Bottom Line: Fantastic new series with some unique twists that separate it from other popular dystopian novels
“Who will be chosen to lead? The best…the brightest…the deadliest? There will be a testing.In the wake of the Seven Stages War, the government of the Unified Commonwealth devised The Testing to assess the instinct, intellect and sheer nerve among a select group of the population’s young people. Candidates who pass attend the University to become leaders of the Commonwealth – civilization’s hope to transform a post-war wasteland into a peaceful and technologically advanced society. But progress comes at a price.Mechanically-inclined Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a candidate but on the eve of her departure, her father confides partial memories of his grisly experience as a candidate, still haunted by nightmares and living in fear of what he can’t remember. It’s not enough to pass the test, Cia will have to survive it and her deadly fellow candidates. To stay alive Cia will have to learn who she can trust and, if necessary, who she must kill.”
Thoughts: In the Unified Commonwealth, the Testing is an important rite of passage for any intelligent new graduate hoping to attend the university. It is the process by which the Commonwealth identifies new leaders in all fields and essential to promote the continued survival of the country in its ongoing transformation. To Cia, whose father is a graduate of the university and a respected community leader, following in her father’s footsteps is all she has ever wanted, and being selected for the Testing process is a dream come true. Even the doubts raised by her father’s warnings fail to curb her enthusiasm for the experience. That is, until certain things happen during the testing process that raise moral and ethical dilemmas and leave Cia conflicted between what she has always known and what she observes. In this game of high rewards and even higher stakes, Cia must decide whether to trust her instincts or her experiences. To fail to do either could mean her life.
While comparisons to stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent are inevitable, there is a decided lack of “us versus them” that defines those previous dystopian novels. Indeed, this is what sets Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing apart from them. In fact, while the entire country is recovering from wars and terrible natural catastrophes, there are none of the hallmarks of a true dystopian society. People are poor but happy. There is no obvious repression or cult-like following. Questions raised are answered. Those who chose not to join the new post-war government are not forced to do so and are left alone. Things are not perfect, but no society ever really is. Even Cia understands that and enters into The Testing with eyes wide open. By all accounts, it is a fully-functioning government that is still working through some issues but genuinely has the citizens’ best interest at heart.
Of course, that does not mean that things are what they seem. The Testing process, as Cia soon discovers, is brutal, made more so by the lack of direct involvement by the examiners when danger is present. To subjugate sixteen-year-olds to such life-or-death scenarios could be construed as a form of torture. However, considering the Testing is specifically designed to weed out those who would make poor leaders creates a scenario in which the ends might really justify the means. This very large gray area is one of the best things about The Testing for the very reason that all of the potentially dubious actions on the part of the examiners are so easy to defend. It might be harsh, unfair, and extremely dangerous, but it does get the results required to help rebuild the country. Cia’s father went through the same program and thrived, after all, so it cannot be a truly horrible experience. The fact that there is nothing obviously sinister and underhanded about the government officials in Tosu City adds to a reader’s overall uncertainty and a general feeling of discomfort that are the trademarks of this particular genre.
Ms. Charbonneau has wisely stepped away from the ubiquitous romantic element, and the story is much stronger for it. Gone is the tired love triangle, and the proceedings of the various tests take precedence over any potential relationships. When romance does blossom, it does so naturally without much of the rhapsodizing that tends to occur. They might dawdle over the test but they never lose sight of the end goal, so while they take the time to kiss and talk, the story still progresses. The pairing works well, but much like the testing process itself, one cannot help but feel that there is something about the romance that is not right, as if the two lovebirds are being manipulated for some as yet unknown reason. Again, there is nothing obvious that would indicate that this is true, and yet the feeling persists.
The Testing is a big change for Ms. Charbonneau, but she manages the dramatic shift in genre and audience with aplomb. Her story line is exciting and has enough twists and turns to distinguish it from other popular dystopian novels. Cia is spirited, making for some exciting scenes, but she also loves the Commonwealth and is proud of everything that it has accomplished to date. This loyalty to her country is unusual in such novels and adds a different dynamic to the overall story – one in which the bad guy is not obvious and could very easily be nothing but the reader’s imagination. This doubt certainly increases the suspense but also makes potential plots for future novels quite intriguing. There is no cliffhanger ending, other than a reader’s ongoing confusion about the story’s villain, but that is enough to pique a reader’s interest. In all, it is a strong addition to the YA category and a fascinating twist of the dystopian genre.