Genre: YA dystopian
The Selection: (1) The Selection, (2) The Elite
The Selection is a life-changing experience for all thirty-fives girls who are chosen, even if they don't win. It's the traditional means of finding a wife for the Crown Prince of Illéa whereby one girl is chosen from every province to live the high life of the royalty in the palace. As the prince spends more time with the girls, he’ll eliminate them until he’s left with one girl who will become his wife. A reality television Princess-finding process, as it were, since the people of Illéa tune in weekly during the Capital Report to watch the progress of the Selected and are just as enthusiastic - if not more so - about who will become Queen than the prince is. The Selection is open to all girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty, whatever their caste. An eligible girl would be crazy not to enter; America Singer is by this definition, crazy.
A little introduction is needed to Illéa and the world that America lives in. Illéa is a relatively new country, born in the aftermath of the Third World War. The United States had been in massive debt and China had invaded when it became clear that the US wouldn't be able to repay. A little while later, Russia attempted to invade but under the leadership of Gregory Illéa, the United States presented a formidable defence. Illéa established a new country using his name and life is radically different from the Western, modern and liberal United States of America as we know it today. Firstly, caste is everything. It dictates a person's status within society as well as their career path. The royal family are Ones and have every privilege in life, while on the other end of the scale, Eights are treated like dirt. Being such a new country, Illéa is constantly under threat from rebel attacks. These can be broadly divided into two groups: those that are more frequent and less dangerous from the Northerners, and the less frequent but more violent attacks from the Southerners. In such a time of political uncertainty, The Selection provides national unity and popularity for the monarchy as it is only daughters of Illéa who are permitted to take part.
America is a Five. Fives are artists and musicians and "only three steps up from dirt. Literally." Her father is an artist and America's own gift is for music. She's the middle of five children and now that her older sister and brother have moved out of the home, the pressure on her is even greater to work harder to increase the family income. The Singers aren't desperate, but aren't far away and so America's mother is insistent that her daughter enters The Selection. Considering that thousands of girls are eligible, America knows that she doesn't stand a chance.
America has another, secret reason for her reluctance. She's in love. The laws in Illéa are strict, but America regularly breaks curfew where Aspen is concerned, but they’ve always stopped short of sex as the consequences could be dire; there's a reason why people marry so young in Illéa. Aspen is a Six and his family is in an even worse position than America's. Aspen has taken over the father-role in their family and works several jobs just to feed the mouths of his younger siblings, often foregoing his own share. They've been meeting secretly for two years and relishing the day when they can finally be together. America can only see a future with Aspen and doesn't care that her mother would never forgive her for marrying down. Aspen has two younger sisters who are of age to enter The Selection and pushes America to apply too, for he couldn't bear the guilt were she not to apply because of him.
The winner of The Selection becomes the bride of Prince Maxon Schreave, Crown Prince of Illéa. She and her entire family are automatically upgraded to the status of a One, meaning that they'll never have to work again. As it is, all thirty-five finalists are catapulted to Three status on selection, if they're not already a Two or Three; their families will be adequately compensated during the time in which they are residents of the palace. Pushed by her mother and Aspen and the tiny possibility that this could change her family's future forever, America reluctantly applies. When America sees her face on the television screen as one of the Prince’s possible brides, she’s just as shocked as everyone else and there’s no way she can refuse.
From what America has seen of Prince Maxon on the weekly Capital Report broadcast, she's not impressed. He doesn't seem very personable and America feels that Maxon is only using The Selection to find a Queen, not the love of his life. It is only when she meets him and starts to get to know him that her respect Crown Prince begins to grow. While their first meeting began with America yelling and insulting His Highness, Maxon is nothing but polite and courteous. She is only one of three Fives in the competition and when she makes it clear what her place means for her family's financial prospects, Maxon promises that he will keep America in the competition for as long as possible, despite that she has already confessed that her heart belongs to another. They come to an arrangement: she wants to stay for the food and to help her family; he needs a confidant on the inside who he can talk to about the pressures on his life.
Life in the palace isn't as easy as America had envisaged. In some respects, America is living the high life. She is never hungry; she has three attentive maids who create for her the most beautiful dresses and with whom she is on very good terms; for every day that she stays in the palace, her family is being well-compensated and she has firm friends in the bubbly Marlee and shy but unfailingly polite Ashley. But as with other competitions with such a magnificent prize, there are competitors who will stop at nothing in their attempts to sabotage the chances of their fellow Selected in their quest for the Crown. In addition, the rebel attacks have been getting worse these last months. Attacks can never be predicted and the palace has yet to ascertain motivation for them. With such a large number of high-profile inhabitants in the castle, the chances of an attack only increase.
