***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: A simple, uncomplicated read (there's a reason it's a YALSA Quick-Pick for Reluctant Readers), this book contains practically a check-list of post-Hunger-Games-dystopia elements, but features a world and characters with so little depth that I ultimately did not feel transported.
Lest you think I disliked it. Before I begin, I just want to say that as a quick, relatively easy read, The Testing is a fun snack, and I would recommend it for kids who tear through novels and always need more. A teen reader might even be able to glean themes of being true to yourself, and of not compromising your principles, so it's not devoid of depth, thematically--it's the plot and execution that have depth problems. And finally, the prose at least follows the Hippocratic oath: it does no harm.
Hunger Games Meets the SAT. The premise is simple to the point of...well, of not having much of a point, other than introducing the setting and the rules, and getting our protagonists in college for the next book. In a post-apocalyptic future of our world, after the vague Seven Stages War, a handful of the best and brightest are selected from their "colonies" (but you can call them districts) to participate in The Testing, to determine who qualifies for college, which is where future leaders are groomed. It's all a bit hand-wavy: the United Commonwealth (formerly the U.S.) is trying to slowly repair itself politically and environmentally after total destruction, and it needs brilliant researchers to do the rebuilding. Malencia's (Cia's) own dad passed The Testing, went to university in botany, and is a practicing scientist, trying to develop plants and crops that can survive the harsh, poisoned landscape. For no reason that is explained (at least in this installment), the testing is a brutal, violent experience, and "passing" literally means surviving. The participants quickly adopt a "kill or be killed" mentality, which seemed to be a stretch--straight-A students poisoning each other and shooting each other with crossbows? These aren't trained, District One types, after all, or hard-scrabble poverty-stricken District Twelve survivors, and until they arrived at The Testing, they (and the whole country, actually) had no idea that violence was involved. Unlike Battle Royale, we don't see into the minds of the killers to see what desperation is possessing them.
The Test itself. There are four steps the candidates have to pass in order to qualify for college: 1. A series of written exams. 2. A "lab" section where they have to solve puzzles (Which plants are poisonous? Can you repair this radio?) without getting "penalized." a.k.a. killed. (They have to eat the plants they deem "safe"; the radio shoots a nail in your eye if you touch the wrong wire.) 3. a teamwork challenge where the real trick is to read your partners and assess their skill and honesty; 4. the final wilderness challenge (the Boss level) where you put all these skills to use in the real world--or rather in a dangerous, toxic arena with formerly-human mutants, where your fellow candidates are trying to kill you before you reach the finish line.
The main character. Cia is bright and virtuous to the point of being sort of blandly flawless. We know she was a great student in high school, but we're continually surprised at her engineering/medical/scientific resourcefulness (to the point of sometimes not believing it, or thinking the author was making stuff up as she went along). For instance, Cia figures out how to repair a bike using a wheel (or two?) she and Tomas scavenged off carts in the blighted city, using a few tools she has handy. Um...she has no history as a "MacGyver" that we know of, and anyway this isn't a cartoon bike: the diameter of the wheel is not negotiable given the construction of the frame, the front fork has to fit into a hub, there's a freewheel assembly for the back tire, etc., etc. In general, there's some mismatch in what we're told about technology and resources, and what's actually shown in the book--all giving the impression of waving of hands. For instance, wrist bands act as constant radio transmitters, yet how is the battery charged, over weeks? But I digress. Cia never loses sight of her humanity, never compromises her principles, never forgets her dad's admonition not to trust anyone. The most interesting thing about her character is that she reasons through her problems out loud to us, so we get to see exactly how she's solving the various hurdles of the test. I was interested to read about her logic.
Hand-wavy science and technology. Need to keep track of your candidates? Cameras everywhere, and bracelets that act as transmitters are pretty handy. We have hover-craft technology and ice cream at parties, but not enough electricity to go around. We have drugs that can wipe your memory, fool-proof truth serums, and procedures that can quickly heal serious wounds. Basically, whatever you need, we can make it happen. Got a poisoned environment? Let me show you people who used to be human but have mutated and want to tear you apart. We all know that's how it works! If I sound cynical it's because I'm tired of blighted, ravaged dystopic settings that also feature futuristic, sophisticated technologies, the mechanics and engineering of which are not explained at all. There's also a bit of geo-political hand-waving as well: the United Commonwealth is under threat from the same vaguely named countries that precipitated the nuclear holocaust with us, or perhaps we were the ones who screwed up, we're the bad guys.
The obligatory romance. Well, I take it back: Cia does trust a couple of people: she has wary trust of Michal, her escort to the Testing who seems to be championing her success, and of the guy who threw the antidote to the truth serum over the fence, and she almost completely trusts Tomas. She never does tell him a few of the important things (e.g. she never mentions the guy/rebel who tossed food over the fence to her), but it doesn't much matter in a plotting sense, since her memory was wiped in the end (speaking of which, I guess she never took Tomas's anti-memory-wipe pills before that little sting to the neck?). In return for her trust, Tomas is pretty darned virtuous--smart, devoted, blondly handsome, and bland--until the cliffhanger near the end of the book, when we're meant to worry that he may have killed Zandri, another girl from their Five Lakes colony. The trouble is, throughout the story it has been pretty clear that Charbonneau is not brave enough to give Cia or Tomas flaws (the secret to high Goodreads ratings, it seems), so I have no doubt that Tomas will prove to be innocent in the next installment. I just don't think I care enough to want to find out how Zandri's death really happened. The romance here is tepid--some passionless kissing and memories of a high school dance--although it's nice to see Cia drag Tomas's lifeless body over the finish line. That was romantic. I'm not gunning for romance, mind you. In fact, maybe this whole book should have been about their slow building of trust--without relying on half-hearted kissing--since we have two installments to go and plenty of time for them to get together.
Why is this happening? I understand that first books in trilogies often just set up the world, but I can't escape the feeling of pointlessness I have about this whole thing. Shouldn't there be some hint as to why, in a country where they claim to want to groom their smartest scholars, they're willing to kill off the second-tier scholars? Is this really just a test of ruthlessness and malleability? If so, then why did braveheart Cia pass? Why is killing also-rans in the first rounds necessary if memory-wipe technology exists? Who set up this system and how does it help anything? Why are college spots so scarce? Why don't any families question where their children have gone when they never hear from them again?
Rick Yancey once commented on a blog post that criticized inexplicable alien behavior in The 5th Wave (it may have been the blog "Someday My Printz Will Come") by basically saying, "This plot hole that you're all harping about will be totally explained in book 2!" Honestly, that answer doesn't cut it. Every Book One needs to make sense and be internally consistent.