Apparently every little girl dreams of being a princess. The idea being that Prince Charming comes from a little country you’ve never heard of and woos you with his eloquent parlance, snappy dress sense, and amiable personality. He might also be cursed and looking for the kiss of true love.
Still, cursed or not, Prince Charming archetypes have existed for as long as fairytales and Disney movies have perpetuated. It also seems that a lot of girls don’t really grow out of wanting their own gorgeous foreign prince to carry them off in a flurry of rose-petals and heavily-accented sweet nothings whispered into their ears. How else do you explain the success of film and book series like The Prince and Me and The Princess Diaries?
Now this tried and tested formula is going to dip its toe into YA’s current darling – a dystopian world where our heroine does not have the freedom to love who she chooses. (Basically 90% of Disney movies, where our heroine learns she should marry for love and not for money or prestige.) Then add in a pinch of horrendous reality TV like America’s Next Top Model, and you’ve got The Selection by Kiera Cass. This should truly be a match made in heaven, right?
For a dystopian novel to work, its society has to be completely horrible. Going with the classics, 1984‘s Airstrip One has the thought police and the threat of going into Room 101. There’s also the stifling World State in Brave New World, and the ultra conservative Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.
With YA dystopian novels, we have the authorities in The Hunger Games punishing political dissenters by cutting out their tongues and forcing them into slavery. And in Delirium by Lauren Oliver, those whose actions go against the status quo are taken off to be imprisoned and ‘corrected’, and are then erased from society proper.
Those are just some examples off the top of my head, and generally my personal benchmarks for dystopian novels, be they YA, fantasy, science fiction, classic literature, whatever.
So why do I feel that the setting of this novel should have just been a fantasy kingdom with a modern twist, rather than a dystopia? The dystopian elements are so sparsely mentioned that it feels like the author only added them in to appeal to the Hunger Games crowd.
Society in Illéa works like this. The United States is now a monarchy, and it has a very rigid caste system in place. Your caste number goes from One (extremely wealthy and aristocratic) to Eight (living in extreme poverty, and working menial jobs).
Our main heroine, America Singer (who just so happens to have great vocal talent… *rolls eyes*) lives in a family ranked Five. Her boyfriend Aspen’s family are Sixes, and generally quite disadvantaged compared to America’s family. But who cares about that when Aspen is the kind of guy who’ll arrange romantic trysts in the tree-house, lay his head on your lap while you sing to him, and let you feed him your leftovers, like some big adorable puppy.
Also, apparently if you have children out of wedlock or don’t go through the lengthy legal procedures to get married to your ideal partner, you get sent to prison. …Okay, then. I’m still not getting any vibes of dystopian horror, really, just a strict, conservative society… oh wait, it’s mentioned that one of Aspen’s brothers was beaten up by a police officer for stealing food the other day. Well, this might be the first novel I get to baptise with the shelf title ‘Drive-By Dystopia’. I hope it enjoys that honour!
Also, all of this dystopian exposition is only explained to us in the first couple of chapters, and scattered piecemeal throughout the rest of the novel. Ugh.
So what is ‘The Selection’, I hear you cry? Well, apparently in this world, the royal family don’t seek other noble families for acceptable daughters or sons to wed their children off to. Nope, in this world, when the royal family need to marry off their kids, they let cameras into their palace. Along with girls or boys from all the castes, specially selected for their beauty and intelligence. It’s an interesting premise, but it’s executed rather poorly.
Firstly, I would expect America to be a LOT less intelligent and a bit poorer. Apparently she speaks fluent French and Spanish, she’s been home-schooled all her life, but still has to play piano or sing at social functions to provide for her family. Uh… I’m not saying that home-schooling can’t be done on a budget, but historically, public education has allowed parents to take on work when before, they couldn’t leave the children home alone. Some parents only allowed their children a few days a week at school. And some parents took them out of the school system to work once they learned to read, write, and do basic mathematics. So hopefully I’m not alone in saying I don’t quite understand why the author portrays America and her family as having to scrimp and save just to survive when her mother somehow has the time to teach each of her several children two foreign languages and musical theory, among other subjects. Okay, it’s a nitpick, but it did baffle me all the same.
