Sequels, particularly those part of a trilogy, have a lot of work to do to live up to the original and set the stage for the finale. For every Catching Fire — or The Godfather 2, for that matter — there are plenty of examples of stories that fail to capture the magic of the original. (Grease 2, anyone?) Independent Study (Houghton Mifflin), Joelle Charbonneau's follow-up to her dystopian novel The Testing, manages to avoid this trap. Charbonneau's sequel continues the story of her female protagonist Cia but ups the ante, both in plot and in feats of world-building.
While The Testing told the story of Malencia Vale and her participation in a deadly test to have the opportunity for higher education, Independent Study expands its scope and shows where this higher education fits in the governmental and societal issues of the world. Malencia, or Cia, has advanced from her testing into University for government studies — a surprise, and not her first choice as an area of study. All students had their memories wiped at the end of the testing, but Cia recorded some of her memories in her brother Zeen's device she took from home.
And, it seems that her boyfriend Tomas, who was chosen for the Biological Engineering path, may also be hiding memories as well. This is pushed aside, however, as Cia learns quickly that the "testing" isn't over yet. Upperclassmen, including her guide Ian, plan hazing rituals for the new students called "Induction," her whereabouts are being monitored, and a revolution is brewing — and Cia is being recruited to assist.
Charbonneau manages to continue the pervasive sense of unease from The Testing into Independent Study, while building a world around the testing center and this small group of students. With revolution brewing, Cia again doesn't know who to trust. There's Will from home, but her recording device says he tried to kill her and Tomas during The Testing. There's Tomas, but even with her boyfriend, something isn't quite right. And now there's Ian and Michal, who seem to be on Team Rebellion — but is that the right course? And now there are students from all over Tosu City, the capital, that join them in their studies, but who didn't have to participate in the Testing. Why?
While some of Charbonneau's world building is clearly setting up for a finale, it is impressive. She is committed to extensive world creation, explaining details like chicken coops and libraries, thinking through every angle. Just when readers seem keen to point out a hole in understanding, she jumps in with a logical conclusion that fits the story line and isn't just used as creative reasoning to patch issues. Even with all the world building, the story lies perfectly on top of it, undisrupted by the complicated world. The world Charbonneau creates and raises questions that will echo to any citizen of a government that takes actions you don't understand, without adhering to any clear political platform.
Maybe it wasn't just the leaders but the size of the governments that caused the world to falter. The bigger the government, the bigger the population it can claim. The larger the population, the less our leaders feel personally accountable to each citizen under their care. It makes it easier to sacrifice a few for the good of others. To make choices that might otherwise be unthinkable.
This theme of the end justifying the means reverberates throughout the entire story and dictates Cia's actions and through processes every step of the way. It's first introduced in the very early pages of the novel.
Can I be an active part of a system that encourages Testing candidates to kill and be killed? Does the end result — my father's amazing work with plants and the hundreds of breakthroughs created by University graduates — justify the means?
The constant reintroduction of this theme works to give readers a muddy moral, which is a success; instead of clearly evil people (though there are some), there are terrible actions and an uncertainty if these actions are necessary for the entire societal structure, which enhances the uneasiness around each character and their motivations. The theme elevates Charbonneau's novel above other rebellion-focused dystopian novels by avoiding preaching and instead introducing thought-provoking moral dilemmas.
In Charbonneau's series, she successfully builds a compelling female protagonist, allowing the character to be driven by logic and intelligence rather than violence or beauty, as others in the genre have. Unfortunately, there aren't many other female characters around as support. In a world where there are only female presidents, Cia doesn't have many smart women to turn to. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically in our current political landscape, only female presidents are chosen for the United Commonwealth because,
It has been argued that women are less aggressive, more maternal, and thus more focused on the well-being of the country's people. Less focused on politics or power.
Cia has her boyfriend Tomas; fellow students Will, Raffe and Enzo (who seems to vanish as a character mid-novel); her guide Ian; her informant Michal; her several brothers; and her father. It wouldn't hurt to have a few other women around her, particularly because Charbonneau seems skilled at creating well-rounded female characters.
Independent Study is the kind of book in which you have to cover the last sentence of a chapter so your anxious eyes don't skip ahead and spoil a big reveal. It ends with a surprise that feels organic and perfectly sets up a fiery conclusion. Charbonneau's suspenseful series has enough strength in its main female character and world to overcome its small missteps, and is sure to make readers anxious to get their hands on the final installment.