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The Selection (The Selection #1), by Kiera Cass
America Singer is a Five. That isn't her rating on a scale of one through ten; it's her caste. The people of her country, Illéa, which is a successor country to the United States of America (as well as of Canada, Mexico and assorted countries of Central America (I think..., but more on that later)), are divided into eight castes, from the Ones, who are the ruling caste, down to the Eights, who are homeless drifters.
As a Five, America is from the caste of artists and musicians. Her own specialty is music. She sings and plays the piano and violin. Her family does well enough that they are not starving, or even suffering from malnutrition, but they are not flush with cash, either.
For two years now, America has been secretly in love with Aspen, who is a Six. Sixes are the servants and, apparently, clerical workers. His mother is a widow, which makes him the man of the house, and he takes this very seriously, beating himself up for his inability to come up with enough money to feed his six younger siblings.
One day, America, along with all other young women around her age in Illéa, gets a letter inviting her to compete in The Selection, a competition in which one young woman from each of the provinces of Illéa will be put before the Crown Prince, Maxon, as candidates to become his wife and thus, someday, the Queen of Illéa.
Both America's mother and Aspen himself put pressure on America to apply for The Selection and, much to her surprise, America is chosen. She is only one of three Fives to make the cut, and no woman below Five is chosen. And once she is chosen for the Selection, she is no longer a Five, but a Three. America has trouble dealing with this, as Threes are not allowed to perform music professionally, and that is all she has ever known. She decides that since teaching is a profession open to Threes, that she can become a music teacher if she does not end up as the princess.
During one of her first opportunities to speak with Maxon, she tells the prince that her heart is taken, but that she is willing to be his friend. Thus she ends up opening her heart in one way to Maxon and may well end up opening her heart romantically to him as well. They meet, both openly and in secret, to discuss their lives and the other women in the competition. America talks up her friend Marlee. She likes Maxon and she likes Marlee and she hopes that this might indicate that they would be compatible. America also helps him to understand a bit about life among the lowest castes.
We find out some of the history of Illéa as well. The United States fell to China when China called in the debt that the United States owed it. The new nation was called the American States of China (the "ASC"). Then, Russia invaded both China and the ASC and China couldn't fend off Russia on both fronts. So China chose to fight Russia and left the ASC to its own devices. A man named Gregory Illéa stepped into the breach and led the people of the ASC to victory over the Russians. And so the nation of Illéa was born. At least, that's the story. There are no history books in Illéa (America's family owns a fire-damaged United States history book and they warned her not to tell anyone about it), so all that the people of Illéa know about their history is what they have been told orally.
As an aside, this would never happen in real life. The People's Republic of China does, in fact, own the largest share of United States debt by a foreign country. However, that debt is only around 7.5% of the total debt outstanding. Pretty much all of the rest is held by banks headquartered in the United States, including J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America. If China called in their debt, it would not be impossible for the United States to get that 7.5% from the banks that hold the other 92.5% and then send China on its way.
Adding to the confusion about what, exactly, is going on here, we are told that there are at least two rebel factions active in Illéa. One, we are told comes from the North -- "a rainy patch of Likely near Bellingham," specifically, which sounds like it could mean where present-day Seattle is, depending on your definition of "near." The other comes from "the South." We later find out that "the South" of Illéa goes at least as far as present-day Nicaragua, but do not know exactly where in "the South" these other rebels come from.
The one thing that this book desperately needs is a map. I am something of a geography geek and even I cannot figure out where everything is in relation to one another. Is Carolina America's city or her province? I have the same question about Kent and Allens and Columbia and Sota and all of the other places mentioned. How do people travel from place to place? Where are Kent, Allens, and Clermont in relation to Carolina so that Marlee, Ashley, and Celeste, respectively, end up on the same plane as America? Is the "Angeles" that is now the capital Los Angeles, California, Port Angeles, Washington, or somewhere else? If "The Elite," the next book in the series, does not have a map in it I am seriously contemplating sending an email to Cass to ask her to include a map in the third book.
As part of my ongoing effort to warn for sexual violence, there is one scene that made me uncomfortable and so for anyone whose sexual violence trigger is more sensitive than mine is, this may be offputting.
Overall, I really enjoyed "The Selection." I really care about the characters, and there are enough questions that need to be answered outside of the romance storyline to keep my interest. As I write this, I am waiting for this coming Tuesday, when "The Elite" will be released.
What follows is a spoiler for the scene that I warn for above. Do not read farther if you do not want to be spoiled.
Soon after America arrives, she finds that Aspen has been conscripted into the army. For some reason, rather than being sent to the front lines (wherever the "front lines" are), he is sent to become a guard at the palace. Then, despite knowing that he will be executed for laying hands on one of the women of the Selection, he continues to pursue America.
One night he comes into America's room while she is sleeping, throws the covers off of her bed and proceeds to smooch her up. She tells him to go away because she doesn't want him to be executed and he tells her that not kissing her will kill him.
I am old enough that I found this behavior to be off-putting in the extreme and I seem to recall telling America to run away and not look back.