Book Review: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
Another dystopian YA book that's been compared to The Hunger Games. Could it be as good?
Considering how close certain plot points get to The Hunger Games, I would consider this read a close second. While it does not have the same emotional connection for me as The Hunger Games, this dystopia actually seemed more realistic to me.
First, the emotional connection angle.
Certain scenes in The Hunger Games stand out. Katniss volunteering as tribute and some key scenes with Rue leave an impression. Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss even makes me forget how sometimes Katniss' cluelessness and prickly attitude truly bugged me as I read the book.
The Testing does not have that same weight here. Cia is concerned about her family, but I wasn't. I just didn't feel like they were in any real danger. I was concerned about her and the other candidates of the Testing, but not her family. For about two-thirds of the book, Cia is also generically likable, so I was less engaged with her for a while. As the Testing progressed, Cia had to make harder and harder decisions, which show how honorable she is. Seeing her character remain consistent throughout the Testing did have me rooting for her.
However, one of the great things about Charbonneau's narration is that I was never sure that Cia would survive the Testing. Like The Hunger Games, Charbonneau chose first person narration. While it would be awkward for an author to kill off a first person narrator in the middle of a book, it would be fine to kill off that narrator at the end of the book. And throughout the Testing, I felt like Cia could die just like any of her fellow candidates. Sure there are two more books in this trilogy, but there was no guarantee that all of the characters would remain consistent.
Since Cia was generically likable, I kept wondering if maybe her character was a bit more flat because she was going to die. Even Cia's romance with Tomas, the boy from back home who is the only person she thinks she can trust, is pretty lackluster. Throughout the book, I was looking for an emotional connection with Cia. Making me wait until the resolution to truly like Cia worked for me.
Second, the world building creates a society that seems much more plausible than in The Hunger Games. This dystopia takes places after the Seven Stages War. The first four stages are described as countries attacking one another, including biochemical warfare which contaminated the soil and water. The last three stages of war consisted of the Earth reacting to this desecration with multitudes of natural disasters. The Testing has been designed as the competitive entrance system to this world's University.
Sure, it's a man-made environmental disaster that the new society must build around very akin to Panem, but the arena setting of The Hunger Games always nagged at me a bit. How could a society be that apathetic as to allow their children to be carted off year after year for these gladiatorial games? Well, if I'm willing to suspend my disbelief there, then The Testing's contrivance should be much easier for me to accept.
Cia's father explains to her early on that he had been a Testing candidate. When candidates finish the Testing, their memory is wiped. Furthermore, none of the candidates ever go home again. They are reassigned to positions that allow them best use of their talent for improving the United Commonwealth. Now, given that Cia's dad's advice to her is to trust no one, I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that some Testing candidates die during the entrance process.
This level of covert deception allows me to accept the apathy of this society. While it may seem odd that you never see a family member again, it's easy to assume that that person is serving the greater good of rebuilding your country. I could understand how this society could be blind to how nefarious the Testing truly is.
The stages of the Testing also rang true to me just on a teacher level. There are the paper and pencil individual tests, a group work test, and a practicum. The Testing concludes with an exit interview. All the while, the candidates are being observed and evaluated. The Testing proctors are not particularly well-drawn characters. However, I do hold out hope that the educators in the sequel are better characterized and more developed.
I kept wondering for the sequels, how would Charbonneau work in the memories of the Testing? If every candidate's memory is wiped, will one of the proctors help someone retain their memory? Will a candidate's wiping be overlooked intentionally? Will more characters than I thought die?
I liked how this dystopia kept me guessing. And given the level of deception that the Testing officials were willing to engage in, I really didn't count anyone as safe. This world is pretty scary on a fairly realistic scale for me.
Is this novel as compelling as The Hunger Games? No. The Hunger Games will always hold a special place in my heart.
The Hunger Games trilogy has so much to say about so many topics that I will forever love those books. However, The Testing is another thought-provoking dystopian story. I will be reading the two sequels and who knows...maybe by the time I finish the trilogy, I may consider The Testing's messages as important as those in The Hunger Games.