These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

These Hollow Vows book cover

Information

Goodreads: These Hollow Vows
Series: These Hollow Vows #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: July 20, 2021

Official Summary

From New York Times best-selling author Lexi Ryan, Cruel Prince meets A Court of Thorns and Roses in this sexy, action-packed fantasy about a girl who is caught between two treacherous faerie courts and their dangerously seductive princes.

Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.

Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.

Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.

Star Divider

Review

These Hollow Vows is being marketed as a pick for readers who enjoyed A Court of Thorns and Roses, and I think if what you’re looking for is a steamy story featuring a Fae love triangle, with some background plot about feuding courts and a protagonist whose secrets will finally all come to light, These Hollow Vows will work for you. It hits the spot for people who are into the Fae romance fad. Personally, I was hoping for more originality in the story and better writing, and I found the experience of reading this alternately comical and disappointing.

I was first struck by how the novel’s writing feels like a mishmash of all the other YA books I’ve ever read. The opening chapter in particular struck me with familiar phrase after phrase, things like, “[Character name] wasn’t home tonight. I made sure of it,” as the protagonist breaks into a residence to steal something. I give the author credit for knowing the YA market and being able to write a book that will doubtless work well in it as it hits all the typical notes, but I found myself laughing and wondering if I should just DNF the book if it was just going to string a bunch of dramatic cliché lines together.

I persevered, however, and I did ultimately find myself a bit more interested in the plot than I’d anticipated, but events were still predictable. First, the book almost sounds a little too like ACOTAR. This may be partially because both are about Fae (I honestly think a lot of Fae books sound the same because they’re working with the same base material), but there are also a number of parallels in terms of the plot and character ARCs. Second, there’s a really predictable love triangle. Ryan does do a bit more back and forth (This one’s the good guy! No, the other guy is the good guy!) than many stories, but it’s still clear how it’s all going to end, and it made me want to hit my head against a wall watching the protagonist be dense about the whole thing. The ending is particularly predictable.

The book is a bit sexy, is that’s what you’re looking for. I saw a couple of people on Goodreads suggest it’s “tame” and suitable for lower YA, and . . . no. I actually went on the publisher’s web site to double check that it’s marketed as YA at all and not as NA/adult. The protagonist is 18. One love interest is 21. One is older because, you know, Fae. And there are some pretty explicit bedroom scenes. Goodreads led me to believe this might be a book lighter on the romance, and my expectations were off base there. No, it’s not ACOTAR level, but it’s definitely mature YA leading into NA for me.

I don’t know that this is a bad book, but it depends on what you’re looking for. Fun steamy Fae book you aren’t going to take too seriously? Sure. A thoughtful fantasy with strong world building and complex characters? Probably not. It wasn’t my thing, but I can see why people looking for a readalike for ACTOAR would be into it.

Briana
2 star review

The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni

Information

Goodreads: The Prison Healer
Series: The Prison Healer #1
Source: Library
Published: April 13, 2012

Official Summary

Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer.

When the Rebel Queen is captured, Kiva is charged with keeping the terminally ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal: a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water, and earth, assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals.

Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order: “Don’t let her die. We are coming.” Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the queen will be granted their freedom.

But no one has ever survived.

With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.

Star Divider

Review

Possible minor spoilers!

The Prison Healer takes what readers think they know about how YA fantasies work and tries to twist some of the tropes into something new. A protagonist who finds strength in healing, hoping, and helping others, all while keeping her head down and doing what she’s told so she can survive her term in prison adds to the appeal of the story. Unfortunately, the world building, plot, and characterization are extremely illogical, and I couldn’t enjoy the book in the end. The more I thought about it all, the less sense it made. Logic, however, is not a core point most YA readers seem to look for in their books (The Prison Healer has a 4.31 average rating on Goodreads as I type this), so if you’re a YA fantasy fan, it’s likely you’ll love this book even though I didn’t.

