Just Finished…The Testing Trilogy

Maybe an odd few spoilers in here, so tread carefully, just as you might if you were going through The Testing yourself!:)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve read the three books that make up ‘The Testing’ trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau. I think I downloaded the first book in the series a year or so ago, when it was on a free Amazon download day… I picked it up because it was pegged as being for ‘fans of the Hunger Games…’ and with a blurb like this, you can see why:

Testing

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 and 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.

See? Handsome boy from your home sector – check. Students chosen from outer colonies to come to the capital city for ‘Testing’ – check. Deadly competition and questionable morals amongst the candidates, check and check!

I think it was the reported similarities to The Hunger Games that made me avoid reading this for so long. I loved The Hunger Games: the competition, the rebellion, Katniss and Peeta (yep, Team Peeta, not the other guy – Katniss is the narrator and you never got the romance vibe from her in relation to him, did you?) The relationships between the characters as well, from Rue and Haymitch, through to Finnick and Mags – they all had good depth and realism, which I loved throughout that series and for me made it very strong.

Anyway, I’d not read any YA dystopian for a while and so I picked this up in the end and gave it a whirl – and it was worth it! Book one was good, book two was even better I thought – it moved further away from the Hunger Games-esque arena and built out it’s own world and plot.

After blasting through the first two books in this trilogy, I did stall a bit when it came to ‘Graduation Day’. I really liked the world built up in the first two books and in a way, keeping Cia’s world more compact (either controlled as part of the Testing, or built around her place at University) made her actions and the scale of the story realistic.

When we move to the final installment Cia doesn’t seem as ‘changed’ as she continually tells you that she is – this was something that started to grate on me a little in this final book. It felt like there was a lot more tell over show in this part and the characters that you were familiar with from books one and two began to feel a little more like cardboard cut-outs, despite the fact that you knew them already and could have seen their behaviours come out, rather than Cia telling you how she was interpreting things.

Overall, after two good books with plenty of pace and action, bounded nicely within the areas they were set inside, the third one fell flat. The various climactic elements left me a bit cold if I’m honest, which is a shame as the set up was good. I think for me – as some other reviewers pick up – things became quite unrealistic in the third book: the scope of what Cia got tasked with seemed inconsistent with the scale of everything else happening around her and her ever-present bag of magic tricks became a crutch. How could they be advance enough to manipulate genetics and do complex chemical engineering to revitalise their world, but not have anything more than basic communications, which a university student can apparently knock together in a workshop pretty quickly.

This is a good series and some comparisons to The Hunger Games are fair, particularly in the first book. But by the second it does stride out in its own direction, which I really enjoyed – the third book delivers many of the answers following the set up in the other books, it just didn’t grip me to the end as I hoped it might.

Overall I’d rate the series 4* – it is very readable and enticed me enough to buy the next two books in the series, having read the first one for free. I would have just liked something more, something different from the ending that was delivered.

Tony’s Review…Breathe, Sarah Crossan

3/5

Sometime after the world has starved itself of oxygen and humanity has retreated to sealed domes, our three main characters find themselves bound together in an adventure. Alina, resistance fighter, who knows the pods are an excuse for the elite to hold on to power; Quinn, the son of one of those elite; and Bea, the daughter of one of the working classes, lovelorn for Quinn who never notices her (at first, anyway).

It’s a wonderful premise of a book, the world suffocating without oxygen, and the world building and descriptions of the wastelands outside the pod are great. It’s the characters that let the book down a little. We shift from one perspective to another every chapter, first person every time, and perhaps that’s the problem. I would have liked to have stayed in Quinn’s head for longer to get to know him better, for instance. The characters voices are quite similar as well, such that I had to check the chapter headings to see who was speaking and thinking a few times.

I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been about the end of the world, the time called “The Switch”. Watching humanity fall apart into ruin was what pulled me into the book and the little flashbacks are what kept me interested. It would have been grim reading, I’m sure, but there are glimpses of the lost world that I felt needed exploring more. A character talks of when she was a death nurse, killing people who asked rather than let themselves slowly suffocate. Tell me what that was like rather than focus on the long-after. Write a prequel, maybe.

Unusually, the love triangle is between two girls and one boy, rather than the other way round. I liked that. I liked there was a character who was gay and it was the least interesting thing about him. It’s mentioned once and not again. He isn’t defined by it as though it were his only attribute.

There are inevitable loose ends – this is book one of at least two – and it felt like there was a slow build that will continue into the next book, and I never felt cheated out of the unanswered questions.

Will I read book two in autumn 2013? I think I will, just to see where it all goes and how it all ends.

Guest Post…What, Exactly, is a Dystopian Book?