America's initial impressions of Maxon have slowly been replaced as she has got to know the gentle, kind and honest man he really is. In her position as his friend, she is privy to much more information than the other Selected and gets to see the more vulnerable side that he keeps from the other girls as well as his parents. America had been so certain that Aspen was the love of her life, but now that they’ve had time apart, she’s not so sure …
I really liked this book. YA dystopian fiction has been popular for several years now and dominates the shelves and displays whenever I walk into Waterstones. They're largely identifiable by their pretty-girl-pretty-dress covers, but it's not really something that I really got into; I had mostly grown out of YA by the time that dystopian fiction began its rise. The Selection's cover is beautiful. I have an unstoppable tendency to judge a book by its cover and even if The Selection’s summary hadn't sounded so good, I would have probably read it anyway just for the cover. The dress is very Princess-esque and I really want one but with straps of some sort – I don’t do strapless. The fonts and tiara-detail really suit the book and I like that the cover actually has some relevance to the novel itself, rather than the publishers just slapping on any old girl-in-a-pretty-dress cover they could find.
The Selection is a really fantastic book. It reminds me of this Korean TV show that my sisters and I were addicted to several years ago called How to marry a millionaire. Basically, the hero was actually a really poor guy, but for the purpose of the show, pretended to be a millionaire in search of a wife. A bunch of girls went to live with him and only at the end where he had one girl left would he reveal his true financial circumstances. If she stayed with him, she would clearly love him for himself rather than his money. There's slightly more at stake in The Selection considering that the winner will actually become Queen some day in the future, but it's a very similar concept, taking reality TV to a whole new level. This is a decision that will impact Maxon's whole future, yet he feels pressured by public opinion whenever he needs to eliminate candidates. It's a pretty rotten situation to be in.
As with much dystopian fiction, the world that America lives in is bleak and monotonous. While some live the good life, her family's income is unstable and dependent on the changing seasons. Her best prospects are marrying up, but this is both rare and discouraged and so the opportunity to apply for The Selection is literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It's a depressing lifestyle, but I'd love for the chance to be America and take part in The Selection to live in the palace with the chance of being a princess! – I clearly haven’t woken up to reality yet. America is independent, headstrong and knows her own mind. She might have been pushed by Aspen and her mother to enter The Selection, but when she's there, she's not afraid to voice her opinions, especially to Maxon. The Selection reminded me a little of Matched by Ally Condie, another YA dystopian novel. The latter has much stricter rules governing societal conduct, but in both, the rules are structured in such a way that hints to some underlying secret only known to The Powers That Be. Both America and Cassia from Matched are rebelling against society in their respective ways and I hugely respect them for their self-determination.
I'm fascinated by the setting of Illéa and the series in general. The reference to WWIII and the countries of USA, China and Russia imply that it's set on Earth as we know it, but there's no set timeframe. It could be ten years from now or one hundred years and I wouldn't be any the wiser. The theory that it's set in the future is hugely at odds with the monarchical government and rules that have to be followed because this isn’t the United States of America as we know it. I’m thus more inclined to go down the one hundred years route, as it seems to me that only a radical political upheaval of society would force a monarchical system on to a country that holds the values of democratic government so highly.
America is fiercely adamant when she first meets Maxon that she won't be able to love him because her heart belongs to another. It's really the sweetest of situations. He's surrounded by nearly three dozen girls in a bridequest that's being broadcast in front of the entire country, and he's most attracted to the girl of the lowest rank who has told him outright that she'd rather just be his friend. I'm the hugest romantic - can there be any doubt as to why I love The Selection?
I'm so excited for book two. With all the business about the rebels as well as some hints that the history of Illéa may not be as straightforward as its citizens are led to believe, this isn't just a romance. Sure, the America-Maxon-Aspen triangle is the main focus of the book, but I'm really loving what we’ve seen concerning the political issues that are at stake. The second book will be called The Elite, a reference to the fact that at the end of The Selection, Maxon has prematurely narrowed down the twenty-or-so girls that had been left at that stage to a mere six. I have my fingers tightly crossed that the cover will be as stunning to The Selection’s. In terms of the book itself, my expectations are now high, so Ms Cass had better not disappoint.
Image courtesy of Fantastic Fiction.