The opening of the story has promise. I liked Kiva, a protagonist who freely admits her one talent is healing people. She can’t even claim any “mundane” skills like cooking or sewing, much archery or swordsmanship or whatever other elements of physical prowess one typically sees in a YA “strong female character.” She does what she’s told because it keeps her alive, and she does her job in the infirmary, and she stays out of people’s way. It’s refreshing, and reading about her daily life navigating the prison is interesting.

Then the main plot starts, and things go downhill. Characters are introduced, and Kiva becomes BFFs with them for no apparent reason, even though her “thing” is not being friends with anyone because it’s prison and half of them die anyway. Then there’s the Rebel Queen and Kiva’s decision to volunteer in her stead in the Trial by Ordeal (not a spoiler; this is in the plot summary!). This . . . just doesn’t work. The idea of the Trial by Ordeal doesn’t make sense in the first place; there seems to be no clear reason why it’s sporadically invoked, and it’s basically a show trial since the only way to survive is to have elemental magic, and only the royal family has elemental magic. (This also means the royal family is above the law, since they would all survive it?) And BECAUSE no one ever survives and there is literally no way to survive without magic, I simply could not understand why all Kiva’s friends were so optimistic about the whole thing, telling her she could do it and she just had to believe in herself and be confident and it would be find. There is no reason anyone would ever think she would be fine!

A lot of YA fantasies have the trial plot. Usually the idea is that the tasks are almost impossible but not entirely impossible and the protagonist has some cool skills they will use to triumph against the odds, and readers can cheer for them and their dramatic feats. This isn’t that. This is someone who (to make up an example not actually in the book) is going to jump off a skyscraper without any tools or magic or skills and hope she survives. And other characters are telling her she can do it. By the sheer power of her belief in herself??? It’s all too weird. I spent the whole book wondering if all the characters were out of their minds.

My only explanation for most of the book, and most of the decisions the characters made, was that they were all lying about everything. Some of them must have had different motivations for what they were doing than what they were saying, some of them must know things they weren’t letting on about, etc. I read hoping and praying this was the case and everything would come together in the end. And I think even the author knows logic is an issue because she spends so much time trying to explain things about the Rebel Queen and the world building and the royal family, etc. and make it fit, and yet it never fully does.

The book is fine, I guess. It’s interesting. People will probably like the hunky love interest. I liked Kiva myself, and her 11-year-old helper in the infirmary. I wanted to like the book, but I just couldn’t when so much of it doesn’t make sense. I know I’m in the minority on this point, however, because I always am.

Briana
2 star review

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

The Mystwick School of Musicraft

Information

Goodreads: The Mystwick School of Musicraft
Series: None (yet)
Source: Libr
Published: January 21, 2020

Official Summary

Amelia Jones always dreamed of attending the Mystwick School of Musicraft, where the world’s most promising musicians learn to create magic. So when Amelia botches her audition, she thinks her dream has met an abrupt and humiliating end—until the school agrees to give her a trial period. Amelia is determined to prove herself, vowing to do whatever it takes to become the perfect musician. Even if it means pretending to be someone she isn’t. Meanwhile, a mysterious storm is brewing that no one, not even the maestros at Mystwick, is prepared to contain. Can Amelia find the courage to be true to herself in time to save her beloved school from certain destruction?

Star Divider

Review

The Mystwick School of Musicraft opens with elements similar to other middle grade books: a girl with a big dream of going to an elite school flubs her audition but gets in anyway and then finds herself with a trusty sidekick friend and a roommate who actively dislikes her. For a while I worried the rest of the book would be equally original, but once the plot picks up, readers get a fun story with some unique elements about the magic of music, the importance of family, and the value of finding your confidence.

The magic system is one I haven’t encountered in a book before, though it seems somewhat obvious as a premise: playing music is (usually) equivalent to playing spells. General rules like finishing the spell, playing the right notes, modifying the tempo to modify the spell, etc. are well-defined, and I enjoyed it overall. I also like that the book, besides for this magic, is apparently set in our world with the same modern technological conveniences, same famous people, etc. Magic and the Internet live side-by-side.

