Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review: The Selection, by Kiera Cass

Imagine mixing The Hunger Games, Divergent, a little bit of 1984, Disney Princesses, Jane Austen, and, finally, The Bachelor. What you'll end up with is Kiera Cass's YA dystopia series, The Selection. You have caste sytems, you have romance, you have a love triangle, you have a little bit of violence, you have a society that entertains itself with reality game shows that have real world implications, you have women fighting over one man (sort of), and you have lots of wannabe princesses. There's even a TV host who must be Caesar Flickerman's twin (if you don't remember, he's the host in The Hunger Games). That is to say, you don't have a lot of originality, but who's to say an artist needs to be original? What Cass does is mix known elements from popular YA stories and from pop culture and throws them together in an entertaining, though not entirely unpredictable, manner.

The United States of America does not exist, and in its place is the nation of Ilea. I won't waste your time with the history of Ilea - Cass explains it for you. The USA may not exist, but America is the name of the story's heroine. Out of a caste of 1-8, she's a five, and I don't mean that in a rude way. She literally lives in the fifth caste, which is a caste of artists. You see, each caste has its own way of life. Just as in Divergent characters live in a caste that defines how they behave and what task they perform in life, in The Selection, it's very similar. Only, instead of choosing the caste, one is born into it. Or married into it. And like a Jane Austen novel, the woman can marry up or down, but not the man. This adds a bit of tension because America is in love with Aspen, who is a six, which is not to say how handsome he is, but that he's in a lower caste than America: the servant class. He's hunky and nice and adorable in a Gayle kind of way, minus the hunting of course.

All the way up in the caste of ones is the royal family. When a princess is of marrying age, the royal family basically auctions her off to some powerful family. When a prince is of marrying age, however, they hold a game, much like The Bachelor, called the Selection. Any woman of the right age signs up, answers some questions, takes a picture, and is selected randomly to compete. Or, I should say, "randomly." American signs up, though she is happy with Aspen, because he couldn't live with himself if she didn't have that chance because of him. And then, well, he sort of breaks up with her, and there's some maybe misunderstandings, and, well, she's selected. Along with 35 other women.

Aspen is important because it is a known rule in YA dystopias that there must be a love triangle (okay, maybe Veronica Roth missed that one). It is also known in YA dystopias that the heroine must exert her strong, independent character through some means of violence, preferably the variety where knee connects with groin. If that's not a meet-cute, I don't know what is. To be fair to America, though, she was told that she must not refuse the prince anything he wants, which means, well, you get the picture. So America was prepared to defend herself at all costs, though, gosh, the prince is such a nice guy. The thought never even crossed his mind. If being kneed in the groin doesn't get you interested in a girl, I don't know what will. Well, except maybe being friendzoned. There's nothing like being friendzoned to drive a guy wild about a girl. America admits to Prince Maxon she doesn't want to be his wife, but she doesn't want to leave, either, because she likes the food. And he's instantly smitten.

Now, if this story was written as adult dystopia rather than YA dystopia, there would be some key differences. Cass's setup screams satire, yet she goes the safe and nice route. In an adult version of the story, a lot more fun would be had with the Selection itself. These are 36 women fighting to become the most powerful woman in the country; you might expect a lot more drama between the contestants. Cass misses a huge opportunity when she makes all of her contestants nice to each other. There is one exception, the physically intimidating Celeste, but she's mostly underutilized. In an adult version, the prince may not be the sweet, innocent man he is in Cass's version. Prince Maxon has free rein to exploit these women sexually and doesn't use it? If he was a giant prick instead of such a sweet guy, a little more fun might be had, and possibilities for satire would open up.

As it stands, the main conflict in Cass's story is that America is upset about Aspen dumping her, and that rebels make frequent attacks on the palace and everyone has to hide on occasion. The attacks provide a sense of 1984 - is there really an attack on the palace? Or is it being fabricated to keep the royal family in power and keep the caste system in tact? I don't want to make it sound like I'm ripping on The Selection. It is entertaining, more so than other YA dystopias. It's mostly entertaining in the back and forth between Maxon and America. It's just that, for being a novel about a dystopic world, it has a rather innocent way of understanding how people work. Everyone is nice, nobody fights that hard for the chance at power, and nobody, not even Prince Maxon, is interested in sex. Parents rejoice!

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