Book review: Kiera Cass’ “The Selection”

Ever since the success of self-published authors like Amanda Hocking and E. L. James, publishing houses are looking increasingly towards the internet in their search for the next literary sensation.

One such author plucked from online obscurity and cast into mainstream success is Kiera Cass, who debuts on bookstores around the world with “The Selection”, a young adult novel about 35 girls who vie for the love and attention of the kingdom’s crown prince.

Beforehand, Cass built an online reputation with “The Siren”, a self-published novel that re-imagines the mythological creature and has helped Cass amass a 3,000-plus strong following on Twitter.

Will Cass have the same measure of success on actual bookshelves as she has had on electronic ones? Or will “The Selection”, unlike “The Siren”, fail to draw in readers and fans?

“The Selection” is set in a dystopian version of the future, with the United States long gone and the kingdom of Illea rising in its place. It is a society that is a far cry from the country it sprung from — Illea is ruled over by a monarchy, and its people are grouped into castes that they can only get out of by marriage.

That is why for a lot of girls, being picked for the Selection is an incredible opportunity. From all over the kingdom, 35 girls are chosen to compete for the heart of Prince Maxon Scheave, and whoever wins not only escapes from their caste, but ends up ruling the country as Queen when the time arrives.

However, America Singer couldn’t be any less interested. Already in love with Aspen, a boy a caste below her, she is uninterested in the prince, the crown, or the fame and fortune that being part of the Selection brings. When she gets chosen to participate, she doesn’t expect to last more than a week.

That all changes when she finally meets Prince Maxon. Kind, understanding, and far from being the stuffy aristocrat she thought he would be, America finds herself slowly changing her opinion of the crown prince. Will she finally put her heart into the Selection? Or will the love she left back home still win out?

It’s easy to misjudge “The Selection” just from its cover and premise alone. With a plot that seems to have been taken straight out of the reality show “The Bachelor” and a cover that makes no secret of its princess aspirations, one can’t be faulted if they approach this book with more than a little apprehension.

Perhaps because of those assumptions, it’s a little surprising to find that “The Selection” isn’t as fluffy or disposable as one would expect. The rigidity of the caste system that Illea has in place allows Cass to comment on a variety of things — from the connection between  poverty and poor reproductive health choices to the privilege that some well-meaning upper caste people may unknowingly hold over those below them.

The format with which the Selection is conducted — a televised show very much like “The Bachelor” — also allows Cass to spout some commentary on how women are treated on shows like this and in a society as regimented as Illea. During the Selection, the girls are told that they are literally property of the state, and are made to undergo some pretty invasive questioning. And it’s not like it’s any better outside of the competition — getting married is literally the only way these girls can improve their state in life.

The commentary isn’t always done elegantly or subtly — the conversation that America and Maxon have about the lack of a social safety net for those of the lowest caste has all the subtlety of a church sermon —  but the fact that Cass even touches on of those topics at all in a novel clearly aimed for tweens and teens is encouraging.

Unfortunately, Cass doesn’t build on the interesting points that she brings up in the first few chapters of the novel. As soon as the competition goes into full swing, the focus shifts to the formula one would expect from the book’s cover and premise.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was good fluff, but the central love triangle in Cass’ narrative doesn’t exactly thrill. Aspen comes off as a bit of an insecure smooth talker that only has his interests in mind, while Maxon, filtered as he is through America’s biased lens, doesn’t exactly shine until much later on in the novel.

America, while not exactly a groundbreaking heroine, at least has a few moments where she gets to shine. She is a bit more experienced than Prince Maxon when it comes to the more physical aspects of dating and relationships, and it’s refreshing to see a girl take the initiative for once when it comes to kissing and making out. However, that doesn’t fix her lack of chemistry with either of the male leads.

The novel also ends on a rather unsatisfactory note, with a cliffhanger that isn’t all that suspenseful and with nothing clearly resolved for America. With some of the imperfections that the book contains, Cass isn’t exactly assured of a readership that will follow her until the final book in this planned trilogy.

All in all, “The Selection” is an entertaining enough diversion that at least attempts to plumb a little depth. Whether readers will be entertained enough to accompany Cass through all three books still remains to be seen.

(“The Selection” is available in all National Book Stores. You can buy it for P349!)

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