Independent Study opens slowly, re-introducing us to Malencia Vale – known to her friends and classmates as Cia – a now-future University student in a United States that has endured seven stages of war. The re-developed government has implemented a testing scenario that selects the best and the brightest of a selected group of students. This testing is a scar that haunts Cia, the memories of it are just barely out of reach.
While I regularly disagree that the second is better – especially in the case of Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future II, The Two Towers, Catching Fire and so on – Joelle Charbonneau surpasses the brawny might of her first book in The Testing Trilogy with this entry that shocks and surprises at every turn and corner.
In a dystopian education system that bizarrely mirrors our own, calling out the flaws and issues with the way we select students and the experiences many of them have, Independent Study is the first year of college that any average student might have – but the stakes are just a tiny bit higher. It seems that any student that is not successful in their endeavors is Redirected out of the system… or worse. Any student that fails to get an internship is Redirected. Any student that is not where they are supposed to be is Redirected.
In order to get to their first week of classes, the first-year students have to make it through an initiation process known as Induction. Students are requested to fulfill a set of tasks that relate to the area of study they have been assigned to. These tasks are developed and implemented by final-year students. Sound familiar? The stakes here are higher than they might be. Like the books byline says: Failure is not an option.
Cia Vale’s character is a lot more fleshed out in this volume – where in the first part of the series she was reliant on other characters, here she learns to trust herself and becomes an incredibly strong an independent young woman. Instead of battling through a love triangle that keeps her constantly obsessed and concerned about which alpha male she will end up selecting at the end of the series, she worries about the implications of being in a relationship with a fellow student at The University. Her concerns about this relationship seemed only an aside to more pressing concerns of right and wrong.
The text raises excellent questions and discussion about what methods are appropriate for changing a system of democracy – questions that are incredibly pertinent even now – and explores the value of life, as well as the impact that it can have on others.
Charbonneau’s writing style puts us in Cia’s head, but also keeps us alert and looking around. No detail is overlooked, no stone is unturned for all elements of the plot connect, from beginning to end. Independent Study shocked and wowed me from about five pages in, even to the last plot twist in the final paragraph, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Graduation Day (the final volume in the trilogy).
Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau (ISBN: 978-0-547-95920-7) is available in hardcover on January 7, 2014 for $17.99 and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group. There will be an author tour, as well as reading group/educator guides. TheTestingTrilogy.com || Facebook.com/TheTestingTrilogy || Thanks to @HMHKids for sending me an ARC of this title.
The first volume, The Testing, can be picked up at your local bookstore, library or online.