Today I read The Selection trilogy by Kiera Cass: The Selection, The Elite, and The One.
Once every generation comes the time of the Selection–the time when the prince of Illéa must choose a bride from among his subjects. The most beautiful, talented, and virtuous girls of the land must compete to win his heart and his hand. Now it is the turn of Maxon Schreave to choose his princess.
America Singer has a hard life, but a good one. She has a loving family and her work as a musician, and her secret boyfriend, Aspen Leger. But America is a Five, an artist, and Aspen is a Six, a servant, and marriages between the castes is highly restricted. Aspen is proud–he doesn’t want America to lower herself by marrying him, so he breaks up with her. Devastated, America is manipulated by her ambitious mother into applying to be a member of the Selection, and against all belief she is chosen to be one of the 35 chosen ones. She will live at the palace, learn how to conduct herself as befits a princess of Illéa, and compete with the other girls for the prize–Prince Maxon.
America doesn’t want to like him–she wants to go home, back to her real life. But Maxon is so kind–he’s smart and compassionate and funny and he talks to her. America finds herself falling for him, even while she mourns her relationship with Aspen. Aspen, who has been drafted into the army and is now the palace guard who watches her bedroom door.
On top of all of this is the strict caste system that the King embodies and promotes, that America has great difficulty living with. There are dangerous rebels, who attack the palace and what they claim are the symbols of a despotic regime–the royal family and the girls of the Selection. There also seem to be more reasonable rebels, who want to talk and work together to improve the state of the kingdom. And there are the other girls, the Elite, some friendly and some not, and all of whom are there for the same reason America is–to be The One to win Maxon’s love. And some of them will stop at nothing to get it.
I wanted to read these books because they’re been pretty popular lately, especially with the release of The One last month, the final book in the trilogy. Also, the cover designs with the dresses are gorgeous and eye-catching, and I wanted to find out what the books were about.
The Selection is basically a reality show called Who Wants to Marry a Prince set in a 1950s dystopia future (actually I think that was a real show). Society and technology have gone backwards, and history is a very carefully designed mass of propaganda. The caste system is extremely strict, and almost impossible to change The Ones are royalty and have every luxury, while the Eights are homeless. America is lucky enough to like her status as a Five, the artist caste, but not the near-poverty that comes with it. Sexual purity is highly prized for both men and women, but there is still a secret double-standard. America is instructed by palace staff to do anything that Maxon wants, wink wink, but the girls of the Elite can legally be tortured and executed for kissing anyone other than Maxon.
America is a bit of a Mary Sue, and she makes a lot of mistakes, but her confusion is genuine. She cares for both Maxon and Aspen, but her heart and her duty tear her in two directions. She wants to have the power to create a more fair society, but doesn’t want the attention that being a princess would bring. She doesn’t have the patience or the trust in Maxon to wait while he plots to slowly make things better, the only thing he can do with his abusive and controlling father still the king. Maxon is a little harder to get a handle on since we see him through America’s point of view, and there’s a lot she doesn’t understand until she’s explicitly told. She thinks he’s changeable in his affections, and he thinks he’s protecting himself from someone who won’t commit to him. She thinks he’s cold and imperious, and he thinks he’s cautious and raised to be a prince who must abide by the law. There’s a novella, The Prince, that tells about Maxon’s life before the Elite come to the palace, and I think might try to find it. Aspen on the other hand lets his pride and jealousy get in the way of his relationship with America, and it’s only thanks to convenient plot devices that they don’t get caught sneaking round the palace kissing. There’s also a novella called The Guard about Aspen’s point of view during the Selection.
I’d say that this is a series with a lot of potential. The Selected is only her second novel, and the first, The Siren, was self-published. It’s good, but I think her writing will become much better with time and practice–it reads like an early novel. It’s not precisely a modern feminist fairy tale, but it’s not a stereotyped teen chicklit romance either. While the romantic triangle is an overused trope, it’s popular for a reason–people like it. As I said, there’s a lot of potential here.
This series will probably appeal most to teenage girls, and I’d recommend it primarily to people looking for a romance story, instead of as a story of societal change or a dystopia.
