Graduation Day, by Joelle Charbonneau

Graduation DayAnother day, another dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA series ending. I just can’t seem to stop myself reading about all the ways my future is going to go horribly, terribly wrong, it seems.

I tend to prefer my bleak futures in standalone as most of the trilogies lose me at their middles or, sometimes, their beginnings. This particular series kept me intrigued the longest of any I’ve read, but it still lost me in this last book. These landings are just hard to stick, I guess.

In the first book of this series, we saw teenagers literally dying to get into the best (okay, only) college, winning mostly with their intelligence and a little bit with their fists. In the second, we saw them literally fighting again to get into the best classes in said college, and then Charbonneau dropped the higher-ed allegory in favor of a resistance movement story line that was still pretty interesting.

Now the resistance movement story line makes way for the government conspiracy story line, as our hero Cia finds out that the resistance fighters are actually just pawns of the University leaders in some long-con game whose players are not altogether clear. Cia knows she can’t trust one former good guy, but she’s not sure where her other good guys or even bad guys stand, and she can’t ask or everyone will know she knows… whatever it is she actually knows. I don’t have a head for conspiracies, you can tell.

It gets worse, though. There’s a vote coming soon on Testing reform which would get rid of all the unneccessary violence and death and memory-wiping, and when Cia mentions all the conspiracy stuff to her boss, the University president, the president gives Cia the task of eliminating the opposition through, you know, necessary violence and death. Cia is like, no way, well, okay, if that’s the way it’s gotta be, and she recruits her most- and least-trusted fellow students to carry out the minimum amount of murder possible.

And you know me, I am slightly more fascinated by political machinations than the next person, but Charbonneau lost me after the third or seventh or eleventeenth good-guy/bad-guy reversal. And then when she finds herself in a position where she’s (SUPER SPOILER) eliminating the baddest bad guy who turns out to be a good guy who made a deal that requires his death to prove that Cia’s the right kind of leader in the eyes of the actual bad guys so that she can become a leader and then subvert the bad guys as a good guy? I just. Can’t. Even.

We won’t even talk about the farm upstate. Uggghh.

But even though I was alternately baffled by and annoyed with the plot, I still couldn’t put the dang book down even though I was reading it in tiny print in a terrible format on my phone, because Charbonneau can write a page-turner. I also appreciated that, extraneous twist nonsense aside, the book was primarily about how good and bad are nebulous constructs, how the people who are trying to take down an obviously bad system are not therefore obviously good people, and how and end to the fighting isn’t an end to the fight.

It’s not a perfect book, but the series overall is definitely my favorite of the genre and I will be looking out for more books from Charbonneau in the future (I don’t think I’m going to go read her glee club mysteries, though).

Recommendation: Don’t read this particular book unless you’ve read the series, but do read the series if you feel like death and violence accurately encapsulates your own school career.

Rating: 6/10

Independent Study, by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent StudyI read the first book in this series, The Testing, last fall and I liked it quite a bit, for a contemporary YA dystopia (well, it’s more post-apocalyptic, but same idea) anyway. There was a conspicuously missing backstory that bothered me, but I figured we’d learn about it more in time.

And… we… kinda not really but sorta do? I mean, we don’t learn anything terribly useful, but the point of this book is that Cia is asking questions and trying to figure out what the heck is up with this whole American Gladiators University selection process, so it’s not like Charbonneau doesn’t know what I’m interested in, here.

But first there is more Gladiators, as the colony students who passed the entrance exams now have to compete a second time to actually get to stay in the University, because of course they do. They have to compete against Tosu City (read: The Capitol) students who didn’t have to kill each other to get there, but of course if you’re trying to get into college a little death is par for the course, yes? I mean, no?

And then once that’s over, there are classes, and Cia gets to be an unwilling Hermione, taking all the classes without even the help of a time turner, and also is working with resistance types to try to make the University system safe and normal again.

It’s all pretty standard stuff, but I love the way Charbonneau writes and also how she seems to know what I want in my ridiculous YA dystopias. The love straight line still exists, and is still not at all twue-wove-y, and also the ending! The ending was completely what I was expecting up until the point where it was not at all what I was expecting but oh so interesting and I am so happy that Graduation Day comes out in less than three months because I have got to see how this plays out.

Recommendation: If you have any fondness for YA dystopias, this’ll be right up your alley, and there’s way less kids-killing-kids action than the last one.

Rating: 8/10

The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau

The TestingAfter the surprising death-fest that was Lexicon, I figured, what better way to recover than reading an unsurprising death-fest? Yeah, I probably have issues. This is a book that my coworker will not read, no matter how much I think she’d like it otherwise, because it involves kids killing kids, so bear that in mind if you are likewise squeamish.

I described this elsewhere as a sort of nerdier The Hunger Games. The aforementioned kids are chosen not by random and not to hunt each other for televised sport, but by being the best and brightest and to compete against each other (hunting if necessary) in absolute, memory-wipe-controlled privacy in a bid to enter The University. I’ll stick with the SAT, thanks.

I knew going in, what with all the similar comparisons to The Hunger Games being made, that there was going to be that cage match, kill-or-be-killed part to the book. But it’s actually kind of worse. Once the story gets to The Testing, you find out that even though the first part of the test is just knowing history and some basic technology and survival skills, the punishment for a wrong answer is injury or death, because of course it is. There are also tests of the students’ ability to work with each other, which some students take advantage of to indirectly cause injury or death, the cowards, and then there’s the “survival in our post-apocalyptic landscape” portion which devolves into the expected cage match pretty quickly.

So be ready for violence and sloppy eating, is what I’m saying.

The not-violent part of the novel is where I had the most trouble, though, because I had a hard time seeing how all this carnage actually did anything useful for the government. They took all the smartest high school graduates and then killed most of them so that the remaining could lead what would necessarily be a dumber nation? This makes sense how? I felt a little validated near the end of the book when Cia asks the same question, and based on how the book ends I have a feeling we’re going to get some more of that information in the sequel, but it would have been nice to have at least some explanation of what’s going on from the beginning.

On the plus side, though, I really liked what Charbonneau did with Cia, making her pretty smart and logical but not overly badass and therefore much more relatable to me in particular, and also giving her a love straight line that she’s not, like, super invested in because hey, she’s got other things to worry about! I was doing a little dance in my chair over this fact, and I hope that it catches on with the actual target audience of this kind of book so that I can see more realistic relationships in the future.

The other characters are not terribly well fleshed out (which, I mean, Cia’s got other stuff to worry about than giving us full backstories, here), but they are used well to show that Cia as a first person narrator does not really understand everything that’s going on around her and also that there’s more than one way to be a smart and logical person, which is nice to see.

I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series, which takes place in the University portion of this education and promises to answer at least some of my many questions about this horrible future world that we should probably avoid creating.

Recommendation: For those who can handle kid-on-kid violence and also want a little intelligence mixed in with it.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read