My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: I’m less than impressed with “The Testing.” It started off intriguing enough, but as the story continued, I think the quality of it devolved and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief with respect to many elements that came across and unraveled at the seams as it continued on. The story did have some interesting points, but never came to fruition with them as the emotional quality of the story and characterizations missed their mark.
I’m going to avoid direct comparisons with other young adult dystopian novels for the moment because while we could throw out some of the bigger titles in this genre and give side by side comparisons of similar functions, that really wasn’t my problem with the narrative. I can take a story that has similar thematics or constructions just so as long as it maintains my suspense of disbelief, keeps me invested in the ovearching plot and characters, and gives me value in the ride I’m taking.
Sadly, I thought “The Testing” had a very serious problem with emotional mismatch and stakes through the work. Perhaps not so much at the beginning, but certainly by a good measure towards the middle and end of the book.
The story centers on Cia Vale, a young woman who has just graduated from school and is preparing for the next stage in her life. In this dystopian universe, selected students are “invited” to compete for spots at the University level called “The Testing.” It’s a procedure filled with dread for Cia’s family, particularly when she’s chosen and must leave them behind. Her father confesses that she should’ve never been chosen and gives her some ominous warnings about the process. Cia goes in thinking she’s prepared, alongside friend and potential love interest.
“The Testing” starts out being a series of evaluations (sort of like standardized tests), but then there are some given twists in the book that I’ll admit I didn’t see coming and intrigued me. The whole scene with the poisoned plants test – that was an interesting scenario. One false move, make mistakes, and you would be in a world of hurt from the consequences, if not dead. It’s a test environment for extremes that kind of reminded me of a few games I played (In a way, I kind of started picturing in my mind that the Testing center looked a lot like the environment for “Portal” and “Portal 2” if anyone’s played those games. And those games were fun.)
Granted, there were other scenarios that didn’t really pull me into the narrative because they were a little more difficult to believe in a controlled environment, but I didn’t mind them as much because I realized this was an environment of extremes, and there were going to be test takers who it would be a matter of time before they were “eliminated”. I liked the power struggles I saw, and I liked how Cia was perceptive enough to see other people gaming the system, even if I had a hard time believing that they would be so desperate to reach University in this environment based on the information given (it wasn’t completely vetted out for motivation, I think. Parts of it I saw did work, but others were a little more sketchy.)
It was when this environment moved to the field test, which had the students surviving in the wild and killing off each other, that the story started to unravel at the seams for me. What with Cia’s love interest being more concerned about having his pants down in front of her and smiling pervishly about that…versus the branch impaled in his leg and bleeding internally.
Priorities, man. Priorities.
On a serious note, it was a little hard to believe, considering the focal points in this part of the story. The love interest scenario didn’t really work because it was forced and the chemistry between the characters didn’t feel natural. And when a certain betrayal comes into consideration, I didn’t feel much for it because it felt like a plot point rather than a palpable deception. Granted, I had my suspicions and didn’t see it coming, but the emotional weight didn’t support it. I had a very difficult time connecting with the characters and their ultimate motivations behind the things they did. It has a lot of action, and it does keep the ball rolling in terms of not knowing what will happen, but it doesn’t really give as much substantiated motivation or emotional weight as it could’ve done.
The end of the novel punctuates an end that at first has some finality in a dark turn, but at the same time opens up a new possibility for events where Cia may regain something she has lost in the build up to that point. It’s interesting, but I’ll admit I’m on the fence as to whether or not I’d give the second book a go. I think those who like “Hunger Games”, “Divergent,” and focus more on the action dynamic may not have a problem with it, but it’s a hard sell in some details with the way it prioritizes more minor pursuits than palpable, heightened states of duress and challenge.
I’m on the fence at the moment about the sequel, but I think this could’ve been a better effort than it was, even with consideration of its derivative qualities.
Overall score: 2/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt .