“The Testing” by Joelle Charbonneau

It’s easy to critique today’s education system, from the woefully underpaid teachers to the financial inaccessibility of higher learning. Not to mention the competitiveness behind scholarships, grants, and just getting into college (let’s not even start on the subject of loans…). But Joelle Charbonneau takes this idea of competition to the next level, painting a gruesome future in which your grades can make all the difference between a life of glory and a gory death. It’s a frightening thought that, to an extent, is all too real today: what if everything depended on how well you scored on your next test?

The Testing is one of many YA dystopian stories to come out in the last decade, and in some ways, it sticks to the formulaic plot-line of its predecessors: there is a “strong” (more on that in a second) female protagonist, Malencia “Cia” Vale, who is tasked with fighting a corrupt system that threatens the safety of her family and friends. She has a love interest with ambiguous moral coding… but he’s a fairly bland character whose main contribution to the story involves praising and supporting Cia. And of course, like with most YA dystopians, the backdrop to The Testing consists of poverty, starvation, and murder.

The aforementioned protagonist, Cia, is a smart, 16-year-old girl who has just graduated from school. Like many recent graduates, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Well, that’s not entirely true – she would love to attend University and become one of the leaders of society, like her father. But each year, only a select few students are invited to attend The Testing, where they compete for one of these prestigious higher education slots. No one from her colony has been chosen in ten years, so it comes as quite a surprise when Cia and three other students are whisked off to attend. None of them know what to expect, but her father warns her to prepare for the worst.

Quickly, Cia realizes the true depths of what it means to be a Testing candidate – if you get something wrong, the government is unforgiving. They have no room nor patience for anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of leadership, and those who fall short are dealt with through unconscionable means. Fortunately, Cia aces test after test, from written exams to more hands-on challenges. But many around her are not so fortunate, and Cia is forced to watch friend after friend mysteriously disappear, or die right before her eyes.

Cia’s reaction to the brutality around her is very muted, and her father’s one warning does not account for how well she contains her emotions, nor does it explain how easily she understands the design of The Testing and what is expected of her performance. Several times, she seems to survive simply due to a lucky guess, one that is erroneously attributed to her intelligence. And when her success is directly linked to her figuring out some psychological puzzle, Cia seems far too intelligent in comparison. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief concerning a government that murders hundreds of students each year, you might as well do the same for Cia and her off-the-charts-knowledge-of-everything. If you can do that, you’ll find that Cia is very likable. In fact, many of the characters have a charm to them that makes you root for their success.

Despite my criticism, The Testing is a pretty enjoyable read. I read the book in one sitting, then finished the sequel that same day – there’s enough suspense and fun characters to keep your interest, even if the story follows several tropes of other YA dystopians. The thing is, these tropes aren’t bad, just overdone. If you’ve liked them before, you’ll probably like them here.

I give The Testing 3 stars out of 5. I’m doubting it’s a score that would go over well in Cia’s society, but for me, it’s a passing grade – certainly not an A, but definitely worth a look.