I'm still staggering a little from reading this book, but in the very best way. I don't even know how I will formulate a reasonable review without resorting to squealing "OH MY GOD YOU GUISE THIS IS SO GOOD READ IT NOW." But here goes nothing.YA dystopian is an incredibly difficult category to write, it seems. So many books have attempted to create a likeable, believable character in a well-built, post-apocalyptic, post-infection, or post-war setting. Most have failed, and failed spectacularly. I have heard fellow reviewers compare this book to The Hunger Games and Divergent. I have not read The Hunger Games, although I do know of the premise and the storyline (thanks, Wikipedia). I didn't think I read Divergent but after checking my books, apparently, I did. It was just that forgettable. I'm not judging this book compared to either of these series, but on its own merits, and I can say that it is a damned good book, one of the best pieces of YA fiction that I have read this year. I was not bored for a single moment. As clichéd as it may sound, there is never a dull moment. Cia's first-person narrative is excellent; she is a complex, rational, highly likeable character, and I find myself loving her voice and her train of thought. The plot moves at a fast, but reasonable pace, and I never got lost for a single moment.The strengths of this book are many, but I will focus on the main character, the setting, and the premise, because I don't want this review to run to ten pages. Rest assured, everything else is well-done, from the most minor characters to the smallest details.The setting: the post-war United States is well-described and well-written. The setting is beautifully described, and I can see of no gaping inconsistencies of how the world came to be as it is in this book. We are given the background of the United States and how it became the United Commonwealth in the beginning of the book, interspersed with Cia's commentary as she recalls her knowledge during the test:Question: Explain the First Stage of the War of the Nations.Answer: The assassination of Prime Minister Chae, which fractured the Asian Alliance, sparked a power struggle among the other nations and a civil war. During the civil war, bombs were dropped on the Korean States, destroying most of the population and causing the meltdown of two nuclear reactors.The use of technology, the development of plants and hybridized crops, the rarity of water and how it came to be contaminated. The use of radiation and the subsequent mutation of creatures and soil. Everything was so well-explained, and the world in which this book is set is entirely realistic to me. Even more so is the bleak landscape of the former cities and landscapes, like Chicago and St. Louis, the devastated United States is starkly described in vivid, harsh details.Steel and rock. Glass and wood. Buildings broken and collapsed. Cars completely rusted and overturned. A layer of sooty grime covers it all. Here and there heartier plants are fighting to get beyond the rubble — yearning toward the sun. Vines cover the wreckage of broken cars and buildings. Trees that have been corrupted by the tainted earth but are determined to survive twist through the pieces of the broken city on their way to the sky.The mutated creatures are huge and terrifying, some human, but barely so. I would hesitate to call some zombies, but they have been so mutated by radiation as to lose most claims to humanity. One can barely distinguish a mutated human from an animal. Except for the eyes. Why is it always the eyes? Windows to the soul, my ass.The Test - The premise for the Testing is pretty well-done, but I found it a bit far-fetched that so few candidates are chosen every year out of so many. I know there are few survivors after the wars, but roughly twenty admitted to the University every year, with the rest conveniently eliminated (among the best and brightest, too) seems to not be the wisest choice. Still, as wobbly as the premise of the Testing is, at least it is consistent. Consistent in that people are always watching, weakness is a sign of failure, and every movement is analyzed. The Testing procedure and the history of it is frequently analyzed throughout the process by Cia and the students and by the end it is well-explained enough so that even if the idea is rather preposterous, the premise for such harsh testing procedures becomes more credible. It is the premise for everything, the cut-throat behaviors of the other Test-takers, Cia's single-minded determination. It turns into a massive mind-game, as well as a test of knowledge and practical skills, and is nothing if not absolutely thorough. Cheating is not encouraged, although sabotage and the killing of the competition appears to be acceptable. Weakness is not to be tolerated at any point. But why? Why are they looking for such cut-throat skills for their future leaders?"They can't possibly give someone a passing grade for shooting the competition. What kind of leader would that person be?""A strong one. The Fourth Stage of war would never have happened if the president of the United States had attacked the Asian Alliance. Instead, he tried to broker a worldwide coalition even when his own advisers said it was useless. He was a pacifist when the country needed aggression."There we go. Forget Nelson Mandela. It looks like we needed a Kim Jong Un in the future.Malencia (Cia) Vale - I'm going to ramble a bit here because I love the main character so much. Cia is the main character in this book, it is her narrative that carries the book along, and she is my favorite thing about it. Cia has definitely earned her spot on my "kick-ass heroines" shelf. She is not a fluffy, frilly Mary Sue who is magically talented and brilliant and beautiful and sparklingly lovely (without knowing it!). Cia is fairly ordinary, but for her intelligence and work ethics. She pursues her studies seriously, she is curious, she has a thirst for knowledge. Cia is brilliant in school, having skipped a grade; despite being the youngest in her class, she excels academically. I love the fact that she is brilliant in the sciences, particularly botany with a side interest in engineering. There really needs to be more females like her in YA fiction, who is strongly interested in engineering, math, and sciences; females are already underrepresented in the sciences in the real world, there's no need to lighten their presence in fiction, too.Her family are all interested in the sciences, her father is a botany specialist, a University graduate