Title: The One (The Selection #3)
Author: Kiera Cass
Star Rating: *
Genre: Romance, Dystopia
The end is finally here. America Singer was pressured into joining the selection, a televised competition between young women vying to be the next princess of Illea, and now she and Prince Maxon must sort out their feelings for one another as a rebellion intensifies in violence around them. Will America win Maxon’s heart or will she be going home heartbroken?
The Good (because I like a challenge)
Trying to review The Selection novels has been difficult because it’s so easy to let a post devolve into pure snark when you are dealing with these stories. Consequently, I have tried to focus on the concrete things that make the books work or not. Admittedly, the author doesn’t make many good writing choices, but it is important to recognise that even the worst story usually offers readers at least one worthwhile or interesting thing to read. Thus, I commend Cass for her significant improvement in having things actually happen in the plot of The One! Instead of sitting in the palace for a couple hundred pages, whining about love and boys, America talks with rebels, gets shot, and tries to be politically manipulative. I wasn’t particularly impressed with how or why these events occurred, but they did make The One feel like a much more interesting and fast-paced read than the last two books. Unfortunately, being slightly more exciting is really the only good thing I can say about this story.
The world-building never does come together
I won’t say much on this topic because my first two reviews are about this issue, but suffice to say, the world-building didn’t magically improve in The One. The Selection has suffered from ill-thought out world-building from its very first pages, and I had hoped that the author would explain more about how this dystopic world came to be. Unfortunately, my wish did not come true. The One features more interaction with the rebels, but I am still confused as to how these massive groups are organising, where they are getting resources from, and what exactly they want. When August Illea of the northern rebels, a direct descendent of the founder of the country, talks with Maxon, he seems perfectly happy to allow the monarchy to exist as long as the caste system is destroyed. However, given the fact that the rebels are supposed to be knowledgeable about what the United States was like before the Illeas took over, it seems strange that no one is calling for a return to democracy, or even having a conversation about moving towards a more equitable type of rule. Everyone is unhappy and unruly, but there aren’t many solutions being bandied about, and this wide-spread discontent is barely dealt with in the climax by anything other than hand-waving it away. The rebellion seemed to exist only to add tension to the love story, and the politics of Illea make little sense.
Additionally, the technological capacity of this world and its economic structure continues to baffle me. In the first chapter of the book, America is sent a glossy photograph of her family after her sister has a baby. However, readers have been lead to believe that technology is somewhat limited in Illea, and what does exist is expensive and most certainly not accessible to a poorer family like America’s, even after their influxes of cash from the competition. Photography is very cheap today, but I doubt there are big box stores in America’s world that can offer competitive pricing on photo prints. After all, cheap luxury consumer goods are only available when a society has a stable and large middle class. The middle class in Illea must be very small given the fact that classes five through eight are described as desperately poor, and they constitute a majority of the people in the country. I doubt that families who don’t have enough to eat are buying cameras or printing photos with their limited funds. Hence, the process is probably now a niche market and even more expensive and unattainable for the average citizen.
While this may seem like a nitpicky point, this type of detail is important in terms of world-building. Why should a reader buy into your dystopic future if it seems like so little thought has been put into its construction? When your characters talk about buying music from pop stars or glossy celebrity magazines, readers will try to figure out how these items can exist in a world where these purchases are not accessible to most people. While writers don’t have to be experts on governance and economics to create a believable world, they do have to pay attention to the implications of their choices, and think beyond what is going on in the central narrative.