Protagonist Amelia brings life to the story, as she knows she has musical talent but frequently fails to show any of it at her new school. She fluctuates between believing in herself and believing she’s nothing but a failure, but she never comes across as overly whiny or dramatic, just a realistic character struggling with showcasing her talent and occasionally folding under pressure. Nonetheless, she’s often bolder and smarter than she thinks, which makes her fun to root for.

Finally, I do think the plot gets better as it goes on. Readers find out more about Amelia and her problems she’s facing and some threats to Mystwick itself, and as things build up to the climax, the book moves away from its “generic magic boarding school” opening. I think readers, particularly the target audience, will enjoy it.

I admit I was on the fence about The Mystwick School of Magic because I thought the only other book I read by Khoury (YA dystopian) was just okay, but this was quick and fun, and I expect it to expand into a series soon.

Briana
4 stars

Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

Empress of All Seasons

Information

Goodreads: Empress of All Seasons
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: November 6, 2018

Official Summary

In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.

Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.

Star Divider

Review

Empress of All Seasons promises readers an epic fantasy story of a young girl finding herself while facing incredible challenges as she seeks to “beat” each season in the Imperial Palace’s magical rooms.  If she can do this, she wins the hand of the prince, power for her people, and the approval of her mother.  There is so much imagination in the book and so much at stake in the plot that the novel seems poised for success, but uneven pacing and sloppy characterization in the last quarter of the novel mean that a story that could have been great ends up being just okay.

Though the first part of the novel has its flaws, I can imagine myself giving the initial 75% of the book four stars.  The idea of a (secret) half-demon girl competing in a contest to “conquer the seasons” is stellar, and I loved watching it all play out.  There’s also the cool twist on the arranged marriage trope, since it’s a man who’s being offered as a prize in the competition rather than the woman.  The world-building is also rather strong, though I did find the little interlude chapters about the gods/goddesses a bit odd and almost unnecessary.  I liked that most of the characters were layered, and it was hard to say whether anyone was particularly “good” or “bad.”

[Minor spoilers this paragraph.] However…the last quarter of the book undoes any good that occurs at the start.  Jean spends a lot of time setting up a few ideas: 1) that Prince Taro and Mari love each other (though frankly I never thought they had any chemistry at all), 2) that Prince Taro is invested in a future where demons are not enslaved to humans.  All this changes at the drop of a hat, as if it had never been. Perhaps there’s something profound in this, the question of whether Mari really loved, what it means to love, etc.  However, I’d have to to reread the book and several scenes and really sit and ponder this.  On first reading, it looks as it Jean throws her own characterization aside to make the plot more dramatic, which is a tired habit of YA.

The pacing of the end is also incredibly off.  Rarely do I think a book should have been longer, but Empress of All Seasons really needed to be a duology  (or have a different ending to make it fit in one book).  The epilogue, which is only a couple pages, could have been the topic of an entire book.  Everything was rushed and underdeveloped, and it’s disappointing that a promising book ended by kind of fading unmemorably away.

On the bright side, the book does have a lot of quotable pieces of wisdom, and as a general rule I tend to be baffled how other readers manage to pick quotable gems out of novels.  Empress of All Seasons is a veritable mine of strong prose and thought-provoking ideas.  It just deserved more (aka a second book deal from the publisher to expand everything out).

3 Stars Briana

The Friendship Experiment by Erin Teagan

The Friendship Experiment

Information

Goodreads: The Friendship Experiment
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: November 1, 2016

Official Summary

Future scientist Madeline Little is dreading the start of middle school. Nothing has been right since her grandfather died and her best friend changed schools. Maddie would rather help her father in his research lab or write Standard Operating Procedures in her lab notebook than hang out with a bunch of kids who aren’t even her friends. Despite Maddie’s reluctance, some new friends start coming her way—until they discover what she’s written in that secret notebook. And that’s just part of the trouble. Can this future scientific genius find the formula for straightening out her life?

