Joelle Charbonneau – The Testing

joellecharbonneau-thetestingIt’s graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale, and the entire Five Lakes Colony (the former Great Lakes) is celebrating. All Cia can think about—hope for—is whether she’ll be chosen for The Testing, a United Commonwealth program that selects the best and brightest new graduates to become possible leaders of the slowly revitalizing post-war civilization. When Cia is chosen, her father finally tells her about his own nightmarish half-memories of The Testing. Armed with his dire warnings (”Cia, trust no one”), she bravely heads off to Tosu City, far away from friends and family, perhaps forever. Danger, romance—and sheer terror—await.

Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing is one of the latest additions to the crowded dystopian YA field. I’ve seen the usual comparisons to The Hunger Games, but I haven’t read any of the books in that series or seen the film, so it’s hard say whether they’re justified. In some ways the book reminded me of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, even if world-building and story largely have nothing in common beyond a Chicago-setting and the cut-throat competition between the candidates. Then again, in the flood of dystopian stories that have been published in the past few years, it’s unsurprising that certain elements become recognisable, even to one as sparsely read in the subgenre of YA dystopia as I. Whatever the resemblances might be, I rather enjoyed The Testing and found it an interesting read.

The Testing‘s main character and first-person narrator is Cia. She’s likeable, smart, but not infallibly so, and with a generally kind heart. Her development over the course of the narrative was interesting. Cia starts the story out as being a wide-eyed, idealistic teen, but ends the book more mature and world-wise adolescent, having been changed by some pretty horrific experiences. Her romance with fellow Five Lakes Colonist Tomas was sweet, and created some lighter notes in the often dark narrative. While it developed in a short time, fortunately it wasn’t based on an insta-love premise as they have history together – they’ve know each other they entire life – and Cia even acknowledges that part of the attraction might be that familiarity. Clearly, there are some legs on this pairing, at least it seems that way, but it is never quite safe as there are other possibilities out there: Will and Michal. Will is one of Cia’s Testing year-mates and Michal is a Tosu City official a few years her senior. Even if Michal isn’t exactly a conventional candidate given their age difference, early on in the novel there are hints that he might have some interest in Cia other than that of an escort to Tosu. And Will is perhaps not so much a rival for Cia’s affections in her eyes as in Tomas’. I liked Will’s character arc, which was somewhat unpredictable, at least I hadn’t seen it coming, even though in hindsight the clues were there.

The world-building is quite interesting as Charbonneau provides a plausible reason for the post-apocalyptic conditions Cia’s world finds itself in. The Seven Stages of War – a conflict that comprised a cascade effect of international conflicts spreading across the globe like an oil spill causing the involvement of an ever increasing number of governments and armaments – is scarily believable, especially as it isn’t clear how far into the future we’ve gone. At one point, Cia and Tomas discuss whether the final stages of the war where a conscious choice of the respective world leaders or if things had just spun out of control and couldn’t be reined in again. Somehow the latter really doesn’t seem that improbable. The United Commonwealth’s political system with its pragmatism and callous disregard for the people weeded out during the Testing is frightening, though its benign origins can be seen through its current practices. The United Commonwealth is a society of small communities and there is a strict system of age groups – denoted by the colour of their clothes – and class—people who haven’t attended University will never gain leadership positions. It’s an interesting ordering of society and I wondered how it came to be. I’m also quite interested in learning more about the rumoured rebels and I’d love to know what happened to the rest of the world.

Through the process of the Testing Charbonneau asks some pretty complicated questions of both Cia and the reader. Questions concerning whether it’s better to do what’s right or what’s convenient? At what price should survival come. What is more important, loyalty to self, to family (in the broadest sense) or to country? And while Cia finds a clear answer for these questions, not all of her competitors do. This made The Testing a fun and interesting read. The book doesn’t leave many questions unanswered, but it doesn’t stand on its own as the major story arcs remain unresolved. There is clearly more to come and the publication date for the second book is already set for January 2014. I’ll be interested to read about Cia’s time at University and finding out what she’ll discover about the rebels and the Tosu City Government. In the meantime, if you like a good YA dystopia, The Testing is definitely one that should go on your list.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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