It will come as no great surprise that post-Hunger Games success there are a flood of teen lit books set in a dystopian future. Some will be good on their own and others will not. I was initially skeptical that this book would be too similar, but I found it enjoyable.
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau. 336 pages. Published in June 2013 by Houghton Mifflin. (An advanced copy used for this review)
Not great lit, not as good as The Hunger Games, but it will work for the kids who've already read that (and Divergent). Above average teen dystopian novel and a good choice for a summer read. Less likely to have cross over appeal to adults. Recommend that most medium or larger public libraries pick this up.
Living in a colony trying to reclaim the ground that has been destroyed by years of chemical warfare, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for "the testing" and earn the chance to compete for a spot in University. When she is chosen, she doesn't understand why her father and the other University grads are not happy for her. But Cia has underestimated the horrors of what she will face at the Testing. And then there is Tomas, a classmate for years, who seems to want more. But is romance the right decision when they are fighting for their lives? Can she trust anyone or anything?
A group of teens from a variety of different settlements thrown by their merciless government (post major disaster world) into a series of challenges and battles for their lives. Yeah that seems familiar. The difference between this and The Hunger Games is that the teens don't know (at first) how high the stakes are. Part of the suspense is watching the teens realize exactly how bad their situation is. Also the teens aren't being required to kill each other. It's different enough to be worth a read.
This is the first of a trilogy (isn't everything a trilogy now?) and I probably will read the second book. But I don't feel the HAVETOREADNOW that I have with other series. So by reading this first book, you are not necessarily committing yourself to a three book series. It really would work as a standalone story.
The characters themselves are well developed and distinct. Some behave precisely as you expect (including inevitable betrayals) while others are a complete surprise. I wish we had a bit longer with Cia and her family in the beginning so we were more invested in her emotionally (and the steps she takes to protect them).
The plot is fast moving enough that even when they were taking written tests, I was engrossed. There's enough mystery to keep you guessing (and will probably get me to read the second book). Much as Cia does not know what is coming, neither do you. The first written tests seem normal enough, and the setting up of a lab for some experiments not unexpected, but gradually each challenge becomes a little more surreal and the reader finds themselves as scared and bewildered as the students trying to survive. It is as we slip farther into the madness of testing that the book really begins to shine.
The setting was my favorite part of the novel. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic worlds. Judging by geographic clues this world's capital was in or near Kansas City so it gets some hometown love for me. What I really loved were the descriptions of the settlers trying to reclaim the land from the effects of chemical warfare and the mutilation of plants, animals, and ground water. I'm hoping we see more of that in future books.
There's not a lot more to say on this book. It is exactly what it purports to be, a pretty good teen dystopian novel. Solid on plot, concept, characters, setting. While it is not extraordinary, it is unusual to find a book that hits so solidly across the board. It will definitely find its fans.