Secondly, why is this caste system so difficult for me to pin down? All I know is that Ones are really rich and Eights are really poor… so presumably your average-income, middle-class family would be a Four. However, there’s no explanation about the intricacies of the caste system, excepting tidbits like if you’re in a lower caste and somebody of a higher caste orders you to do something, you have to do it (like when America orders Aspen to help her pack her suitcase and he willingly does so), and employment opportunities get more and more menial the further down the caste ladder you go. Is that it? Really?
Well, anyway, just as The Hunger Games turns what is by all rights a brutal and tragic gladiator match into a glitzy reality show by drumming up public interest with dolled-up contestants and betting statistics, The Selection has a similar concept. The Selection itself is a reality TV show where the girls are competing for the prize of a lifetime: marrying a prince. And elevating the caste of their family. So, just like in The Hunger Games where you have the kids from certain districts groomed for this contest from childhood, those who are in higher castes are better trained to deal with the pressures of this contest.
America, of course, feels like she is extremely out of her league. The moment she is picked for the programme, she is taken away from her family, and because she’s the main character in a YA romance novel, her middle name is Mary Sue.
Yeah, America Mary Sue Singer.
Not only does America have a good singing voice, she’s also adored by the people and manages to convince Prince Charming to introduce some new policies to help the people. Of course, NOBODY HAD EVER THOUGHT OF THAT BEFORE! When America first lands in Angeles (more eye-rolling), the capital of Illéa, there’s a crowd waiting for her and cheering her on, and it’s apparently slightly bigger than the crowd for her travel partner from the same neck of the woods. Want proof? I’ve got it.
America’s travel partner: “America, you’re so nice. All those people at the airport loved you.”
America: “Oh no, I was just being friendly.”
And not only is America a Mary Sue, she’s also a dumb, lovestruck teenager. I think I’m pretty close to having bruxism listed on my medical and dental records if I read any more books with lovestruck teenagers in a romance that will not work in the long-term.
In the first few chapters, we’re introduced to America’s world, and her raggedy boyfriend Aspen. Aspen is, as mentioned before, poorer than America, but devoted to her. America pays his devotion by giving him her leftovers, and in kind he gives her pennies every time she sings to him. (To be fair to the poor kid, that’s all he can afford.) Pretty much every scene with America and Aspen is highly romanticised, the kind of mush that causes eye-rolling so severe it can cause migraines. I get it, Ms. Cass. America and Aspen are in love. And it’s SO HORRIBLE that America has to be taken away from her friends and family to compete for the love of a boy she doesn’t know who is only marrying her for political gain. You didn’t have to include that stupid, melodramatic scene in which Aspen breaks up with America ‘for her own safety’.
Look, I get it. Girl is taken away from her friends, family, and the boy she loves. But the boy she loves plunges a knife into her heart by breaking up with her ‘for her own safety’. But then she’s introduced to the incredibly sweet Prince of her land who offers to help her get through the contest. Even though America’s efforts are in this awkward grey zone where she’s kind wanting to fail and kind of wanting to succeed.
(Also, I really hate the use of America as a first name. I don’t quite know why, it just really bugs me.)
I’d also like to add that like all dystopian worlds, there’s a REBELLION outside their cosy little enclaves. Yes, a rebellion. In the world of The Selection, there are two very distinct factions of rebels. There’s the Northerners, who tend to sneak into the palace and wreck the place, seemingly looking for something, and the Southerners just want the monarchy to be completely demolished. Both use different methods to accomplish their goals, but there’s something that the reader does not know: WHY THE HECK THEY’RE REBELLING IN THE FIRST PLACE. My god, this is how NOT to write a dystopia. Like I’ve said throughout this review, dystopian societies are usually oppressive, violent, and leave their residents too terrified to even think of life outside these walls, with no rules and regulations. This is just ‘oh hey some people live on the fringes of society and they want to rebel against our monarchy’. It’s like they’re a minor nuisance for the people in high society rather than a legitimate threat. “Oh no, the bloody rebels broke into the palace again. That’s the second time in three months. Oh well, I’d better change the locks and do absolutely nothing about the sub-par security system I have in place, or think about WHY they’re doing this to my castle and my keep.”
