I picked this book up with very high hopes. Most of my Galley amigos agreed that this was a textbook "Jelle" book, so to speak. The cover was intriguing, but not stunning--I even had an ARC with a different cover than the one to the left, a nicer, more edgy black design with a shiny silver incal. The cover fits the book neatly, actually. It's edgy at first, screaming to be picked up, and depressingly shallow, run-of-the-mill mundane after three minutes of scrutiny.
My reading notes are full of comments like "stilted dialogue" and "plastic and one-dimensional". I guess I can start with the writing, which was banal and ill-fitting. Charbonneau has a very lucid style of writing; she's very good with broad strokes and blanket words that outline her world. But there it stops: at the outline. No room, for example, in the book is described in more detail than:
1) The rough size of the room, given in such deliciously descriptive words as "large", "small", and "very large".The author uses an incredible host of words that might have meaning if they were used more skillfully, such as "unruly", "chastising", and "abandoned". These are weak words, words that need to be babysat carefully, fed with meaning and context until they are strong enough to stand for themselves. Instead Charbonneau flings them apathetically into her work, forgoing the beauty of writing for clichéd buzzwords like "handsome" and "tan". Words that seem solid on the surface can collapse utterly when a reader digs back, asking himself what even the main character looks like. There's the obligatory mirror scene on page one, but no reader is able to glean more from that than that she has light brown hair and is wearing a red dress, which leaves the reader with the knowledge that she has light brown hair, unless she would wear the dress for a second day, at which point the reader would know for another day that she has light brown hair and is wearing a red dress, but after the third day her wearing that same dress just tells the reader that she is rather a slob. Which characteristic, incidentally, would stand in my memory as the only characteristic Charbonneau had gifted her with. But she is forced to change into a jumpsuit a page or three later. As that red dress crumples on the ground, so does the reader's hope of learning more about her.
2) If you're lucky, the room will have a colour. If you're very lucky, it will be something other than white. Take, for example, this charming little exchange: "I know this room.
3) The rooms are utterly one-dimensional. They sever the main character from her larger surroundings so that Charbonneau can get away with describing even less, but beyond colour and shape they might as well not exist. Part of this is the starkness Charbonneau has infused her world with and part of this is the starkness that is the result of Charbonneau's meager and flat writing style.
Now, that's enough about the writing. It's perfunctory and curt, with nary a compound sentence in sight beyond at most twice a chapter.
What bothers me most about The Testing is that Charbonneau makes the reader invest energy into its reading. I resent that I am forced to provide my own descriptions and imagination for her; I do half the work in order to make the book the bare minimum of tolerable. I have to put my imagination in high gear to glean anything from her scraps of description, to recreate Charbonneau's world in my mind so I can live in it. Whereas Hogwarts and Veronica Roth's Chicago took root in my mind and are still clenched fast, Charbonneau's Chicago faded out bare minutes after I had dragged it in. Any time I put a lot of myself into a book means that there is too little of the original book in the first place.
What I do like about the book is the bare bones of its plot and the characters' names. They have beautiful, eerily post-apocalyptic names like Hamin, Zandri, and Malachi. The main character is introduced as Malencia Vale, and her obligatory love interest is Tomas Endress. Hard to dislike the only part of the novel that transports me to Charbonneau's imagined dystopian future.
The plot starts out promising. Malencia's world, previously ours, has fallen prey to terrorists, international warfare on a scale we can never imagine, and disease. Then, as a desperate and desolate peace seemed within reach, the earth itself struck back. Pushed to the edge and beyond by the ferocity of the Seven Stages War, as Charbonneau dryly styles it, entire continents tear and pull themselves to ruin. The soil dies and life, no longer sustainable, recedes to a bare dozen Colonies that make up the remnants of the world's civilization. They are led by the great and powerful from Tosu City, a glittering metropolis perched over the bones of old Chicago. University-educated scientists are dispersed artificially through the Colonies, leading the struggle for survival with genetic engineering as they slowly take back the lifeless earth. All this would be slightly more plausible if it were at all apparent that Charbonneau knew what genetic engineering is or is not capable of, because she clearly hasn't the foggiest, but the idea is cool. Malencia's brother pops out a potato that beats out her father's previous edition potato. Isn't bioengineering great? Well, it is, but nothing in this book approaches realistic bioengineering. Keep those taters coming.
Anyway, the problem is that there is only one University (I don't know why. There is no plausible answer for this. At no point in the book is this addressed: if the world just had two more universities, it would have absolutely no problems and the book would have no plot. But that's the plot's problem, not logic's.) that can only take about twenty students. Now, if our modern world can support 151 million students (a fast-growing number), I don't know how an enormous university in the heart of the remaining rich and civilized world can only enroll 20 students. Of course, the point that Charbonneau keeps shoving at the reader is that the government wants strong, independent, ruthless leaders, but the world would be 110,000% better off if it enrolled a lot more of the intelligent students and just trained some as scientists and doctors without the leadership part, which none of the graduates in the book deign to show anyway. One, Malencia's father, is literally just a scientist. (A "bioengineer".)
Summarizing this book is boring me to tears already. Imagining reading it.
So because the book is about Malencia, she gets selected to go through the Testing, which will determine if she can go to the University, which is a huge honor. Of course she is selected; she's the main character of a dystopian lit book.
Then comes the testing, after they zoom across a flat landscape for a day or so. Flat in writing and in topography, in case you were wondering. She gets to the capital, Tosu City, and pretty much immediately starts the Testing. I'll leave most of it out so I won't spoil anything, but mostly because I'm lazy and/or this is painful.
The first part of the test involves written tests, four hours, twice a day, for a few days. How does Charbonneau make this exciting? She doesn't. Literally they just take their tests for houuuurs a day and the book kind of plugs along. There's a really shameless exposition bit on the history portion of the test (soooo sneaky, Charbonneau...) where the author basically lays out the entire history of the civilization in three easy questions and Malencia's answers. But other than that, this section of the book is literally breakfast, test, lunch, test, uneasy sleep with nightmares for no reason (the dreams are SO cliched...) and then the next day the same thing. Some people disappear. Cute.
The next stage of the testing is manual puzzles and such stuff, which was maybe a tiny bit interesting but not very. Oh, except that her friends casually keel over and die and she's like "Oh. Bummer. The government's reeeeeeallly evil." and then she continues blithely on.
The third portion is a disgustingly intricate little brain-twister of a Test which involves a lot of convoluted logic, red herrings, horrible writing to make it all more confusing, and an eventual really flat resolution. More friends kick the bucket, but how, no one knows, because Charbonneau got lost in her own intricacy. Which explains why she doesn't mess with it for the rest of the book at all ever.
The fourth portion of the book is LITERALLY the Hunger Games. Oh, except spread over 700 miles. Yes, this is a large distance. But other than that, LITERALLY the Hunger Games.
And then the book ends with some cute little plot twist that leaves the reader in suspense for all of two minutes and a page flip. I'm so done discussing it.
I'd give this book a 1.5. Interesting names and a premise Veronica Roth might be able to salvage, but Charbonneau is not Veronica Roth yet. As for a food, this is the hard plastic ice cube tray. Clean, functional, but also shallow and NOT A FOOD.