himself who encourages learning among his daughter and sons. Unlike the many hard-knock protagonists we see, Cia has had a somewhat privileged background, as much as privilege can be defined in the harsh existence of a post-war world in a small farming colony. Her father is an important figure, he a botanist who has helped the colony develop and grow crops; this is particularly important in a world where resources and food are rare, and even soil and water are contaminated.Her life before the Testing is rich not in physical wealth, but in love and knowledge. Cia has grown up in a loving environment where learning is treasured and fostered; this has built her into the kind of character who is confident in her own knowledge and in herself, even if she is still unsure of herself and her future, as teenagers often are. "Are we smart enough? Can we outthink a system that has been in place for decades? That has controlled the lives of hundreds of the brightest minds since the world began to rebuild?" She has long hoped to attend University, or at least of being given a chance at University as a Testing candidate. Her dreams come true, but the Testing process turns out to be a nightmare.Cia is my favorite type of heroine. Strong, brilliant, rational, never bitchy or annoying, never doing anything without thinking it through. She has her moments of contradiction, but they are rare, and I felt her character was altogether consistent, complex, and well-developed throughout the book. She is not a girly character. This is not because she's opposed to it, but because it has had no place in her life. She grew up with four brothers, after all, and spent most of her time in the fields, learning about plants and engineering in a colony that's barely able to sustain itself. There's just no time for frivolities. She feels out of place with the other girls at the testing center, but her practicality proves to be a merit during the testing when her knowledge, her forethought, and even her rough and tumble clothes factors into survival.She is such a good thinker, a clear thinker. Her skills for survival consistently impresses me, and her actions are never erratic or out of step with her situation. Once she knows what she is getting into, she is single-minded in her mission to survive the Testing. Cia observes everything, from hidden cameras, to hidden mechanisms, and the way she thinks through the analytical and practical problems on her test was a joy to read."The first problem is mathematical — a one dimensional heat equation to determine the flow of heat in a rod where everything but the ends are insulated. These are equations I have used often and make me smile as I get to work."I cheered for her through every step of the testing. I loved her strength and determination through all the travails she endures during the grueling Testing process. Some may feel she is cold, her reactions are heartless; I don't believe that to be true. She may suffer, but she knows people are always watching. The Test is a test for weakness overall, and Cia is driven for survival. Failing the Test is literally disastrous. She needs to survive, she needs to put sentimentality aside to get through the most difficult situations of her life.Cia is not a perfect character, in some situations, I felt that she was contradictory. For example, a fellow Test-taker is severely injured and Cia wants to come to his aid, but she knows she cannot."A scream builds inside me, fights to get past my clenched throat, but I make no sound...I barely hear the head Testing official talking to me. Asking me if I have completed my test. If not, I must return to my station. Otherwise, there is a risk I will receive assistance from observing another candidate's work. I want to scream that the test doesn't matter. Not when life is draining drop by drop onto the tile floor. But I choke out a yes, and I am released."She represses her emotions all through the testing process, barely enduring, but hanging on despite everything. Still, she is not heartless, she may show no emotions or any signs of weakness to the people watching, but inside she is much more vulnerable. She sits besides her injured friend anyway, "If he can see, he will recognize something of home. A girl who sang songs with him on the grass and asked him for help when she struggled with her homework. A girl who is his friend. Someone who can't imagine what will happen when he is gone."She is involved in a romantic relationship with Tomas, someone she has known and trusted her entire life. He is an entirely likeable character, kind, steady, reliable. "Despite his good looks and outgoing personality, Tomas has always been a quiet leader. He is always happy to help a neighbor or one of the younger students, and he does it in a way that does not ask for praise or payment in return. He's someone my father would be proud to have on his team."Her eventual involvement with Tomas comes as a result of repeated actions of trust and friendship, as they choose to trust and rely on each other in a hostile environment. It is not insta-love or tropey in the least, and I found their romance believable, even under the highly stressful circumstance. They are friends, first and foremost, and their friendship just develops over time into something deeper, rooted in mutual trust and admiration. As much as Cia likes him, she doesn't hesitate to call him out on unreasonable behavior when she sees it. "Try to act like the adults you're supposed to be while I'm busy keeping us all alive. If you can't handle that, you both deserve to fail this test and we all know what punishment that brings."Despite her strength, Cia is a kind, caring person, even if her softheartedness is a bit overreaching at times towards those who do not deserve her kindness or trust. The decisions she makes are sometimes contradictory to the survival-minded girl we have come to expect, but overall her character is mostly consistent, and she has become one of my favorite YA female protagonists.There is a subplot, there are backstabbers who you will not see coming, and there will be minor, but subtle hints given. I highly enjoyed guessing the whodunnit. With a book of this premise, we can guess what's going to happen in the end. With this in mind, I eagerly but fearfully anticipate the next book, since this book has been so excellent and filled with excitement that I can't see how the next book will meet my high expectations or at least come close to this first book in action or excitement. Nevertheless, I can't wait for 2014.