Like all booksellers, I get this request all the time, “S/He loved The Hunger Games and wants to read something else just like it”. Well there really hasn’t been anything Just Like It. I end up asking what the reader liked about The Hunger Games: was it the adventure, the dystopian society, the romance, the strong characters, and then I recommend books that match. Well now there is officially a book (which will be a trilogy) for fans who want to read a book that has all the components of The Hunger Games. The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH, $17.99, out today), has it all, oppressive centralized government, violence, teens struggling for survival in a test (game) that they don’t fully understand, romance, shattered American landscape, colonies of the society. The only reservation I had while reading The Testing is that it is *almost* too similar, but with a little less of an edge. Cia is smart and resourceful, but not as fierce as Katniss. Tomas is a complex companion, but not as heroic as Gale or as solid as Peeta. The government is oppressive, but not as brutal as Panem, at least not at first. The testing starts with rather boring school-type tests. It’s like reading about someone taking the SATs, which is even worse than actually taking the SATs. Nevertheless, this first book is clearly laying the groundwork for the trilogy and I’m willing to hold out final judgement until reading the rest of the series. And I will say that once the adventure picked up, and we start to see Cia in action, rather than just hear her commentary, I was very engrossed in the story. I don’t yet fully understand what motivates Cia. Katniss wanted to survive. Against all odds. Cia doesn’t seem to want to win. She’s more collaborative. She does want to live, but not necessarily at the expense of others. Despite the horrors of the test, she still wants to pass, which I don’t fully understand. But again, by the end of the first book, I was hooked. Furthermore, although the testing is officially complete, the first book sets up the next two, with a very intriguing twist. Whether you read The Testing because you loved The Hunger Games, or pick it up on its own merits, The Testing contains a solid story that is likely to get even better in the next two installments. To be fair, I was one of those people who didn’t like adventure of The Hunger Games nearly as much as I loved societal complexities and psychological development of Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
Update: I wrote the above after only reading The Testing, because I wanted to write about the book on its own merits. However, I’ve now had a chance to read Independent Study and my opinions have developed. The second volume takes the story in a very different direction than The Hunger Games, as suspected. In order to avoid too many spoilers, here is my general impression rather than a description.
I’ve been a student and an instructor in higher education. I know that sometimes college and university exams can feel like life and death. In Independent Study, they are life and death. I didn’t mean to, but I stayed up until 2 am and read the book in one sitting. There was no good stopping place and the pace was solid enough to compel me to continue reading. Cia is super smart and I like that about her. She is thoughtful, which I like even more. She takes the time to assess situations and come to conclusions. She trusts her instincts and she’s willing to trust herself, even when others doubt her. The fact that she is often right, is believable because, as readers, we see how she carefully and rationally reasons through situations. At no point did I feel like she ‘knew’ something that she shouldn’t know. I like that she’s collaborative. I like that she has morals and ethics. I didn’t like the fact that she seems hung up on a guy that has not proven himself to be worth her time. So far Tomas is too much of a tell rather than show character. Cia loves him, but the story hasn’t given me any reason to understand why. Also, as someone who is incredibly smart and capable, she expresses these random desires for Tomas’s help, even when she’s achieved so much without it. Those moments, often one sentence in an otherwise interesting scene, were jarring and unnecessary. I hope this relationship resolves satisfactorily in the final volume, because right now it seems arbitrary. Cia is a strong enough character to carry Independent Study on her own, and I’m far more interested in learning more about her other classmates than I am about her relationship with Tomas. That relationship really is my only complaint at this point. It seems like romance for the sake of romance, rather than furthering the story, but again I’ll hold out on final judgement until I read the third volume. Overall, I do recommend this trilogy and I’ll be letting customers know that while The Testing might be somewhat similar to The Hunger Games, Independent Study is very much its own story.