I read Kiera Cass’s The Selection the other day. It’s set in the nation of Illéa, formerly North America, which has a rigid caste system based on occupation. When the prince comes of age one girl from each of the thirty-five provinces competes in a reality TV show to marry him. The protagonist, America Singer, is a Five, the artists and classical musicians. Her boyfriend, Aspen, is a Six, the servants, and if she marries him she, too, will become a Six and a servant. America becomes one of the Selected and befriends the prince.
On the whole, I found the book quite enjoyable, and an easy read that only took me an evening. I did find the style a bit wearying at times; there seems to be a growing trend in YA fiction to write very informally, littering the page with sentence fragments and the like. I don’t mind sentence fragments when they’re used rarely for effect, but when there’s more than one in a paragraph I start mentally “fixing” them, and I did so regularly throughout The Selection.
Illéan society is quite clearly very unequal. Not only does Illéa have incredible economic inequality based on birth, but it is also very sexist. The Selection doesn’t happen for princesses, only princes; the princesses marry other world leaders. In both cases, the man has the opportunity to chose a wife, while the woman is chosen. Furthermore, a woman’s caste is dependent on her husband’s; while America and her younger sister live with their parents and work in the arts, her older sister married a Four and now works in a factory with the other Fours. The sexism is tied very closely to the caste system, but I would argue it’s also discrete.
Unsurprisingly, sex is also heavily controlled in Illéa. Premarital sex is illegal, punishable by imprisonment if people are caught or found pregnant. Ostensibly this is to protect against disease, but I suspect it’s a part of the way Illéa controls its citizens through keeping the castes and sexes separate, especially given that birth control is only accessible to the higher castes.
There doesn’t seem to be much overt racism in Illéan society, but then again I don’t think I noticed any non-white characters. This could be an oversight on the part of the author, but it’s also possible something more insidious is going on. While the Selected are ostensibly chosen at random, they fill out questionnaires and submit photographs, and it’s assumed that the “random” selection is not so random, so it’s quite possible that whoever goes through the entries has a particular idea of what a princess, future queen, and royal offspring should look like.
Having noticed these things, then, I was rather expecting a story that focusses on the inequalities rampant in Illéan society, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. While there are obviously romantic elements to the story from the start, for the first hundred or so pages I got the impression that the romance served to highlight the inequalities in Illéan society. As the book progressed, however, it felt more and more like the inequality was a vehicle for romance.
It is, however, the first book in a series (trilogy?), and there are several parts of the story that suggest later books will focus more on the social and political issues and less on the romance. For a start, there are no history books in Illéa; people are expected to “just know” their history, but the king does not permit the existence of actual books explaining it. This and other things suggest the king is not as nice as he seems, and as the prince seems to be a genuinely caring person who wants to lead the country well, I’m hopeful that there will be some conflict between them. For another, there are several attacks by rebels on the palace over the course of the books; the reasons for the rebellion are not stated, but I can think of several possibilities, as discussed above.
In short, I found the book enjoyable and thought it held promise for the rest of the series, but I did find the romance could be a bit much. If the romance takes a back seat and the series returns its focus to social justice then I think it’ll only get better, but I’m a bit worried it will end up like The Hunger Games, whose love triangle serves the main plot of the first book but grows and becomes stifling by the third.