When pacing goes wrong. Horribly horribly wrong
The pacing in this book is absolutely terrible. The last few chapters can be summed up as thus: Maxon, for the seven billionth time, decides that he loves America and he finally asks her to marry him. They spend the night together (platonically of course), and when he goes off to get the official announcements in order, America says goodbye to Aspen. Maxon comes back unexpectedly and sees them embracing so now the engagement is off as America has shattered his heart into a billion tiny pieces. Later, when Maxon is about to tell the whole country that he has chosen Kristie (who America has just figured out is a rebel. This fact does not affect the plot) as his new princess, the southern rebels attack the palace. The first thing they do is kill Celeste. Then they shoot Maxon who now realises (again) that he loves America. He orders her taken to a safe room, and she spends a fearful night locked away wondering whether her great love has died. By the next day, the lovers are reunited and vow to stop letting their own stubbornness and idiocy get in the way of their romance. Maxon announces that the king and queen have died, and then suddenly it’s the day of the wedding! America and Maxon are crowned king and queen! Everything is going to be amazeballs! The end.
This is not how you write a climax and conclusion. While of course you want your narrative to move quickly and be exciting, you can’t push through so many significant events without exploring any of their repercussions or else it feels as if these big scenes are being written solely for the purpose of drama. After Maxon and America finally confess their true love to one another, it seems silly for Maxon to lose his head and call off the engagement so quickly without giving America an opportunity to explain herself. He knew that she had a previous lover, but also that she had definitively chosen to end things with her old boyfriend in order to marry Maxon. Why jump to the conclusion that she’s a terrible liar and having an affair? Why not assume that she’s developed a friendship with this guard and that he’s congratulating her? What exactly does Maxon’s explosive reaction say about the foundation of his soon-to-be marriage? (I wonder how liberal the divorce laws are in Illea…)
Furthermore, the attack by the southern rebels, despite being a significant plot point throughout all three novels, is given very little attention and almost all of the action occurs off-screen. They come in, cause devastation, and America is part of almost none of this. There is little room for suspense as America gets out of her safe room within twelve hours, and the narrative doesn’t spend much time describing her panic or desperation. In a few short pages, she and Maxon are back together and his temper tantrum over her supposed indiscretions is forgotten since almost dying helped him realise what was important in life (again). As a reader, it’s almost impossible to take this turn of events seriously as there was so little time to absorb or be affected by what was happening. Maxon was acting out of character, and no one even calls him out on his exceptionally immature behaviour. The break up scene had no long-term consequences on the plot, and thus wasn’t very effective at evoking reaction from readers. If writers want their stories to have strong emotional impacts, then their narrative must give readers time to react to changes and obstacles in the story. Going too fast will just result in grand moments feeling overblown or inconsequential.
Character development is either stalled or thrown out the window
Over the course of three books, America Singer has stagnated in her development. While characters can be impulsive and passionate, they should also change according to their experiences. America’s attitude and choices have gotten her into nothing but trouble, yet she pig-headedly refuses to ever really think through her actions and how they may be affecting her life. I was hoping that she would have a moment of realisation in The One about the way that she’s been behaving, but instead of reflecting on how she’s been acting inappropriately, the narrative rewards her. She’s seen as brave and inspiring instead of dangerous and naïve. While I applaud America’s attempts at social justice, her methods are far more likely to cause harm than good, and her mistakes are consistently ignored. She faces few consequences for her actions, and thus has no reason to take advantage of the resources available to her to improve herself. She’s not a very different person at the end of The One than she was at the start of The Selection, and given the fact that she was supposed to become a queen, this lack of growth is extremely detrimental to not only her own development, but that of the world that she is now meant to be ruling.
While America doesn’t grow, other characters are forced to change in ways that do not make sense. For example, Celeste has been framed as a rather loathsome character throughout the entire series (in a way that I feel is highly problematic. I did want her to be shown in a different light, but not in such a clumsy and dishonest way). However, in this third book, America finds her distressed and upset over the fact that her life is spiralling out of her control. This leads to the two of them talking, and Celeste apologising for all the terrible things that she has done. America then gives her a pep talk about not needing a prince or a pretty face to make it in life (which is a good lesson, I just wish that it was believable in this context). The two become good good friends, and Celeste decides to support America in the selection. As a reader, I just could not buy this transformation. Throughout the entire series, Celeste has been portrayed as inexcusably terrible, and America herself has never been shown as particularly empathetic or forgiving. Instead of feeling natural, these changes of heart felt like they were shoehorned in to create a false sense of sisterhood and solidarity between the contestants. The friendships didn’t feel earned, and the characters weren’t acting like themselves. Rather than allow America and the others to grow and mature in a realistic manner, their developments were dictated by the plot regardless of whether their character growth supported these changes.
