"But if you’re careful—if you protect your pawns and they reach the other side of the board, do you know what happens then? Your pawn becomes a queen.”
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. If you had asked me what I was going to give this book after the first few chapters, without question, I would have said "1." Therefore, it was with a considerable amount of surprise that I found myself enjoying the rest of the book as much as I did. This does not mean that the rest of the book was perfect, far from it, but the majority of the book was exceedingly better than the half-assed beginning that made me want to slap some fucking sense into our main character, Kitty Doe.
The book suffered from two main faults: a vague dystopian future without much of a past, and a main character who started off as a moron who then grew into a character so exceedingly perfect that I could not find her character credible. Were it not for the excellent writing and the side characters, this book would have garnered a lower rating from me. I would not be so critical of the vague dystopian setting if not for the fact that the plot hinges around that setting and the civil unrest resultant upon it. As such, the setting and premise failed for me. The most enjoyable part about this book was the portrayal of the side characters. I liked that their characters were not black and white, I liked that they are human, they make choices that are imperfect, but realistic, and I liked that they have a considerable amount of depth. The supporting cast are certainly better, more credible characters than our main character and narrator herself.
Summary: Kitty Doe has just turned 17 years old, and she is determined to die. These days, we would call it "suicide by cop." That morning, she took a test to determine her future, she lives in a futuristic America that ranks its citizens based on their intelligence, and Kitty has only received a III. With that rank, she will not be allowed to live past 40 years, and she is destined to be a laborer, a sewage worker. Rather than accept her fate, she chooses to die. Kitty steals a forbidden fruit, an orange, intending to be shot on the spot by Shields---armed guards who protect the peace. Kitty changes her mind at the last minute, and decides to choose a life of prostitution rather than work as a sewage worker, no matter how much her loving boyfriend, Benjy (a sweetheart of a boy), tries to change her mind.
At the brothel, Kitty's virginity is auctioned off, and she is "won" with an astounding sum of 30,000 gold---the highest anyone has ever received. It turns out that the man who bought her is the country's Prime Minister, Daxton Hart. She is given the opportunity to become a VII, the highest rank in society, if she agrees to play a role. Kitty is to become Daxton's recently killed (or murdered) niece, Lila Hart. But it's not as simple as becoming another person. Lila was not simply a pampered politician princess, she is an outspoken, activist, protesting against what she felt was the wrongs of her family's rule. Before she died, Lila wanted the past back, she wants the Ranking system abolished, she wants equality for America's citizens. Kitty has to become Lila, and play a role as a pawn within the twisted politics of the Hart family.
The Setting & Plot: The setting can only be described as shoddy. Let's get one thing straight: if you're going to write a novel based on a dystopian setting, it better be well-described, because it sets the tone for the rest of the book. This book failed in that standard.
“It’s frightening how much things change in seventy-one years.”
It is 71 years since America, as we know it, has disintegrated. Kitty is a poor narrator in that she knows, or is willing to tell us, almost nothing about the past. When Kitty got the chance at gaining more knowledge to Lila's cause while playing Lila, she did not take advantage of the situation to learn any more about the supposed society that she is supposed to be trying to save. All we know of the past is that America ran out of resources. Riots broke out. Some people were killed. Food was scarce. Society disintegrated.
...that's it? Are you serious? I don't buy it one bit. For one thing, America is fucking overfed, we have natural resources and viable farmlands up the fucking yin-yang. Ever taken a look at the heartlands of America? Those middle states? Yeah. Chock full of farmlands and major farming corporations just planting corn and shit all over the damn place. Corn is king. We can manufacture pretty much anything out of it. We can pretty much keep American fed on manufactured food alone. It may not be a nutritious state of living, but corn will keep us, and the pigs, fed. High Fructose Corn Syrup will keep America fat and happy until an asteroid crashes into us. Civil unrest? Maybe. A shortage of food? No fucking way. I don't buy that.