The world-building and the socio-political aspects of this society just do not work. The writer makes it clear that history books are quite rare in this day and age, and history is not generally taught or studied. So, whilst the girls are having a history lesson for no reason whatsoever other than to shove in some exposition (a scenario which is a screen-writer’s dream), we learn just how the kingdom of Illéa came to be.
Here goes… The United States as we currently know it got so severely indebted to China, that the Chinese invaded. Why you would go so far as to invade a country with a failing economy is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s revenge – the Chinese government in this world don’t take kindly to countries borrowing money and being unable to pay them back. Who knows. (Also, where the hell is the UN?) So, while the Chinese invaded and took Americans in as labour, Russia reared its head. The American State of China was pulled between these two superpowers, when all of a sudden… from the bosom of Heaven itself, came Gregory Illéa.
Gregory Illéa. The man who reunited the States. The man who stopped all the fighting. (Apparently.) The man who turned the United States into a kingdom by marrying into a royal family. Which royal family? It’s never explained. Shame, really.
Speaking of royal families, in the last third of the book we’re introduced to the royal family of Swendway, Scandinavia. Oh, so apparently the world went to hell and Sweden, Denmark and Norway went back into being the Kalmar Union. There’s also a representative from Honduragua, which has to be the best name of any country ever. The royal families don’t do a damn thing, which is a bit annoying because, while they aren’t built up very much, I was expecting them to bring the winds of change with them and actually GET THE PLOT GOING.
Yeah, the plot in this novel is really quite dull and disjointed. So many opportunities to develop characters, as well as more of the world, that are just dashed by ending abruptly or just sitting there completely unexplored. The multinational royal families came, saw, and certainly didn’t conquer my attention. Wonderful.
I’d also like to know just how the people in this world continue to watch The Selection. It just seems to go on forever. Barely halfway into the book, the first batch of girls are sent home, leaving behind… twenty seven? Man, why would the royal family even go to all this effort to marry off their son if there’s still royal and noble families out there? Seriously. What’s easier: organising a reality TV competition to find your next prince or princess from a pool of the prettiest and most intelligent boys and girls in the land, or just attending balls or other upper-crust social occasions in the hope that your children will be introduced to their significant other, who won’t have to spend years learning the etiquette and other rules of the nobility?
I also don’t often find myself clamouring for this, but this novel needed to be longer. Why on earth it was stopped at 327 pages when the story is STILL GOING is beyond me. No, it’s not a cliffhanger. If our main character just puts on her thinking cap and decides to progress with the rest of the contest, that is NOT a good ending. It quite honestly seems extremely rushed. Why couldn’t this novel be, say, one hundred or two hundred pages longer? Don’t just bring back Aspen into the picture, some half-baked terrorist attack and the aforementioned adjusting of the thinking cap. It’s not a cliffhanger and it doesn’t give any finality to the story. It just awkwardly encourages the reader to continue. …Maybe. …Eventually. …Whenever you feel like it.
So, why have I gone on for nearly five pages about the problems of this novel? Is it that bad? If it’s bad, why have you given it that two stars? Something must have been good about it, right?
Yep, there were some good things about this book. Shocking, eh? I don’t know why, but Maxon was actually quite likeable. He took an interest in America a little too quickly for my liking, but otherwise he’s very princely and adorably oblivious, yet quick-witted. America is still a Mary Sue, but… it’s weird to say that I got used to her after a while. And for that, I congratulate Ms. Cass. The novel wasn’t too unbearable, but it really could have been helped if the world and the side characters had been better developed. 2/5.