Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Survival Games: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

A shiver snakes up my spine. I don't know what to believe. To believe my father's dreams are something more than dreams is unthinkable. Tomorrow I leave for Tosu City. At the end of the week I will begin my Testing. To refuse is treason and all that implies.

My father puts his arm around me. "Whatever process they used to wipe our memories could have caused the dreams. Our brains might be creating false memories to replace the ones that were taken."

"But you don't believe that." I jump to my feet, angry. "So now what?"

My father doesn't raise his voice to meet mine. "Better that you go to Tosu City prepared to question everything you see and everyone you meet. That might be the difference between success or failure."

"Cia, trust no one," he says in a whisper.

In the post-apocalyptic world of the United Commonwealth, a few hundred sixteen-year-old graduates are chosen to participate in the Testing, with only those remaining eligible for university training and leadership roles. Devastating worldwide war and concurrent environmental collapse has left the surviving humans in small colonies struggling to restore the land and water and repopulate the world, and only those who pass the rigorous Testing can become leaders. Valencia Vale is chosen with four others to represent the Five Lakes Colony and taken to the capital for testing with candidates from other colonies. But the testing involves far more than mere multiple choice questions on history, science, mathematics, and literature. Cia quickly notices that they are watched constantly by surveillance cameras. Those who pass the initial phase are cast into teams which complete hands-on trials, and in her group Cia sees teammate Malachi die almost instantly when he choses to touch the wrong device. The Commonwealth testers offer no assistance to those who die during the trials, and she realizes that simply surviving to the end will be perhaps her hardest task, and that, as her father tried to warn her, one of the threats will be her fellow candidates.

Still, Cia comes to trust Tomas, a boy from her own colony, and they agree to meet and work together on the final test, making their way with only three items of their choice across 200 miles of wasteland from the ruins of Chicago to Tosu City. Uncontaminated water and non-poisonous food are scarce, and there is the threat of mutated wild animals and as Cia learns, mutated humans as well.

The animal snarls as I roll out of its grasp. I scream as the creature's claws slash deep into my left arm. Whatever this thing is, I know I cannot outrun it.

I turn and extend the gun in front of me. As I aim I finally get a look at it. Long legs matted in a tangle of brownish hair. Long arms that are extended toward me with three-inch claws I already know are razor sharp. A hunched back. Curled lips revealing blackish teeth. And the eyes...

My finger pulls the trigger. The eyes of my attacker go wide. There is fear and anger as the wound in its chest blossoms with bright red blood. My enemy sinks to the ground and with its last breath lets out a cry that sounds like a call for help. Now that I have looked into the dark blue eyes of my attacker, I know this isn't an animal. The eyes are too intelligent. The body was twisted and deformed, but there is no doubt. I just killed a human being.

But as Cia and Tomas make their way toward Tosu City, they realize that their greatest danger is from their own kind, the Commonwealth examiners who have set deadly traps along the way and most horrifying of all, from their fellow candidates who will kill to eliminate competition. Although Cia and Tomas share a growing love for each other, Cia remembers her father's portentous words: Trust no one.

Joelle Charbonneau's forthcoming The Testing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) joins a long list of dystopic novels, beginning with Lois Lowry's notable  The Giver series and most famously Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, dealing with the rebuilding of human society in which young people face trials in a vastly altered system of survivors. Charbonneau's first young adult novel holds its own with others of this genre, dealing frankly with the often cruel choices to be made among the survivors of worldwide apocalypse. Charbonneau's is a  suspenseful narrative which grips the reader from the first pages and continues with unresolved conflicts even beyond the conclusion of this first book in a projected series. Her characters are heroic but believable teenagers and the setting is far from unbelievable in a dangerously devastated earth where choices are never easy.

Opening to high praise from both her fellow authors and reviewers alike, The Testing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) offers page-turning intensity and real philosophical questions as it explores what it means to be human and what a human society should be. Publishers Weekly adds "...action, romance, intrigue, and a plausible dystopian premise ... a near-flawless narrative."

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