Wednesday, 16 January 2013

book review: this is not a test by courtney summers

This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers
Genre: Paranormal YA
Rating: 6/10
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?

I'm not particularly familiar with the zombie genre (I think Shaun of the Dead might be the only thing I've seen/read on the subject!) but I'd read such good reviews for this that I was willing to give it a shot. I really wanted to like this book and the elements were all there - traumatised female protagonist with a complicated past, a group of mismatched teens thrown together by circumstance etc. - but it just didn't work for me.

If I had to describe the book in one word it would be 'grey'. There can be no doubt that this story is bleak and the tone leans towards suppressed anxiety as opposed to chaos/mania. I know that a lot of reviewers enjoyed the slow-burn pacing of the novel as the book focussed upon the day-to-day life of the teens stuck in the school, to me however, the book couldn't seem to decide whether it was driven by plot or character and as a result neither were done satisfactorily. The reader is thrown in at the deep end, there's no explanation for the zombie crisis, the early chapters skip forward in time with no description of how the Sloane etc. came to be at the school and the characters are all presented without commentary. At first this seemed to fit a story of zombie apocalypse - the reader, just like the characters themselves, was disoriented and unsure how to process their surroundings. BUT, this style continued throughout and, for me, really undermined an excellent premise. Trapped in the school the book turned to its characters to develop the story but without any back story or discussion/description of their lives before, the characters (with the exception of Sloane) were shells - Harrison and Trace in particular were disappointingly developed - and as a result I didn't become emotionally attached to any of them. Sloane was less superficial but her perspective, shaped primarily by her initial suicidal intentions and later bleak outlook, did little to infuse the story with any life. I have a feeling that the third act was supposed to deal emotional blow after emotional blow but rather than being devastated I was left non-plussed - accepting the group's fate as coolly as Sloane herself.

By no means was the book bad, it simply didn't live up to my (quite high) expectations. On the positive side I really have to praise Courtney Summers for the way she dealt with sex, using it here to demonstrate the potential for physical relationships to be distinct from romantic ones. Teen sex isn't over romanticised here but is shown to be an important and natural form of intimacy. I also appreciate her desire to present such a desolate narrative and her willingness to embrace the darker aspects of experience.

Overall, This Is Not A Test had plenty of the right elements for a very compelling story but the execution felt flat as the characters were never fully developed and any tension remained firmly under the surface.

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