“A Hard Question to Answer”: The Selection by Kiera Cass

Several years ago, I dedicated my blog to love for the month of February. This is back when I blogged every day and didn’t write as many reviews, and by the end of the month I was absolutely sick of romance. Daring to tempt a repeat and happy with the moderate success of Octerror, I dedicate Reading Malone to Aphrodite for the month of February and all the romance it stands for. With that in mind, I’ve selected a subgenre of books to highlight this month—YA Fantasy/Sci-fi Romance.

Teenagers are full of hormones—especially around Valentine’s Day—and I used to find that most of my romantic fantasies were inspired by the books I was reading. The characters and their relationships, while fairly unrealistic at times to be honest, were gateways into an understanding of what I wanted in a soulmate, a long term relationship, and out of life itself. While I was mildly limited with selection back in my day (supernatural romance was pretty much it), teens and YA lovers of today have plenty of choices when it comes to romantic tales.

The Selection by Kiera Cass is the first in a series of five books and four spin-off novellas. It’s technically a dystopian romance, although it reads more like a fantasy novel than apocalypse fodder. Illéa, the kingdom formed after the United States was taken over by China and then torn apart by a war with Russia, survives based on an eight tier caste system. The Ones are the best off and members of royalty, and the Eights are frequently homeless and commit crimes to survive. Each caste has its own specialty and purpose, and girls frequently marry at or above their station rather than below it.

America Singer is a Five, a musician along with the rest of her family, and her mother is determined that she enter a lottery to win a spot in The Selection, the public ritual of choosing a princess-wife for Prince Maxon. America isn’t interested though; she’s in love with Aspen, a servant Six who she’s known for most of her life. But choosing Aspen means choosing a demotion in status, working harder and earning less benefits. Pushed by both her mother and Aspen, America enters the lottery and surprisingly wins one of the thirty-five coveted positions.

Leaving Aspen is hard, leaving her home and family is difficult, but competing with thirty-four other girls for a crown she doesn’t even want in a castle constantly attacked by rebels is something she isn’t prepared for. America makes some friends, some enemies, and finds a surprising confidant in Prince Maxon. As she grows closer with the prince, America begins to question her love for Aspen, the caste system, and how safe her country really is.

The best way to describe the style of this book is The Bachelor meets Cinderella. Before actually reading it for the sake of research for my own book, the term I’d come to associate with the story was “ball gown porn” and…it’s kind of true. There are a ton of descriptions of dresses and what characters are wearing and, while some of them are necessary, many of them just seem to weigh down the story both literally and figuratively. I’m pretty sure the rest of the series is going to follow this trend, but I don’t mind too much because I love fashion. Other readers will probably be turned off by the overflow of fabric.

America, despite her overly patriotic name, is a decent main character who has her own moderately complicated reasons for staying in The Selection despite her reluctance. Although her mental love triangle with Aspen and Prince Maxon is a common trope of the genre, it’s played well enough in the first book that it doesn’t distract from the relationship development between Maxon and America. There’s also plenty of space given to the development of America’s friendships with some of the other girls and her servants. If you define America by her relationships with the supporting characters and love interests, then she’s compelling. But she doesn’t stand as well on her own, and fails to capture reader attention without those other characters.

The world development is also a little troubling. It’s clear that Illéa is descended from “ancient” America, but many of the modern customs are archaic and seem ill-fitted to the world. The caste system itself is a major problem economically—why train a person in a trade for their entire life, only to lose that skill if they marry into another caste? Why is it only the female that moves castes and not the male? It seems a little overly patriarchal in a future setting, and creates more questions than answers. Why would Illéa be a monarchy rather than some other form of government if its descended from a democratic republic transformed into a colony of a Communist state? The world-building may be improved in the sequels, but doesn’t stand well in the first book with its larger focus on introduction and romance.

I will say that the romance between Aspen and America is nice and a little standard boy-next-door. Prince Maxon fits the trope of not-what-he-seems, but in a good way. It’s hard to say who exactly I’m rooting for her to choose in the end at this point, but I’d say the odds are fairly even at the end of the first book. There’s a little bit of something for any reader who likes romance, but don’t expect too much physical intimacy between any of the characters.

I recommend The Selection for readers who are looking for a light and fluffy romance with little substance, enjoy dystopian societies where people are grouped into castes with specific purposes, and aren’t tired of the love triangle trope yet. While it may not be a spine-tingling, toe-curling romance, this book reminds me of a first crush—innocent, fast-paced, and satisfying in the moment. I’ll be reading the rest of the series sometime in the future, because—like reality dating TV shows—I need to know who wins. Pick up a copy today and make your selection.