And the vast, vast changes in society that happened smack out of fucking nowhere? No. We are supposed to believe that in the middle of all this unrest, one man stepped up, mobilized the masses, and told them "WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A SOCIETY WHERE THE ELITES GET ALL THE MONEY AND STATUS AND RESOURCES" and the rest of America nods and says "Yes. Please, sir, may I have some more?" Fucking no. It is simplistic, this future is credible only if you don't want to think about what you're reading. I have higher standards for my so-called dystopian novels than that. Historically, when civil unrest occurs, it is the lower classes who are rising up. They are not saying, yes, we are rebelling so that others can be put on a pedestal while we, the laborers, the working class, the poor, the numerous, will swallow our craptastic place in society and do nothing about it.
We are given the fact that the US is ruled by 12 Ministers of the Union, and above them, with the Prime Minister in charge. It is more or less a dictatorship. Nobody questions the ruling family, the Hart. They are in power permanently, regardless of some attempts at a rebellion by a "terrorist" group called the Blackcoats. There is no history of how this came to be.
There are 7 classes in society. The lowest are Is and IIs, they are useless, and they are sent off to a mysterious place called "Elsewhere," presumably to meet with a bullet in their head. The highest are the Vs and VIs, VIIs are only given to the ruling family. Kitty never questions the ranking system until she scores a III on her ranking test.
It was there to give us what we deserved so we could make the most of our natural abilities. The smartest members of society could help people in ways that IIs and IIIs couldn’t, so they earned more. It was fair, and without the test, someone who had grown up in a disadvantaged family might never have their talents recognized.
The US of the future is poorly depicted outside of the ranking system. We don't know what kind of food there is, if there is supposed to be a shortage. We know there are numerous poor, we see almost nothing of them through Kitty's eyes. We know almost nothing besides the supposed terrible injustice of the ranking system of the future.
The plot is well-done. It is fast-paced, it makes sense most of the time, but it is plagued with unnecessary holes the likes of which one single stupid action could have eliminated a countless amount of headache within the plot.
The Characters: Kitty is the weakest character in the book, in terms of believability. Her actions are completely stupid initially, but she grew to accept her fate. I am not criticizing the fact that she chooses to become a prostitute, I am criticizing her dubious choice of a very disturbing career (because really, few sex workers do it for the joy of the job). Being a laborer is a tough job, but an honest day's work, and I seriously question her choice in choosing one occupation over the other. I have no problem at all with prostitution, I just question her choices. Furthermore, she gapes at being forced to marry a boy (Knox, a really nice boy, actually) whereas she hardly blinks at giving her virginity over the the highest bidder.
Kitty's character is supremely inconsistent. She is supposed to be smart, though dyslexic, which makes it difficult for her to learn written things. Given her learning disabilities and her lack of skills, it completely makes no sense to me that she plays the role of very upper-class, highly educated Lila almost flawlessly. Kitty becomes too perfect to be true, she is too damned adaptable to be real. It is the equivalent of a My Fair Lady transformation, complete with accent and education and attitude, within the span of two weeks. She also becomes a spectacular orator, giving a rousing speech to a crowd of 20,000 people without any trouble. I don't fucking buy it.
Without a doubt, the best characters in the book are the side cast. I absolutely loved the boys in this book. There is a mild romance within this book, and an almost-love-triangle, but it didn't bother me. The guys in this book are so freaking fantastic, and I loved them both.
We have the wonderful Benjy, Kitty's so very loyal boyfriend, who will stick with her through thick and thin, who doesn't care about the fact that Kitty is a lowly III.
“I’m never better off without you,” he said. “We’re in this together. I love you, and that’s never going to change, all right? I’m yours no matter what your rank is. You could be a I, and I would go Elsewhere just to find you.”
And we have the wonderful Knox, Lila's fiancé, who becomes Kitty's reluctant ally, who does more for her than I would have done.
The "bad guys" are wonderfully written. They have depths, they are not purely black and white in their evilness, and I found them believable and sympathetic.
I loved her, but I have a duty to my country. We all do. And I will not allow us to return to that dark time. My grandson will not go through what I did. No one ever will again.
Overall: a well-written book that is enjoyable if you overlook the extremely vague and inconsistent world building and mildly annoying main character.