WHEN WE GOT THE LETTER in the post, my mother was ecstatic.
She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn’t think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.
I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One.
I didn’t even want to try.
I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to come up with an argument that would sway her. So far, I had a solid collection of my honest opinions… I didn’t think there was a single one she would listen to.
I couldn’t avoid her much longer. It was approaching dinnertime, and as the oldest child left in the house, cooking duties fell on me. I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the snake pit.
I got a glare from Mom but no words.
We did a silent dance through the kitchen and dining room as we prepared chicken, pasta, and apple slices, and set the table for five. If I glanced up from a task, she’d fix me with a fierce look as if she could shame me into wanting the same things she did. She tried that every so often. Like if I didn’t want to take on a particular job because I knew the family hosting us was unnecessarily rude. Or if she wanted me to do a massive cleaning when we couldn’t afford to have a Six come and help.
Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And this was one area where I was unswayable.
She couldn’t stand it when I was stubborn. But I got that from her, so she shouldn’t have been surprised. This wasn’t just about me, though. Mom had been tense lately. The summer was ending, and soon we’d be faced with cold. And worry.
Mom set down the pitcher of tea in the center of the table with an angry thud. My mouth watered at the thought of tea with lemon. But I would have to wait; it would be such a waste to have my glass now and then have to drink water with my meal.
“Would it kill you to fill out the form?” she said, no longer able to contain herself. “The Selection could be a wonderful opportunity for you, for all of us.”
I sighed aloud, thinking that filling out that form might actually be something close to death.
It was no secret that the rebels—the underground colonies that hated Illéa, our large and comparatively young country—made their attacks on the palace both violent and frequent. We’d seen them in action in Carolina before. One of the magistrates’ houses was burned to the ground, and a handful of Twos had their cars vandalized. There was even a magnificent jailbreak once, but considering they only released a teenage girl who’d managed to get herself pregnant and a Seven who was a father to nine, I couldn’t help thinking they were in the right that time.
But beyond the potential danger, I felt like it would hurt my heart to even consider the Selection. I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about all the reasons I had to stay exactly where I was.
“These last few years have been very hard on your father,” she hissed. “If you have any compassion at all, you might think of him.”
Dad. Yeah. I really did want to help Dad. And May and Gerad. And, I supposed, even my mother. When she talked about it that way, there was nothing to smile about. Things had been strained around here for far too long. I wondered if Dad would see this as a way back to normal, if any amount of money could make things better.
It wasn’t that our situation was so precarious that we were living in fear of survival or anything. We weren’t destitute. But I guess we weren’t that far off either.
Our caste was just three away from the bottom. We were artists. And artists and classical musicians were only three steps up from dirt. Literally. Our money was stretched as tight as a high wire, and our income was highly dependent on the changing seasons.
I remembered reading in a timeworn history book that all the major holidays used to be cramped into the winter months.
Something called Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. All back to back.
Christmas was still the same. It’s not like you could change the birth date of a deity. But when Illéa made the massive peace treaty with China, the New Year came in January or February, depending on the moon. All the individual celebrations of thankfulness and independence from our part of the world were now simply the Grateful Feast. That came in the summer. It was a time to celebrate the forming of Illéa, to rejoice in the fact that we were still here.
I didn’t know what Halloween was. It never resurfaced.
So at least three times a year, the whole family would be fully employed. Dad and May would make their art, and patrons would purchase them as gifts. Mom and I would perform at parties—me singing and her on piano—not turning down a single job if we could manage it. When I was younger, performing in front of an audience terrified me. But now I just tried to equate myself to background music. That’s what we were in the eyes of our employers: meant to be heard and not seen.
Gerad hadn’t found his talent yet. But he was only seven. He still had a little time.
Soon the leaves would change, and our tiny world would be unsteady again. Five mouths but only four workers. No guarantees of employment until Christmastime.
When I thought of it that way, the Selection seemed like a rope, something sure I could grab onto. That stupid letter could lift me out of the darkness, and I could pull my family along with me.