haven't been able to nerve myself up to reading Requiem. What's the deal? Disclaimer sticker: Pontification is upcoming. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
I think the problem is with the basic premise. All of these series are based on the assumption that in a future society teenage girls will be told who to love. All of them make the heroine powerless. She is up against a behemoth that is a combination of government and social stigma on steroids. On paper this has really good series potential. The problem comes in the disconnect between what the story could be about and what it actually is about. More clearly, the problem is in between the love triangle (because it's always a hard choice) and changing the society the girls are born into. The first book is all about setting the stage so the problems don't really show to the reader. You can immerse yourself in the beautiful tragedy of the love story, learn about the society, and still have brain space to imagine who you'd cast as certain characters. Then book two comes along and it's less about the love story and more about the world and the heroine. Now you're really learning things. These books are often fantastic because they're getting into why the heroine makes the choices that she does. She becomes more empowered and her determinations actually moves the series. Since the reason we have protagonists is to, you know, protag that fits the bill. Then comes the third book. The third book must return to the themes of the first book. Since those themes are powerlessness and love confusion the heroine instantly loses the capacity to generate forward momentum. The last two authors I've read have solved the problem by introducing another character who has the skills necessary to solve the society problem. That leaves the heroine with the relationship problem, which she should be more then capable of resolving. Except she can't. Having been mostly helpless and most of her choices having been taken away means that the choice will always be bittersweet. In many ways she's settling on a guy after having been exhausted by the life she was forced to lead. She's incapable of doing anything that would mean a "happy" ending. It mostly goes something like this: Heroine is with the now-approved boy thinking of how in this new world they might have a chance.
This is how the last books can degenerate into an unsatisfying mess even when the author is insanely talented. The very genre they are writing is fighting against them. The society ending is unsatisfying because a character who is not the heroine is solving the problems. Yes it's more realistic but it doesn't really resonate with readers. We're sticking with these characters because we love them, not because we are really invested in The Society or any other incarnation of this totalitarian state. Then there comes the love story. Most of the time the two boys weren't really individual choices for the heroine to begin with. Both love interests are in some way stipulated by the world they live in. Meaning that either choice is in some way a surrender of the heroines agency. Instead of defying her world she is succumbing to it. Readers are confused because we've been waiting for this moment and it sucks. Authors are confusing because they're giving us what we ask for and we're still whining. Nothing is going to change unless there is a significant change in how this genre is written.
The good news is that the new dystopians I've read are mostly avoiding this formula. They're moving on to non love triangle based plots. That gives the heroine a lot more freedom to create a believable happy ending.