Review

The Friendship Experiment is a book that combines whimsy and realism to introduce readers to an eleven-year-old girl who sometimes has it all—yet frequently feels like she has nothing.  She’s blessed to be born into a family of scientists who let her run her own microbiology experiments and who even give her access to state of the art labs at the nearby university where her father works.  She has a nice home, a membership to a local science museum, and a neighborhood with small town feel where everyone seems to know her name.  The problem?  She’s going to be starting middle school without her best friend from fifth grade.

The Friendship Experiment, then, is about Madeline’s struggle to adjust to a new school.  She actually knows several students there from her elementary school, so things are not quite as dire as she makes out, but she’s hesitant to connect with anyone other than her best friend, who is attending a fancy, apparently more challenging, private school.  She tries to get through the tough times by writing standard operating procedures a habit she picked up from her (world famous scientist) grandfather in a super-secret notebook.

I think the STEM aspect of the novel will draw in a lot of readers.  Madeline is serious about microbiology and her experiments and, as I said, she gets inside access to real labs and lab equipment at the nearby university.   Author Erin Teagan is a former research scientist, and her love and knowledge of science shines through the writing.  There’s also a character who’s going to be an astronaut (she went to the “real Space Camp” over the summer), as well as a boy obsessed with dinosaurs.  A bit more stereotyped are the non-STEM characters—a spelling bee champ who literally walks around spelling 30% of the words she uses, and a girl who does nothing but carry around encyclopedias and read them all day.  Still, the celebration of smart kids (mostly girls, but some boys) is exciting, and I think a lot of readers will appreciate it.

My main struggle with the book is that the protagonist is not a likable character; she’s unpleasant and frequently mean to everyone around her, ranging from her best friend to her sister to the kids at her new middle school.  Now, I don’t need characters to be likable to believe a book is good, and I understand that Madeline’s meanness is in fact the point of the story; she has to learn to recognize her own personality flaws and then to interact with others in more positive ways.  And yet…I didn’t find reading about her fun.  She’s not someone I would want to hang around in real life, so it makes sense I didn’t find hanging out with her for several hours while reading the book fun either.  There’s nothing wrong with the technical execution of the book and Madeline’s character arc, but if I’m rating the book for “personal enjoyment,” I admit I frequently didn’t feel any.

The Friendship Experiment is in many ways a good book, and much of it struck me as unique from what I typically read in middle grade fiction.  However, my lack of personal connection with the book (and lack of sense that I would have connected with it any better when I was actually in middle school myself) means it’s probably not going to be high on my list of books I personally recommend to people.  However, if you’re looking for a book with girls in STEM or even just a book about adjusting to a new middle school, this could be a good choice for you.

3 Stars Briana

The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

The Question of MiraclesInformation

Goodreads: The Question of Miracles
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway
Published: February 3, 2015

Official Summary

Following the death of her best friend, Iris and her family move to Oregon for a fresh start in this middle-grade story of miracles, magic, rain, hope, and a hairless cat named Charles.

Sixth-grader Iris Abernathy hates life in Corvallis, Oregon, where her family just moved. It’s always raining, and everything is so wet. Besides, nothing has felt right since Iris’s best friend, Sarah, died.

When Iris meets Boris, an awkward mouth-breather with a know-it-all personality, she’s not looking to make a new friend, but it beats eating lunch alone. Then she learns that Boris’s very existence is a medical mystery, maybe even a miracle, and Iris starts to wonder why some people get miracles and others don’t. And if one miracle is possible, can another one be too? Can she possibly communicate with Sarah again?

Review

Following the journey of sixth grader Iris as she learns to deal with the aftermath of her best friend’s unexpected death, The Question of Miracles is a thoughtful book that asks hard-hitting question about who gets miracles and why.  As Iris searches for answers, she stumbles across a number of different belief systems and their followers, ranging from a local psychic who claims to communicate with the dead to officials from the Vatican.  Although the novel is ultimately dismissive of every option Iris investigates, it is refreshingly open-minded during the process of searching itself and encourages readers to be active participants in their own belief-formation.

