Friday, August 1, 2014

Today's Test Will Determine Which Field of Study You're Best Suited For

This review is for those who have read or are familiar with the previous book, The Testing, or don't mind knowing some spoilers for it. Independent Study, however, will remain spoiler-free.

Independent Study
~Independent Study~
The Testing
Book 2

By Joelle Charbonneau
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

With her brutal Testing experience forgotten thanks to a government-issued memory wipe, seventeen-year-old Cia Vale is eager to begin her studies at the Commonwealth's elite University, as is Tomas, the boy she loves.

Their bright futures are threatened by the past, however, when violent nightmares that feel more like memories force Cia to question reality and the true motives lurking behind the friendly faces of her classmates.

Embarking on a forbidden course of study that could get her killed, Cia delves into the Commonwealth's darkest secrets. What she learns changes everything...

The Testing was just the beginning.

From a familiar premise arose a story so nailbitingly gripping I literally could not put it down. Though I had my suspicions that this series could turn into a Hunger Games lite, I was pleasantly surprised to find a refreshing complexity and ingenuity in the sequel that has me even more excited for the conclusion. So if you prefer your dystopia with more subterfuge than battlefields, you'll definitely enjoy the unexpected turn this series took as much as I did.

I'll admit, I didn't find Cia very engaging in the first book. She read almost too perfect and lucky for my taste. This time, however, I felt she really got the chance to show her worth. For one thing, the challenges and trials set for her were much more intellect-based, drawing us farther from not only repetition from The Testing's storyline, but also naturally distancing her from Katnis. But what I found most stimulating about Cia this time around was how much she was legitimately afraid.

It's one thing to fear threats that are right in front of you. Someone is firing a gun at you, someone is running at you with a knife: you either react correctly or you don't. Now that the preliminary Testing is over, the questions aren't simply on a page or in an arena, now Cia's entire life is under evaluation. Does she perform adequately in class? Does she socialize the proper amount? Is she making the right choices in friends? Is she feeling too much stress? Cia is completely aware of all this evaluation and knows that even one step out of line could cost her her life, and I loved feeling her fear. Her fear, her uncertainty, her anxiety all came together perfectly and made me feel for her character in a way I just didn't in the first book. So I guess sign me up for the Cia fanclub, I'm sold.

Possibly another factor that endeared Cia to me was her treatment of Tomas. Whereas Tomas was the major and obvious love interest in book one, he is nearly non-existent here. Part of that is due to Cia knowing he's hiding a major secret from her, part of that is due to them being physically separated by different studies. Regardless, I appreciated the "Main Man" not being a huge deal as far as Cia's story was concerned. Sure, he's still there and still fairly important in Cia's plans, but their relationship doesn't take precedent over the life-or-death government conspiracy Cia's mixed up in.

Which leads me straight into the meat of the book. Whereas the last book was much more action-packed, which led me to my Hunger Games comparison, this one focused instead on a more covert story. Instead of kids killing kids out in the open with knives, explosives, and crossbows, all the backstabbing now lies in puzzle-solving and information-gathering. This gave the whole plot more of a Big Brother, 1984 vibe, which I definitely appreciated. Maybe it's just me, but I kinda like the idea of toppling a big bad enemy with brains instead of who's got the biggest guns.

And speaking of big bads, what about that evil government I ranted about last time? I believe I called them completely illogical and stated that their attempts to quell rebellion were solely responsible for their citizens wanting to rebel. Well, that may still be the case, but I do have to say, they are a LOT better at their game than I gave them credit for. I mean, I thought they were kinda dumb in the first book. Powerful, sure, but pretty stupid. I sincerely rescind any and all implications that they were mentally challenged in any respect. They are terrifyingly smart, so much so that they gave me chills. I may be rooting even harder for Cia, but at the same time I'm kinda scared to tick off this fictional government.

Picking up almost exactly where the first left off, it wasn't too hard to reacquaint myself with the characters and story. But the ending, now that has me scrambling for the next book. I don't know that I would call it a cliffhanger as much as I would a complete game-changer. One big enough you'll probably want to have the last book handy for when you finish it. As far as sequels go, this far exceeded my expectations and completely changed my mind about the entire series. I'm both terrified and excited to see where the conclusion, Graduation Day will take us, and I'm eager to start in on it tomorrow.

So, overall I found Independent Study to be a riveting and game-changing continuation to what appeared to be an average dystopian trilogy. Fans of the first book should find this one refreshingly different with its covert slant on the popular dystopian formula, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a YA take on 1984. Much less violence this time around, but a couple deaths and general conspiracy themes have me recommending it for high-school and up. Yet another example of a series proving me wrong, Independent Study shows that you can't judge a series by its first book, so check out a copy today and experience the new twists and turns yourself.

Approximate Reading Time: 4 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Elizabeth Morton
Length: 10 Hours
Listened at 2.5x Speed

First bit of praise: the awkward/annoying pauses at the end of each track are gone! Well, maybe not completely gone, but certainly lessened a great deal. This helped the overall tension and pacing of the story immensely, giving a much better experience. Kudos to the production team for fixing things this time around.

Secondly, Ms. Morton once again delivered a stellar performance. Though obviously Cia had the most attention given to her emotions and voice, the secondary characters were still distinct enough to easily tell them apart. And with a cast of dozens, that's certainly saying something.

Overall, a strong production all around. If interesting names trip you up when reading (as they sometimes do me), then I'd definitely recommend the audio. But really, if you heard the first book, and are interested in an improved experience, you'll definitely want to check this one out as well.