It has come to my attention, during my various adventures in writer and reader forums around the Internet, that lots people — even some authors — don’t actually know what a dystopian society is. It’s not really a big deal…until you start incorrectly marketing your work as something it’s not. It’s true that a lot of readers might not know the difference, but plenty of them will. The readers aren’t the ones who are going to look bad for not understanding the genre…you are. It’s time to find out just exactly what makes a dystopian book dystopian. Don’t assume you already know; you might be one of the people who made me sigh recently with a forum post.

Dystopian Society

 If you want to get technical about it, calling something “dystopian” isn’t altogether accurate anyway. More properly it ought to be referred to as a dystopian society, and that’s the first piece of really important information you need to know. Dystopian books and stories of all kinds are deeply rooted in the society itself; often, authors will present the readers with a world view of this society through the eyes of a main protagonist.
 What’s characteristic of a dystopian society? For starters, the people who live within it are being oppressed and usually wholly controlled by some sort of all-powerful government or collective. Control is the most important word here, and one of the defining characteristics of a dystopian society. In many cases, there are at least two distinct classes present in such stories: the people who are being controlled, and those who are doing the controlling. This type of society is also called anti-utopian, and the word itself is derived from the Greek word for “bad.”



Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic Societies

It seems to me, after wading through all the confused readers and writers on the forums (which shall not be named), that the big stumbling block in all this is post-apocalyptic societies. People who don’t fully understand the idea of a dystopian society seem to think that dystopian societies are identical to post-apocalyptic societies, that in fact the two go hand-in-hand. This is patently incorrect.
A post-apocalyptic society isn’t necessarily dystopian. In this type of society, some horrible event has occurred which has fundamentally changed the world on a global scale. Nuclear war, catastrophic weather events, alien invasion — take your pick. Often, a new society rises in this new world in place of the old society…but there’s no reason to presuppose that this new society is dystopian simply because the Apocalypse has occurred.

The Necessary Separation

I’m going to go ahead and blame lots of the current confusion on The Hunger Games, though let me add that I have nothing against Suzanne Collins or her work or her fans or anything else that has to do with her books. In The Hunger Games, a society which is both dystopian and post-apocalyptic is the setting for the events which take place. However, readers and writers should not take this to mean that all post-apocalyptic societies are dystopian, or vice versa.
I recently saw a list of “favorite dystopian movies” which included such films as Waterworld. This is not a correct classification of this film, based on my somewhat hazy memory and cursory research. As I understand it, the “bad guys” in this film are pirates…and not government officials. People are not being controlled. They’re just trying to figure out life on the water. Also on the list: The PostmanThe Book of Eli and Repo! The Genetic Opera. Two of these films are post-apocalyptic, and there is little to no mention of the government in them. One of these films is dystopian, but not post-apocalyptic.
Your Role as an Author
What do you look for if you want to know the difference? Control.Catastrophe marks post-apocalyptic stories; control marks dystopian stories. Knowing the difference is important if you’re going to write a story that’s one, the other, or both. If I go shopping for some all-hell-has-broken-loose post-apocalyptic fare and find a bunch of dystopian stories instead, I’m not just going to hate you as the writer who got it wrong.
I might hate all indies, because I might think that none of them have any idea what they’re talking about. So don’t be that guy. Know your business, know your genre, know your categories. Know what the heck you’re writing, and how to identify it. If you don’t identify it properly, you’re not going to like the way you get identified as an author hack. Never forget that the title author is absolutely necessary for the word authoritative. That is not a mistake.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 4th June 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are both available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Just Finished…This World We Live In

This World We Live In – Susan Beth Pffefer

(Last Survivors trilogy)

This is the last part of a trilogy, the first of which I read a few years ago. An asteroid strikes the moon and shifts it closer to Earth, causing immense ecological damage. Tsunamis inundate the coasts and volcanoes fill the air with ash. Crops fail and sunlight is a memory. The first part of the trilogy focused on a rural family, the second a brother and sister in New York city, and the third now brings the two together.

It’s a short book, probably only 20,000 words, and it didn’t take me long to read. In places, it was rushed and disjointed, and it felt like there were parts that were cut: Characters would suddenly fly into a rage with no reason, then be calm and reasonable a half page later.

It wasn’t until the last few chapters that I felt the characters were in any peril, and it wasn’t until then that I felt moved or touched by them. There’s a section near the end where I could almost hear the author saying, “That’s it. I’m done. Let someone else write part four.”

Pfeffer’s writing style is clean and tidy enough, although some of the dialogue and arguments felt flat. There are endless descriptions of food, the hunt for food, will the food drop arrive, etc. Fair enough, the main character is starving, but could we have skipped over some of her meals?

Not a bad book, but it felt very much by the numbers. 2/5