Maybe more like a 2.5, though I have a lot of good will towards it. It was a light, quick read that held my interest.
I really liked this in a lot of ways. Even the names (sorry friends!). Then again I love the Deathstalker series and that legit has a character in it named Jenny Psycho, so.
YA is not my thing for the most part but the biggest saving grace when it comes to this book in my eyes is its main character, America. Unlike many YA heroines, America has a good head on her shoulders, is kind to her family, true to herself, gentle with those she has power over, and so far she's not too stupid to live! That's like a bingo or something. I didn't even know that was possible in a YA book. (no offense)
Now, the downside. There's simply not enough book in this book. By that I mean almost NOTHING is described. This is my main beef. This girl is going through The Bachelor on steroids and yet the most I ever get is "the shiny white car" or that her new dress is "red" or that the garden at the palace has "thousands of flowers in it." At one point I was imagining this glorious scene with all the girls dressed up like exotic birds in a gilded roost, and how the moonlight would touch the gardens just so, and then I realized I did all of that work for myself. None of that is actually in the novel. Maybe that's part of why YA of this type is so popular, considering it makes the reader really work for their supper, but man this is too extreme. The author has a job and it's to show me things, make me feel something for their world and their descriptions. Cass fails on this point.
For example, Queen Amberly is mentioned and featured several times, all with me not having the slightest clue what she looks like. And I suppose I'm meant to assume that America and Maxon are both white since they have red and blond hair respectively, but would it kill the author to actually tell me the racial makeup of the characters? Especially since the history of this world involves China invading? Hell, I'd settle for some eye color and hair textures! Or am I meant to assume EVERYONE is white, like in so many novels? In which case...yuck.
My other issue that makes it feel like there's not enough book in this book is that there isn't much in the way of conflict. Not that I think there has to be a huge sense of impending doom around every corner--sometimes gentler novels are nice too--but the conflict with the rebels is poorly thought out and crudely drawn. There's a hint of a mystery, but a lot of the world building is so batshit insane that it doesn't really come to any kind of fruition.
Oh, the world building. Well, it's nuts. See, there's a numbered (One to Eight) caste system and it's oppressive to the point where a nine year old boy can be publicly lashed for stealing food. And America has it hard, you see, because she's a Five and therefore has it really tough because...her family have to be artists for a living. Because that's what their caste does. And somehow this puts them above Sixes, who work as maids and the like, because...I don't know why. And being a Two means you might have a job like being a model, which also doesn't feel like it makes much sense. Well it COULD make sense if the author bothered to tell me why this brave new world highly values leisure activities above menial ones, but there's never any explanation for how all of this fits together.
Oh okay so, anyway, America has it hard right? Except her family has a house, with a fridge in it, and the means to support several children, and a television. They have a (admittedly small) treehouse in the backyard. They have a freaking YARD to put the TREEHOUSE in! This is not poverty. (I am looking at you Katniss Everdeen, miss I am horrifically impoverished yet own a goat and have access to hunting/foraging, also my district has a fancy bakeshop woe is me!) On the other hand I kind of appreciate that she didn't come from the lowest caste, since then the rags to riches aspect might have felt more forced. Still, if you have a world with its priorities this out of order, you have to show me why.
Also, no one in this god forsaken world has heard of birth control. Now if this were an oppressive fundamentalist religious regime or a third world country without access to health care, sure. But this girl takes the bus at one point. Modern conveniences exist and are available to the MC, is what I am saying. So why no condoms? There's a brief mention that only the upper classes get access to birth control, which seems, frankly, backwards. In most of human history in situations like this I'd think the poor would be forcibly sterilized by the people in power, while those people in power popped out as many children as possible. In American's world it's not so, for no adequately explained reason. Not to mention even in ancient times in many cultures in the real world people figured out to wrap their love-tackle in whatever animal intestine happened to be lying around before going in for the kill. Why don't the folks in this novel have even that basic level of pregnancy prevention?
It's also against the law to have sex before marriage. Figure that one out because I sure can't. Also they ask America if she's a virgin before she goes to the palace. I wonder how they would check on that? Brrr. Doesn't bear thinking about.
We have the usual love triangle but at least everyone in it is acting like a reasonable human so far. Let's hope it lasts. Good for America for being honest about her feelings with both men.
Some of the usual stereotypes are present, like the Queen Bee who wants to win at any cost. If it were a reality show she'd be the one mean mugging the camera and saying "I'M NOT HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS." Blah. But there is a particularly amazing moment towards the end where some of the girls suggest that hey, maybe they'd all get further in life if they stopped being such catty jerks to one another. I think for a YA novel that's shocking. I think I read it over a couple of times to make sure it was really happening. So thank you for that, dear author, at least you wrote a book where I didn't have to wallow through chapters and chapters of bullying and women throwing each other under the bus at the slightest provocation.
And I'll read the next one.