If you think back to my introductory post, you may remember that I’m a librarian, or maybe you know me in real life, and know that I’m a librarian. There’s a stereotype that librarians like to read, and that’s a correct one. The incorrect stereotype is that we get to read for our job. While some librarians may get to read more, it’s not something I’m paid to do because the library I work in is not the kind that has books you just want to curl up in front of a fire with or something. Our books are a little bigger, a little more dense…less entertaining. And while I don’t have to read those for work, I often find myself wanting to read fiction when I’m not at work because I like the escape into a different world, a different life. I’m also not afraid to read Young Adult (YA) fiction because there are actually many YA books with plots as interesting and complex as “adult” books, they just are written about younger characters. If your main character is a teenager, it’s going to be categorized as YA for the most part, and it feels wrong to exclude those books from my repertoire.
Last year I saw for the first time this series – “The Selection” by Kiera Cass. It had the prettiest dresses on the covers, and I am a sucker for a pretty dress. They were described online as sort of like the Hunger Games (a YA series that I loved along with everyone else) and the Bachelor, and so I was intrigued enough to put my name down for an audiobook* hold**. The first book came available just before Christmas, and I finished it just before the end of the year. The second book came available a week later, and I finished it in just under a week. My thoughts are below the pretty pretty covers – if you’ve read them or don’t care about spoilers…carry on.
I went into these books with an open mind thinking that they’d be some princess fluff to get me through the holiday season. They were not fluff, they were just bad. The problem is that I’m a completionist – if I have the vaguest interest in something that’s part of a series, I’m going to want to see it through to the end. The fact that I’ve been able to drop so many TV shows I was previously watching in recent years is kind of amazing. And I should have known after the first book that the second wasn’t going to be much better…but I just had to read it anyways.
The plot of the books is this: America Singer lives in the dystopian future. It is a country of castes, and her caste – the artists (she’s a singer, get it!) – are fairly low, because they don’t “contribute to society”. She has a secret boyfriend, Aspen, who is an even lower caste of servants/clerks, and their love is forbidden because he is so low and lowly. Immediately (like…soon after the book starts), we are told that there will be a selection, in which a girl from each of the 35 districts will be “selected” (get it? eh? eh??) “randomly” to compete for the hand of the prince because…having a “common” princess/future-queen is the only way to keep the rabble quiet. Literally everyone in America’s life encourages her to sign up for the selection…including the long-term boyfriend who she has convinced herself is going to propose to her. Moments after she decides Aspen is going to propose is the moment she goes in to have her photo taken for her application, and so she’s all smiles and glowing with girlish love. And everyone keeps telling her how beautiful and talented she is (she speaks…3 languages? Plays like, 10 instruments? Is fairly well educated for a peon? I don’t remember), and she keeps denying it. Girl…some of us are pretty. Some of us are sort of meh/middling. Some of us are not conventionally attractive. If you’re a hottie, you know it. The fact that she keeps denying her looks is one of those things that bother me a LOT.
Also – she has red hair, because the author is trying to make her unique and show her “fiery temper” in advance…and it’s just lazy. Kiera Cass – as a redhead, I’m calling you out.
Fast forward, Aspen breaks up with America for … no reason? America gets selected because, obviously (also the selection is fixed to only choose pretty girls). America is “rebellious” by reaching out to the people as she gets to the capital, by wanting to not be made up like a china doll during her makeover (also – she keeps assuming that the prince is super-into heavily made-up girls), by actually being kind to the maids assigned to her, and by accidentally yelling at Prince Maxon the first time they meet. And she automatically becomes his favorite, like within 10 seconds, and he wants to marry her. Stuff happens, some of the girls are sent home. America wears pretty dresses. And eventually Aspen shows up because he’s been “drafted”. And it turns out that he didn’t really want to break up with her, but he did it because he thought things were going too fast/her family could use the money.
And this is where the books get really really dumb. Because it becomes a love triangle. So new! So clever! And it’s not like there’s really any conflict between any of the characters – especially in the first book. It’s just, “Which boy do I love more?” And every time America is with one of the boys, she seems to develop amnesia and only love Aspen, or Maxon, or whichever. And it literally goes back and forth like this for a full book and a half. You’d think she was better able to get a handle on her feelings, but no.
The number of girls in the selection is whittled down to six by the end of the first book, and is at four at the end of the second (argh slow pace, WHY???), but holy cats there is so little plot. The only really intriguing plot device is the “rebels”. There are two groups – one who kill, and the other who just mess things up and are searching for things. There are also a few times in the books where Aspen implies strongly that he might be a rebel (things like how he has basically memorized the watch schedule, the movements of the guards, how he’s upset with the government/monarchy), but he also assures us that he actually just really loves and wants to protect the monarchy (and potentially future princess/queen America?). It’s just such a juicy dangling possibility, and part of the reason I kept reading. Is Aspen a rebel or not? What the heck are those rebels searching for anyways?
Should you read these books? No. You definitely should not. The covers are SO SO pretty, and I think that’s how they get you. The plot setup is interesting, and if it were more strategically plotted, and if it were better written (everything is “lovely”), it might just have been the fluffy YA book series I was looking for. But by trying to be dystopian, and by forcing a love triangle that requires our heroine to forget the third party every time she’s with the other boy…it does not work. Will I finish out the series? Yes, I will (see: completionist). I’m hoping against hope that the subtle threads that were laid of “Aspen is secretly a rebel” or “Overthrowing the government” are actually carried through. It seems silly that it took two books to fluff so much nothing so far, but maybe (maybe?) the third and the sequel to the trilogy will actually be interesting and worth it.
Details: “The Selection” and “The Elite” by Kiera Cass, published 2012 and 2013 by Harper Teen.
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*Many of the books that I read are “read” through the medium of audiobook. I don’t think that this is “cheating”, and I do count each of these books as “read” because I listened to the entire story, which sometimes takes longer to read through audio than it would as a paper or digital book. Often audiobooks are more engaging, and great narrators are able to add emotional depth that could be difficult to feel on the page. It also gives me a satisfying and productive way to fill in what used to be a very long commute. So if someone ever wants to give you a hard time for reading audiobooks, tell them that a librarian told you they count as “reading” – whatever that may mean.
**My local library system uses Overdrive, the same program that many other library systems use. I’ve become quite a fan in recent years, and know a few secrets. Maybe someday I’ll do a “How to Get the Most out of your Overdrive Account” post…if anyone’s interested. 😉