Ever since The Hunger Games made it big, publishers have been churning out one dystopian YA trilogy after another. And not just any type of dystopian YA trilogy. Kick ass heroine? Check. Unjust government? Check. Love triangle? Check, unless the author decides she’s too cool for love triangles and fans proudly trumpet the absence of such. It’s almost as if authors and publishers want to cash in on a trend before badly written erotica takes over the market.
Often, the comparison of these trilogies to The Hunger Games is a disservice both to the new trilogy and to Suzanne Collins’ work. To compare any kick ass heroine to Katniss Everdeen discounts the depth of Katniss’s experiences, a level of emotional trauma, of raw, absolutely raw, honesty that I have yet to experience in any of these other dystopian YA trilogies. Similarly, to say a book is like The Hunger Games just because of certain elements is to discount the originality of these other writers and their influences.
That being said, you get a book like Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing and realize publishers and authors aren’t even trying to distinguish themselves from The Hunger Games anymore. I see how jacket artist Sammy Yuen used elements from the story to create the cover, but seriously, anyone else take a look at this and get a sense of deja vu?
Then you get the story: a group of teenagers fight to the death to get one of the twenty spots in University, where a degree will get them a good job and lift their families out of poverty. There’s even a love story, though thankfully no love triangle: during the Testing the protagonist Cia falls in love with Tomas, a handsome boy from her hometown, but can she trust him? A Goodreads review called this Hunger Games: School Edition, and I think that sums it up pretty well.
That being said, I actually really enjoyed this book. Charbonneau writes well, and I found myself almost unable to put it down. I especially love the academic twist on the story — many of post-Hunger Games dystopias have gone for the high action type of battle, likely because that’s a natural page turner. In contrast, The Testing stands out by positing an intellectual battle — in order to win, characters must remember their lessons in mathematics, history and science. And while later stages of the Testing process test the application of this knowledge, the initial stages of competition literally have the teenagers filling out test booklets with essay answers. Imagine if Tris from Divergent had chosen Erudite rather than Dauntless (personally, I’m Team Erudite all the way) — finally, finally, in Charbonneau’s book, nerds get their moment in the sun. It’s not easy to make a scene with teenagers taking tests exciting, but Charbonneau pulls it off.
My eyes are sore and my body numb with fatigue when I finish and realize the clock is still ticking. Ten minutes remain in the testing period.
Panic floods me. Did I answer the questions too fast? Did my hurrying cause me to give incorrect or incomplete answers? My fingers itch to open the cover so I can fix the mistakes I must have made. And yet, I hear my parents’ voices inside my head. […] Never second-guess myself. Almost always my first instinct will be the correct one. [p. 88]
I have always been a complete nerd, so this scene definitely struck a chord in me. How often have I gone through this exact scene myself? Charbonneau has brought the YA dystopia home.
More significantly, The Testing is a fascinating critique of the academic system and the pressures children face to do well in school. On one hand, it doesn’t really make sense for a government to, as in The Testing, force the best and brightest in the land to undergo potentially lethal tests, possibly even kill each other. Wouldn’t it make more sense to utilize the brainpower of all the smartest people in the country, rather than whittle them down?
On the other hand, I remember well the intense pressure not just to do well in school, but to be one of the best. Real life, thankfully, doesn’t have such deadly consequences… Or does it? I recently read an article about a Chinese man who literally worked himself to death. I also remember hearing horrific stories when I was younger of Japanese students about my age who would literally kill themselves over failing marks. I don’t know how the situation is in North America, but growing up in Asia, the pressure to succeed academically was intense. In some cases, it wasn’t just the pressure to get straight A’s, but rather the pressure to be the top student in the class — academic excellence at the expense of your classmates.
In a chilling moment in the book, Cia’s father warns her that even if she gets to University, some of her classmates might poison her: “Not enough to kill. Just enough to make someone too sick to sit for a test.” [p. 42] I know Charbonneau’s world is fiction, but can I believe this possible? Can I believe as well in the possibility of a government, of institutions in power, actually prizing that degree of killer instinct? Take a look at what politicians are willing to do to win. In the Philippines where I grew up, that means bribery, cheating, sometimes even murder. So yes, I can believe it. And that is why Charbonneau’s book, despite its all too striking similarities to The Hunger Games, is so powerful.
The violence is quick, intense, more like Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale than The Hunger Games in Charbonneau’s almost casual attitude towards the scenes. For example, a mistake with an intellectual puzzle results in a student being impaled in the eye — the students lies on the ground bleeding out while others are forced to stay in their seats until their finish their own puzzles, lest they accidentally view the answers of the other students. Later on in the test, Cia is horrified at having to use a gun, but another student stalks competitors from the shadows with a crossbow, seeming more like a comic book supervillain than even a Hunger Games Career tribute who at least were somewhat humanized by their alliance with other careers. Charbonneau’s humour is almost as dark and horrific as Takami’s, and the horror intensified by the fact that in The Testing, technically, students aren’t required to kill in order to win.
It’s unfortunate that The Testing so clearly owes its genesis to The Hunger Games — the similarities are much too striking to ignore. Because it is a good book, with a much overdue spotlight on intellectual rather than physical battles. It’s an entertaining read, and more importantly, a provocative exploration of academic pressure — how far will you go to succeed?
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.