I wasn't looking for anything when I went into The Testing, and to be honest, I was in a bad mood, and didn't think I'd like what I was reading, but by around page 100 stopping for dinner was almost impossible. I was hooked - on the world-building, on the notion of a Testing, on the characters and the way they went about their lives, on the larger mysteries of Charbonneau's book. I needed more - I even considered pulling an all-nighter to finish The Testing! I split it up into a two day read and I'm glad I did, because I savored the rising tension, and every word.
First, we need to talk about Cia. Cia is an AMAZING chica. Seriously, Cia is THAT GIRL who you want on your side. She's smart, and self-aware although she's also wonderfully unaware at times, which just makes her seem very real. Without Cia, no matter how great the world-building (I'm getting there), The Testing wouldn't have held me captive. Cia has that SPARK (and as I'm typing this I'm making hand gestures that y'all wouldn't understand because *I* don't, but THIS BOOK) that you look for in a main character - that SOMETHING that all the awesome ones have. Through Cia's eyes, we see the world, and Joelle Charbonneau does a fantastic job of balancing skepticism and hope with Cia in a way that just made me ache. And? The rest of the characters aren't half bad either. Cia's family felt like a REAL family, not just stereotypes splashed on a page. I could feel her mom's concern for her, her dad's hope, her brother's teasing and love. Cia's a girl who learns and studies and keeps her head down, but really comes alive around her family and friends, and I liked that a lot. Charbonneau has created some fascinating secondary characters, too, like Tomas, Malachi, Will, Zandri, etc. They really flesh out The Testing and help make it memorable.
Okay, and I promised to tell y'all about the world-building. There are fantastic elements of a great dystopian novel here. Is it a bit formulaic? Maybe, but instead of falling into mediocrity, Joelle takes what we know and twists it all up. I loved that the big calamity wasn't something that didn't make sense. The history we're given of what's left of the world makes sense, in a "scary because it could happen," way. There's some info-dumping, but not so much that I got tired of it. The ideas may not be brand new, but they're well executed - you still have the "have's" and the "have-not's", and parents and families who just want their kids to succeed. I loved learning about the different locations and seeing teens from all walks of life. The Testing and getting to attend the University is their hope for the kids to ever do more than just get by, and the notion of using academia to get ahead made me nerd out. Then realizing there's something sinister beneath it all, well - whoa! Anyway, to wrap it all up, I BELIEVED in this world, and at times I really felt like I was RIGHT THERE with Cia - in her home, in Tosu City, traveling across a wasteland.
Now, this review isn't without some criticism. I felt like in some ways the first half of The Testing was stronger, and more dangerous. The second half DID veer a bit too close to The Hunger Games territory (and other books/movies like it) for my taste - there's something specific that makes me say that. Despite that, I tried really hard NOT to compare the two (see my opening paragraph) and I did still enjoy the rest of Charbonneau's novel, but I can't say I had NO issues with it, because the latter half wasn't what I expected, especially some events near the end. And yes, I'm being as vague as I can. Also, there was some romance, that I was sort of "meh," on, but that was because I just didn't think The Testing NEEDED romance.
Final Thoughts: The Testing is a heart-pounding debut from Joelle Charbonneau, filled with tension and high stakes. I loved the world-building, and the main character, Cia. I didn't care overmuch for the blush of romance within The Testing, but that's because it felt a bit superfluous, and I was more about the running and the action. Although it does rely too heavily at times on familiar elements, I really enjoyed The Testing.