Independent Study is one of those sequels where it is imperative to not only read the first book but also to remember exactly what happens. There are an extreme number of references to action from The Testing. To forget something that happened may mean missing an enormous clue, but more importantly it means readers will struggle to fill in the many gaps left by all of the references to past events. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the continuity is quite excellent. It is more a “reader beware” scenario in which a re-read of the original might be in order before diving into the sequel.
Independent Study picks up after The Testing. Cia and her fellow classmates are now at the second stage of their educational career in which they are put into the educational program for the final career path. The Testing might be over, but the competition to succeed is not. Old bonds break, and new bonds form as Cia must learn who she can and cannot trust in this new cutthroat environment. In other words, very little has changed for Cia. She is just as independent and fiercely determined as she was in the first book. Her moral compass remains firmly fixed, as are her loyalties. Yet, in many ways, everything has changed for her. She remembers The Testing and therefore understands the doublespeak issued by university officials. She knows exactly what is at stake for both her fellow students and her when it comes to failure. In addition, her natural curiosity and drive to right wrongs further indoctrinates her into the duplicitous actions of university officials.
Whereas The Testing was Cia’s first exposure to the big, bad world outside of her small colony, Independent Study is the decision-making process she experiences as she struggles to determine what to do with the information she remembers and eventually uncovers. Just as in the first novel, there is nothing about the university or the government that appears to be truly insidious. The commonwealth’s goals of country-wide revitalization and working for the common good remain Cia’s most-cherished ideals. However, her memories, along with her new understanding of the truth behind the spoken words, create a darkness and tension that mirrors Cia’s own uneasiness. Cia may no longer be as naïve as she was when she left her family, but her lengthy list of unanswered questions provides proof that she is not quite as willing to abandon all of her childhood dreams just yet. It is at once a hopeful novel and one that fills readers with dread.
The action in Independent Study is much more subdued than in the first novel. The stakes are just as high, as Cia soon uncovers, but readers feel the suspense less. The story suffers slightly from Cia’s apparent perfection at everything the University throws her way. She excels at everything – from math and science to critical thinking to survival skills to leadership to knowledge of history and governmental policy to SO much more. She is an admirable character but just the teensy bit annoying due to her unlimited gifts and lack of major gaffes. Throw in beauty, athletic prowess, and a romantic streak, and one has a character that is just too good to be true. This is the one major damper on an otherwise fascinating novel.
The major plot points resolved and exposed in the sequel to The Testing create amazing continuity within the main story but can cause problems for readers who may not remember some of the finer details of the first book. Cia is still quite the character, but her supreme talents at (what seems like) everything become more distracting as the pace slows and the action turns inward. There are plenty of unanswered questions for dedicated fans, while the story ends with a mile cliffhanger that will leave readers impatiently waiting for Ms. Charbonneau to publish the third and final book in this unique and well-written trilogy.