I have to admit I was a little on the fence about Joelle Charbonneau’s first book in the series, The Testing, not because it wasn’t a strong story and well written, but because I have a strong attachment to a similar book, The Hunger Games and it almost felt disloyal to that series to fall in love with this one. Any doubts I had were thoroughly erased by the second book in the trilogy, Independent Study.
Cia is now studying for her university entrance exams. As all Testing candidates have their memories wiped of the Testing process to ensure the integrity of the original test, she doesn’t remember her Testing experience. All she knows is that she loves Tomas, and she enjoys her friendships with Stacia and Will and is determined to work hard to make it into the University where she hopes to study Mechanical Engineering. Everything is rosy until she discovers something on her older brother Zeen’s device, apparently the device is capable of recording, and she is shocked when she starts to listen to it and hears her own voice. It’s her voice, but a stranger who describes unspeakable acts, some of them taken by the people she cares the most about, can they possibly be true? What really happened during The Testing? How can she spend time with the very people she now has doubts about? She is torn between studying for her entrance exams so she can get the education she needs to help her nation, and trying to determine the truth in the recordings.
If the recordings are true, how can she be in love with Tomas? And if they are true, then she is in grave danger, but she is on her own. As with all Testing candidates she doesn’t get to talk to her family, and everyone else is suspect. When one of the university candidates doesn’t do well on the entry exam, he is Redirected, and Cia decides to follow him and the officials to try to find out what being Redirected really means, whether he is being taken to work in the Colonies, or something worse.
As she begins to investigate, she must also contend with the influx of Tonsu City students. They were raised in the Capitol, and were not part of The Testing that the colony students were. Despite the fact that they are the children of wealthy privileged officials, they seem to be very competitive, and Cia can’t trust them any more than she can trust her own colony friends. Cia races through a cat-and-mouse game to figure out what’s really going on before it’s too late.
In many books of this genre, the protagonist usually has a sidekick or confidante that they can trust, but in this case Cia is an island and doesn’t get the relief of sharing her greatest fears with anyone, and that tension, isolation, and sense of paranoia are what make the book exquisitely taut. There is less physical action than the first book, but I enjoy the mental ‘games’ here even more than the physical ones, for it’s a thrill to see a character tiptoe up to the line that we all have that we think should not be crossed, and the questions of ethics and morality that are raised on the approach to that line in the sand. I raced through this book and cannot wait for the next.