Iris, perhaps due to being a single child or perhaps due to having experienced the death of a friend so young, occasionally sounds older than her middle grade age in her thoughts and dialogue.  Interestingly, the adults in the story often seem to overlook her maturity, instead focusing on how she is handling her friend’s death and worrying about all the things adults do: whether she’s too depressed, whether she is making enough friends in her new school, whether she’ll ever come to terms with the relocation.  Arnold balances these concerns and Iris’s reactions quite nicely; Iris exhibits the sass and frustration one might expect from a child who’s all too aware her parents think she’s reacting “incorrectly,” without ever coming across as overly annoying or rude.

Her friend Boris provides a nice contrast in personality.  He’s not used to having friends and is too interested in playing Magic to be considered cool.  However, even though Arnold devotes a lot of time to carefully building their friendship, the constructive mechanics behind it are sometimes a little too obvious. After some initial reluctance, Iris essentially decides they WILL be friends because she might as well be friends with someone.  Real friendship “chemistry” between the two of them is sometimes lacking.

However, the novel’s biggest flaw is the abrupt ending.  The final chapter itself actually does tie up most of the loose ends nicely; the real problem is the lack of lead-up to this chapter.  There is no progression to the concluding thought and feelings.  At one moment, the story is going along as it always has been, at the same pace, with the same open questions about miracles and religion and life.  The next moment, Iris has apparently has most of her questions solved, at least to the point of being satisfied with her life as it stands.  What leads her to this satisfaction?  There is really no indication.  Personally, I feel as if I have been gypped out of several chapters that would explain this to me.

The Question of Miracles is certainly an ambitious book, one willing to ask children to consider troublesome questions about death and the fairness of life.  Unfortunately, a thought-provoking story and unique middle grade characters are somewhat overshadowed by the feeling that a sizable chunk of the story is completely missing.  Give me three more chapters and I’ll consider joining the conversations about giving The Question of Miracles literature awards.

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

The Rumpelstiltskin ProblemInformation

Goodreads: The Rumpelstiltskin Problem
Source: Purchased
Published: 2000

Review

If you ask Vivian Vande Velde her feelings about “Rumpelstiltskin,” she would tell you the story does not make a lot of sense.  If you read her preface to The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, you would probably begin to agree.   Vande Velde summarizes the original tale step by step, outlining along the way where characters either do something without any explanation or do something that is explained, but illogically so.  Why, indeed, would Rumpelstiltskin accept gold jewelry as payment for turning straw into gold?  Apparently he can acquire all the precious metal he could ever want.

Vande Velde attempts to explain the characters’ actions in six original retellings of “Rumpelstiltskin.”

Each of the stories in this collection is fun, a little wild and weird.  Vande Velde definitely reveals a quirky streak in this book, and her lighthearted tone is common to all six stories, even as the plots and characters change.   All open with a line about how far in the past the story occurred, usually before something random like before sliced bread was sold in supermarkets.  Some of the tales are bit more dismal than others, but they never get so depressing that Vande Velde cannot poke a little fun at herself or the characters.

Interestingly enough, although Vande Velde’s retellings are supposed to make more sense than the original story, her characters do often merit a bit of mockery.  Vande Velde’s stories are all internally consistent, and her characters always offer explanations for their actions—but their decisions are sometimes still a little crazy.  For instance, in one version the miller is poor and is convinced he can tell the king his daughter can turn straw into gold if he gives her three gold coins, and then he and his daughter will simply take the money and run before she is given any straw.  Vande Velde gives the miller a reason for telling the king a preposterous lie, but his plan is still ridiculous.

Vande Velde also gives each character a chance to be the villain: the king, the miller, the miller’s daughter, and Rumpelstiltskin.  While this does allow for variety in the retellings, it also means it is easy to catch on to the pattern, for readers to guess who will be the villain next.   Of course no one expects fairy tale retellings to be overly surprising (especially ones that are only short stories, not novels), but it is a bit disappointing to be able to predict a large part of what will be “new” about a retelling you have not even started to read.

The main problem with this book: After about two tales, the reader probably wants to be done with “Rumpelstiltskin.”  The stories may be different, but in the end they all have the same basic plot.  This will be a challenge for readers who like to read straight through a book and be finished, rather than patiently read a section or two and replace it on the shelf for another day.

