It’s a little tricky because at first I wasn’t sure I liked it. Too many things that happened made me think it was a Hunger Games/The Giver/Divergent/The Maze Runner rip-off, but sometimes this is difficult to get around because of the common tropes in YA dystopian fiction.
It starts out with a graduation ceremony similar to the one in The Giver and Divergent in which the main character is clearly being chosen for something special. One of the common tropes in YA dystopian fiction is that the main character is someone unique and special. They are never ordinary. But I think all future writers need to avoid starting the novel with the graduation ceremony trope. It’s becoming a cliche.
The Testing is the story of Malencia “Cia” Vale who desperately hopes to be chosen as a Testing candidate. Only the best and brightest are selected from across the United Commonwealth’s colonies and sent to Tosu City to undergo the Testing process. The only way for a young person to gain admission to University, passing the Testing process is a ticket to becoming one of the United Commonwealth’s valued leaders. Cia is passionate about following in her father’s footsteps and going to University, ever hopeful that she will be one of the chosen few who will make the Commonwealth a better place.
Cia’s dearest wish is granted when a government official announces the news that she and three others of her graduating class have been selected as candidates – the first to be selected from the Five Lakes Colony in over a decade. While most of Cia’s family reacts to the news with joy and pride, Cia’s father is grim, even frightened. For the Testing is no mere academic boot camp selection process, and those who are not worthy disappear. As Cia and her fellow Five Lakes friends soon learn, the Testing is a far more brutal kind of examination, and only the very strong and very smart will survive.
The first book in a new trilogy, The Testing is at first glance a compilation of familiar YA dystopian fare. The shattered post-war colony setup and annual selection process are tropes used in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The leftover remains of civilization (and once again Chicago is the setting) are lorded over by a controlling government similar to Divergent and The Uglies. I heard one reviewer describe it like this: “If Hunger Games, Divergent, and Legend had a baby, it would be The Testing.”
There’s a strong first-person narrating heroine, the promise of violence and brutality, and (of course) a love interest. While this all sounds rather familiar and formulaic, I’m very happy to report that The Testing manages to distinguish itself from the pack of wannabe Hunger Games. In fact, The Testing is far more brutal than most of the books in this particular subgenre; not only is the government and world-building properly dystopian, but this is a novel that really pushes the boundaries of the genre with the choices the main character makes.
I gave it a chance in spite of the cliches and discovered that I began to like the novel (and the subsequent novels in the trilogy). My reasons are personal, having to do with the fact that I could identify with this character’s desire to be the best and the brightest.
She is not intimidated by tests. In fact, her strengths seem to come to the fore in this testing setting. I enjoyed this because she so thoroughly embraces her studies and the testing process. Most people seem to hate that sort of thing, but I, like Cia Vale, have always enjoyed the academic environment and its processes. I also love the way that the information about the world – the seven stages of disaster including war, societal and ecological collapse – is relayed, in plain sight, through test questions and answers. Usually this type of thinly veiled infodump is annoying, but as this whole book is a test, it actually makes sense.
This is a clever YA dystopia – an analogy for the pressure of life after high school, an answer to the question, “Can you make it in the real world?” and the dreaded standardized tests that precede acceptance to a prestigious university. In The Testing, these pressures are taken to a whole new level – in Cia’s version of the SATs and entrance examinations, failing a test is met with death. It helps us to see clearly how competitive life can be.
From a character perspective, The Testing also does a solid job, thanks to the strength of its wonderful heroine. Cia is a likable heroine that breaks free of the typical subgenre mold – she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, which works nicely with her blunt, terse first person present tense point of view. I love that Cia is a quieter character who is more modest in her thoughts (clearly she’s an excellent student and highly skilled, though she’s very self-deprecating early on in the book), and I especially appreciated both her introverted nature and her healthy dose of paranoia. Cia is no-nonsense and focused on survival first, but she’s also deeply compassionate and fiercely dedicated to those she cares about. Her methodical nature is also an asset, and I love how truly competent she is when it comes not only to book smarts, but practical application and deduction. Also, I love a heroine that is good with math and science, and Cia’s strength with mechanics is a definite plus.
Per contemporary dystopian YA usual, there is a requisite romance in The Testing, but it is secondary to the main story and, while it is of the “I’ve always had a crush on you” variety, it’s not cloying. Thankfully there’s no love triangle (there’s a sort of allusion to one but it quickly becomes clear that it is NOT happening), and more than a few times Cia thinks to herself that this is NOT the time for melodramatic romance. The love interest in question, Tomas, also has some mixed motives – we don’t really know what Tomas has done to survive (especially in that killer fourth exam), and while he seems to be devoted to Cia and trustworthy, there’s some serious doubt regarding his character. I like that very much.
Ultimately, this was a highly enjoyable book and a strong start to a brand new series. If you’re looking for a dystopian YA novel along the lines of the big blockbuster favorites, look no further: The Testing awaits.