Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Ok, so for our next book we’ll have a change of pace and enter this interesting new fad of Young Adult fiction set in a future dystopian society, usually built on the rubble of a destroyed United States of America.  The story of how I found ‘The Selection’ is my favourite kind of book discovery; I picked it up off a shelf in Big W because I thought the picture on the front was pretty, read the blurb and thought it sounded vaguely interesting, and checked the price, which I think was about eight dollars.  Simple as that!  I’ve found a lot of dud books that way, but occasionally you find a gem.

I wouldn’t put ‘The Selection’ in either of those categories; it’s not brilliant, but it’s not awful either.  It’s a fabulously easy read, the kind of fluffy book you want to read when you don’t really want to think.  Quality-wise, I would stick this book somewhere between the Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games trilogy, and I imagine that if you like those books, you will probably like this one too.  Interestingly enough, it is the first book in a proposed trilogy (the second due for release in April 2013) which is an important fact, because if I had realised that before I reached the end of the book, I would have been a lot less confused, but I’ll talk more about that later.
So what is it about?  The best description I could give is that it is like the illegitimate love child of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the TV show The Bachelor.  I know, right?  But you’ll understand when you read it.

Our protagonist is America Singer, a rather independent redheaded teenager (we never find out her exact age but my guess would be 17 or 18), and the middle child of five living in Illea, the country that used to be North America (sound familiar?).  America and her whole family are ‘fives’, which means they are artists, whether they want to be or not; that’s right, the citizens of Illea are organised into ‘castes’ which is basically their social status, wealth demographic and profession all rolled into one delightful number somewhere between one and eight (one being the highest, eight the lowest).  Choosing your caste would not complicate the story enough, so you inherit your number from your parents; changes are possible, but usually have strings attached such as marriage, money, military drafting or in rare cases, sheer luck.  Fortunately for America, she is a talented musician, which means she can work quite happily as a five; unfortunately for America she is in love with a ‘six’ which means trouble (dun dun dun!) because only a fool would marry down, right? 

Now Illea is a monarchy (Chapter 17 provides a detailed history lesson), and they have a little tradition when it comes to marrying off their royals.  Whilst the girls are betrothed to members of other nation’s monarchies to encourage alliances and good graces between countries, the boys must marry a ‘daughter of Illea’, to make sure there is a fellow countrywoman on the throne, or to boost morale or something along those lines.  Of course, this is done through a process called ‘The Selection’, which allows all girls of eligible age to apply for consideration.  One girl from each province is selected to be taken to the palace where she will learn to be a princess, whilst trying to get to know the prince in a televised thirty-five-way-date.  America, who has no desire to marry the prince, is eventually talked in to applying and inevitably finds herself in the midst of The Selection.  Cat-fights, potentially dangerous political uprisings and the obligatory love triangle ensue.

I am trying not to be too disparaging here, because for all its faults (there is barely one original idea in the text and Cass is very much riding on the waves of the current young-adult-dystopian-future trend), this book is actually still a pretty good read.  Kiera Cass has some good ideas, I’m just not sure that she’s executed them as well as she could have.  I felt like many of the aspects of the story were compartmentalised where they could have been more interwoven, and I felt that this really broke up the flow of the story.  The messages that Cass is trying to get across could also be handled with a little more subtlety (Maxon becomes the poor people’s champion after one little conversation with America? Really?), but at least the story has some moral and socially aware issues included.  Cass is not the world’s most evocative writer, so you are left up to your own imaginative powers when it comes to visualising Illea and its peoples,  and even America herself is not really described well (although her red hair is mentioned frequently).  I also spent most of the book thinking that the story just wasn’t coming together quickly enough and that it was going to have a terrible resolution, until I reached those magic words: END OF BOOK ONE, and I realised that Cass was leaving loose threads on purpose.  I suppose this isn’t really anybody’s fault, although I did feel like the book ended in an odd place.
America works well as a heroine, she could be a little stronger in my opinion, but she’s no vapid, characterless Bella Swan either; there is definitely a lack of development in the character, but there is enough to get by.  Naturally, America doesn’t like being in front of crowds nor does she believe in her own beauty, but at least Cass had the good sense to give her a mother who rarely praises her, making the low self-esteem much more believable.  And let’s face facts – her name is ridiculous! Though to be perfectly honest I’m more disturbed by her last name than her first.  Her first name is at least explained in the book, but her surname seems ironically linked to the fact that she is from a family of artists and is herself a musician and ‘singer’.  I personally thought that was one step too far towards corny.

The other characters are varied in terms of their ability to make you feel connected; Prince Maxon is rather delightful and my inner 14 year-old was soon swooning, whilst Aspen, America’s secret love from home is less personable, although he loses a lot of page-time in the middle and I’m hoping this might be rectified in the following two books. The love triangle isn’t terribly thrilling, but once again it has the potential to be expanded in future books.  America’s family are characterised relatively well, as are some of the other girls in the competition, although I feel like most of them needed something more to bring them to life and there is certainly more than one blatant cliché among the supporting cast.  

Overall, I did enjoy the book.  I have many unanswered questions, however, optimist that I am, I am holding out hope that they will be answered in the final two instalments.  At the risk of sounding mean, The Selection is really just an old idea dressed up in a new outfit, and not one that’s brilliantly written either.  Will it change your life or challenge your thinking? Not a chance.  But will it give you something fluffy and easy to read just before you crawl in to bed?  Probably.   Personally, I read a good third of it at the hairdressers – much more interesting than eighteen month old gossip mags!


  1. Very well written review! I'm drawn to this kind of book, but I'm also fear I might be growing weary of the young adult dystopian romance genre. It seems to be everywhere these days. However, this plot intrigues me and I may just give it a go. Thanks so much for your insights about the book!


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