Nonetheless, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem is an imaginative and slightly quirky book, perfect for readers who want to see “Rumpelstiltskin” in a new light.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The TestingInformation

Goodreads: The Testing
Series: The Testing #1
Source: Library
Published: June 4, 2013

Official Summary

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?
The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

Review

The Testing has an interesting plot, solid pacing, and intelligent protagonists.  If I had not already encountered this plot in several other YA dystopians, I probably would have loved the book.  The opening scene is immediately reminiscent of a number of others novels.  Featuring a teenage girl going to a graduation ceremony that will determine her future in her dystopian society, it evokes scenes from at least Delirium, Matched, and Divergent.  Once Cia is chosen for the Testing, the plot is most similar to Divergent as Cia must pass a variety of tasks to move on in the completion.  Finally, the plot mirrors that of The Hunger Games, as Cia and her fellow Testing candidates are dropped off in the wilderness to fend for themselves and kill their competition if necessary. The Testing, of course, puts some unique details on the plot, but the similarities to other YA books are so strong that the story barely seems worth reading for anyone who already has read many other dystopians, particularly Divergent and The Hunger Games. 

Even the characters cannot set The Testing apart.  Cia, in my opinion, is likeable and I was totally rooting for her.  However, her defining characteristic is decency.  While this is admirable, one of the many reasons I wanted her to succeed, and a large element in the plot and themes of the novel, it simply does not make Cia the most exciting female dystopian protagonist.  Excitement, of course, is unnecessary for a book to be interesting or good, but its presence could really help a book already struggling to differentiate itself from every other book in its genre.  The Testing’s attempt to be different from books like The Hunger Game by being a little more “quiet,” emphasizing that good leaders are good people and not just good killers, may actually lead it to become lost in the crowd rather than standing out in it.

Furthermore, beyond Cia’s intelligent and mature discussions of what the ideal Testing candidate (i.e. ideal future leader of her nation) should be like, Cia and her friends are not very dynamic.  Everyone chosen for the Testing is smart, but their brilliance inevitably appears commonplace to the reader because no one is lacking in it.  In this post-apocalyptic society, it is apparently normal for teenagers to engineer innovative irrigation systems, electrical systems, new plant life, etc.  And although the Testing candidates are supposed to have a specialty, most of them appear to be good at everything, and no one is as good at everything as Cia.  If she encounters a problem, she solves it in a heartbeat.  It might take her time, say a day or two, to execute her idea, but that only involves the practical part of building her brilliant design.  The design itself comes to her, unflawed, almost instantaneously, no matter the situation.

The dystopian government of the novel also has some flaws.  After finishing the book, I am still asking myself why any of this had to happen at all.  Why does the government want candidates to die during the Testing?  As Cia observes repeatedly, the Testing committee could easily weed out the “weaklings” without having them actually die.  Right now, I, and Cia, can only assume the Testing officials are sick and voyeuristic, but (as I mentioned in my review of Nerve), I never find this type of explanation satisfying.)  I also wonder why the Resistance is interested in Cia.  So far, nothing special about her has been revealed.  Presumably it will be later in the series, but some hints should be dropped so readers do not spend the entirety of book one scratching their heads and thinking so many of the plot elements make so little sense.

The Testing is well-written and has a lot going for it thematically.  Cia tackles head-on important questions about her society, what it means it be a good person and a good leader, and what her experience during the chilling stages of the Testing should mean to her and to others.   Charbonneau is clearly a thoughtful writer who wants to provoke readers’ minds and not just their emotions; she wants to inspire in addition to stimulate.  Unfortunately, Charbonneau’s thoughtfulness is packaged in other writers’ plots.  The book would probably be incredibly enjoyable to readers just discovering the dystopian genre, but avid fans of it will recognize they have read variations of this book before.

Bottom Line: I would read more of this author’s work, but I am not interested in this particular series.

Discuss! What do you think of a dystopian novel that celebrates characters who are smart, rather than physically tough?

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