I don't often want to throw a book across the room. But in this case, that's what makes this book good. And while the book is advertised as a primarily a romance, I would disagree. I think it's primarily about politics. The politics of a country, of a group of women, of a kingdom, and of a girl's heart.
So let's talk about the plot. It moved slowly at first. But things picked right up with some action heavily seasoned with America's failure to commit to a solid choice. She made up her mind, and then she decided she wasn't sure she could trust herself or the parties involved. There is a lot of angst. There is a lot of what is not miscommunication, but a total failure to communicate. The spunky America of the last book gets kind of lost in the contest; she is conflicted about the prize, and that robs her of most of her fire. Her honesty sort of goes by the wayside, and I have to say that I did my fair share of yelling at my iPod.
There are a couple of spots where America steps up and speaks. But the choices here are not so well defined as they were in The Selection. That's because America is less defined while she deals with her own personal demons. It's a pretty accurate picture of what would probably happen, honestly. You take a 17-year old, take her out of her element, put her in a new situation where she has to compete based on her own attributes as measured by others (all subjectively) and you would likely get America. She's lost some of that fire because she's in a different environment with different expectations. She's out of her element and the whole "she's so refreshing" thing has worn off. She's moved to the new school and is now settling in - and the whole place is full of mean girls.
America comes to doubt Maxon's character in a few spots. From the outside (and her perspective), that doubt is warranted. Oddly, I didn't really fault him. I find that I tend to give men in general a break more often these days. Men are who they are and they behave differently than women. This is not to say that they can't be pigs - but women also make mistakes based on their gender. So while Maxon erred, I didn't fault him immediately - and as the story continues, we find that in most cases America shouldn't have faulted him. He does make one big betrayal. But honestly, it would never have happened if America had been honest. I looked at that situation and thought 'well, what did she expect would happen? And wasn't she doing the same thing?'
At one point, America says "I've been so foolish." Well yeah! This was really the culmination of everything. Fortunately, this happened in the second book and not the third. Now there is potential to concentrate on the country's conflict and government in the third book, and our characters can be colored by those events.
I did like the ending. There was resolution and a nice setup for the last book. As for the world building in a dystopia, I wouldn't say it failed miserably. The history of the country and the wars were clear. But all that was a backdrop; if you're expecting Hunger Games here, then you will be disappointed. The plot isn't about a dystopia. It's about a contest and the politics of it.
As to characters, America's angst aside, Maxon is no longer a sappy teenager wanting to impress a girl. I really liked him here; he behaves like a prince would. We get to see some of the cattiness of the girls, particularly Celeste. And we get to know Queen Amberley (love that name!) as well as the pig of a King to whom she is married. Aspen gives America space while still staying in the game, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's found to have something going on the side with some maid in the castle.
Amy Rubinate narrates this book on audio. She is a passable narrator in this story. But I think it is better read in print. Rubinate is not really a voice actor and that gives a flatness to the story. And with such a complicated and maddening trip through the conflicted teenage heart, it would have taken a really talented, experienced voice actor to really make the characters come alive.
The last several pages (or the last hour) of the story are the best. If you can plod through America's artistic temperament, you'll be rewarded. She's smarter and back to her old self by the end. The book may test your patience at times, but the ending is worth it. I'm looking forward to the next book now.