The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau is a Hunger Games read-alike, which will definitely appeal to fans of Suzanne Collins' famous trilogy. As with Hunger Games, this novel is about a group of teens selected to undergo a series of tests, some of which are deadly, in order to select those most qualified to lead in the reconstruction of a devastated country. Set in post-apocalyptic America, The Testing deals with themes of trust, loyalty and self-survival.
The novel opens with Malencia (Cia) Vale and her classmates preparing for their graduation. Cia lives in Five Lakes Colony, one of the smaller colonies containing only about one thousand inhabitants. Cia lives with her father, mother and four brothers, Zeen, Hart, Win and Hamin. Her father's job it to genetically alter plants so they can thrive in the devastated areas of the Five Lakes Colony.
Their colony is one of eighteen spread throughout the continental United States, now known as the United Commonwealth. A world war, known as the Seven Stages War has completely destroyed society.
Cia hopes to be chosen for The Testing which if she passes will allow her to study at the United Commonwealth's University. Cia's father is a University graduate who was chosen and passed The Testing. So when no Tosu City official shows up at the graduation, Cia is very disappointed.
However, the next day Cia and four other young learn from Tosu City official, Michal Gallen, that they indeed will be part of this year's Testing. Included are fellow colonists, Tomas Endress, Malachi Rourke, and Zandri Hicks.
Before she leaves for Tosu City, however, Cia's father warns her that The Testing is not what she thinks it is. She learns that her father has no memories of The Testing - that somehow his memory was wiped clean. He found University challenging and when he was assigned to a new colony he began to have nightmares. He never knew what happened to the people who did not pass the Testing, nor his roommate. Cia's father warns her to question everything she sees and to trust no one.
Each candidate is given a bracelet which has a unique symbol on it. Cia's symbol is an eight-pointed star with a lightning bolt in the center. The first test is a series of written exams which test for knowledge of science, mathematics, history, and reading. The second set of tests is a series of hands-on problems which prove to have brutal consequences for some of the candidates. The third test involves a series of problems to be worked out within the framework of a team. This too is not as innocuous as it appears. Through each level, Cia comes to the realization that a wrong choice could mean death.
After passing the first three levels of the testing, Cia and the remaining candidates are told about the fourth and final test; they are to be dropped off in the poisoned wilderness and must make their way back to Tosu City. Those who do so will have passed the test. Cia and her close friend, Tomas make a pact to find each other and do the final test together. Cia has known Tomas from childhood and she is gradually falling for him. But can Cia trust Tomas in what will likely be the most deadly test yet?
The Testing is a fast paced novel that bears many similarities to Hunger Games; a group of teens facing a deadly test, a love triangle hinted at in the first novel, a government with sinister motives, and a group of rebels willing to help one special candidate outwit the authorities.
The novel's protagonist, Cia Vale is a resourceful, strong character, in fact, sometimes overly so. She seems to be incredibly adept at detecting traps and outwitting the challenges of The Testing, so much so that it sometimes stretches the credibility of the character. Cia discovers almost immediately just how sinister the Testing will be with the discovery of cameras in the skimmer. Like Katniss in Hunger Games, Cia works with a boy from her own colony/district to survive against enormous odds, buries a dead candidate, and manages not to kill anyone, preserving her moral integrity in the story. Like Katniss, Cia doesn't think about the horrors of what is happening to her, nor the ethics of her choices; she is too busy simply trying to survive. That will come for later.
This novel works because Charbonneau is able to create and maintain suspense through much of the second half of the book which tells the story of the fourth test- Cia and Tomas's journey though the wilderness back to Tosu City. What at first seems to simply be a race to return to Tosu City evolves into brutal contest of survival in which candidates are permitted to injure or kill fellow candidates in order to prevent them from getting a passing grade. Not only does Cia struggle with how she will deal with the other candidates as she meets them but she also remains uncertain about Tomas, especially after she leaves him and another candidate, Will, alone for a day and returns to find them unwilling to explain what has happened during her absence.
Overall, The Testing is a great start to this new dystopian series. It's unfortunate that it is so similar to Hunger Games; the lack of originality and the many similarities are quite obvious. Nevertheless, it is an exciting novel with a heroine we can all root for.
Author Joelle Charbonneau studied vocal performance and was involved in opera before becoming a writer. The Testing Series will see two more books, Independent Study and Graduation published in 2014.
The trailer below touches on some of the scenes in the novel.
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
New York: Houghton Mifflin 2013