Don’t be emotionally manipulative with your readers
One of my greatest pet peeves with authors is when they attempt to emotionally manipulate their readers at the end of a story. Good books should inspire emotion, and I’ve cried at many a well-written climax, but when huge traumas occur during the finale of a novel for no reason, this falls into the realm of trying to coax emotions out of your readers in an illegitimate and undeserved manner.
For example, in the climax of The One, Celeste, the king, and the queen are brutally killed. Celeste is described as being shot in the head. All of these characters were set up as being important to either Maxon or America in some way, but their deaths receive almost no reaction. There is some sadness, but it is fleeting as the main characters move onto more exciting and joyous activities right away. To kill off a character simply to make a climax more thrilling and suspenseful is weak writing. If important characters are going to die, it should be for a significant reason. I can see why Cass may have wanted to dispose of the king as he was an impediment to change and the happy ending of America and Maxon, but what did the deaths of Celeste and the queen actually contribute to the story? Deaths are not inherently meaningful, and if a writer wants their full weight to be felt, the remaining characters must have a chance to react. In this book, the deaths occur within the last few pages, and there is no on-screen grieving or real consequences related to the deaths of Celeste and the queen. All in all, it was a cheap way to try and make readers feel emotionally affected by the finale, and to rid the book of anything standing in the way of Maxon and America being king and queen.
Maxon and America are king and queen of a massive country
Given the fact that these two characters are so incredibly immature, and neither have demonstrated much ability to lead, I truly worry for the country of Illea. Realistically, rebellions are not quashed easily, and the country is in a period of upheaval. While both America and Maxon mean well, they are not particularly politically astute, and they face a whole heap of troubles ahead. It is unlikely that America and Maxon are really going to get the happily ever after described in the last few pages of The One. Furthermore, the fact that America was so focused on her own marriage and love life instead of the good of her country and the challenges that she was soon going to face is another sign that Illea is in for a rocky and tumultuous period being governed by two naïve teenagers.
The whole “teenage girls are forced to compete for the chance to become someone’s wife” is never adequately critiqued
America berates Maxon for the unfairness of the selection a few times, but his response is usually that life is unfair. The Selection is supposed to be a dystopia, and this genre offers the perfect excuse to critique how gender is treated in society. However, this basically never happens in The One or any of the other books. No one bats an eye at two young teenagers, one of them not even a legal adult, getting married. There is no suggestion that the entire process was incredibly demeaning and unfair to the contestants. We never follow up with the rejected women, and there is little exploration about how these women feel about the whole competition. America’s feelings of frustration and inequality are dismissed as in the end she gets a husband and a crown. What message does that send about the selection and gender roles? About the value of young women in Illea? There are so many problematic aspects of the selection if viewed through a gendered lens, and the complete lack of attention paid to these ethical issues is disturbing.
The One may have been the strongest of The Selection novels, but it still failed to deliver a well-constructed story or a satisfactory conclusion. America spent three books absorbed in her own self-focused needs and desires, and little has changed by the end of the series. The love triangle is over, but given Maxon’s lack of trust for America, I don’t have high hopes for their marriage. The country should be in shambles despite the narrative’s attempt to tell me otherwise, and the plot resolutions seemed flimsy and likely to blow up in everyone’s faces. The lack of care for writing techniques and rules in this book make me angry that such a slight to the craft was ever published without significant revision. This is a great series to read as an example of what not to do when writing a book, but it is not an entertaining or fulfilling love story or dystopia.