Monday, 3 April 2017

SERIES REVIEW: The Blackcoat Rebellion by Aimée Carter

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*This review will contain spoilers!*

I was going to write three individual reviews for each book in this series because I liked them so much, but because I read them back to back in less than a week I thought it would make far more sense to write one big post.
I don't know how I hadn't heard of The Blackcoat Rebellion trilogy before, but when I spotted it in the library I was instantly intrigued. The covers, the premise, everything appealed to me. I hadn't read and enjoyed a dystopian series in so long, so I hoped this trilogy would revive my love for the genre.

If you think you'll enjoy reading the Blackcoat Rebellion trilogy, please consider purchasing them using my Amazon Affiliate links! If you buy 'Pawn', 'Captive' or 'Queen', I'll receive a little bit of income. 

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'Pawn' - 4 stars

'Risking my life to steal an orange was a stupid thing to do, but today of all days, I didn't care about the consequences. If I were lucky, the Shields would throw me to the ground and put a bullet in my brain. 
Dead at seventeen. It would be a relief.' 

We join Kitty Doe on her seventeenth birthday. She's just taken the most important test of her life, and she's not happy with her result.
Kitty is a III. The average rank is a IV, and she feels cheated and disillusioned. She can't read and wrongly assumed that she'd get extra time to compensate, but because she didn't she couldn't finish a third of the paper. She's been relegated to the rank of III for the rest of her life.
Being a III means you're lesser. Not as low as a II or a I, but you're destined to work hard and die young. You're not even permitted to buy an orange from the market: those are only available to people of rank IV or above.
'I'd seen the posters and heard the speeches. Everyone had. We all had our rightful place in society, and it was up to us to decide what that was. Study hard, earn good grades, learn everything we could, and prove we were special. And when we turned seventeen and took the test, we would be rewarded with a good job, a nice place to live, and the satisfaction that we contributed to our society - everything we would ever need to lead a meaningful life.' 
Kitty's boyfriend Benjy is bound to get a VI, because he's the smartest kid from their group home. Because they were both Extras (second children removed from low-ranking parents who're only allowed the privilege of having one child) they've grown up together and they assumed they'd spend the rest of their lives together, but Kitty's III makes that difficult. She's assigned a job in a sewer in Denver, so far across America that it would make it impossible for her to ever see Benjy again.
He can't bear to be parted from her, but she doesn't want him to sacrifice his chance. Instead she takes a leap of faith and contacts their old friend Tabs, who's now working outside of the law as an escort. It's Kitty's only chance to stay near the boy she loves.
On your first night on the job, you're auctioned to the highest bidder so that they can have their fun with you while you're still a virgin. Kitty is disgusted by the idea but she has no other options.
Or, at least, she doesn't. Not until she's purchased by Prime Minister Daxton Hart.
Daxton pays 30,000 gold for Kitty, but instead of taking her virginity he offers her the chance to become a VII. The only people who get such a prestigious rank are born into it, so Kitty accepts: she knows there must be a catch, but it's worth the risk. Daxton leads her out of the building, bundles her into his car and drugs her - yep, that's the catch!
When she comes around she's not herself anymore. He's had her surgically-altered - Masked - to replace his niece Lila, as Kitty shares her distinctive eye colour. Lila was vocal in her disregard for the ranking system and the Hart family leadership, so he's had his own niece killed to silence the voice of the rebellion. He's tasking Kitty with repenting and undoing all the discontent Lila spread with her rousing speeches.
Kitty's thrown into life as Lila, living in the luxurious Somerset mansion with the rest of the Harts. The family are all involved, and her mother Celia and grandmother Augusta (the one who's actually in charge of the country, pulling the strings behind the scenes) work with Daxton to train her to pass as Lila without question.
Things get awkward when she meets her fiancé, Knox, who she's expected to marry within a couple of months... She knows that won't go down well with Benjy, who doesn't even know about the surprising turn her life has taken.
But Lila wasn't the only member of the Hart family discontent with the way the country was being run. Celia and Knox are both involved with the terrorist movement the Blackcoats, and they're desperate to take out Daxton by getting Kitty to continue Lila's good work.
Kitty has to decide: does she want to risk being hunted by running back to her old life with Benjy, or will she help the American citizens break free from their bonds?

Aimée Carter doesn't sugarcoat anything, and I had chills when I read the first page. Kitty feels as though she has nothing to live for after being ranked a III, making her the perfect figurehead for a revolution. She's self-sacrificing, always doing things for other people, though that can express itself as selfishness when she directly disobeys the wishes of her loved ones and puts herself in danger.
Kitty's a very well-rounded character. She's reckless, which makes for tense reading: it was touch and go whether she'd survive a couple of the situations she found herself in! But her adventurous side isn't the only part of her that makes her character so intriguing. Kitty is unable to read, despite many lessons from Benjy over the years, and this makes her doubt herself more than anything else: she wonders whether she might actually deserve her III, for not being able to do something so simple.
I thought Benjy and Kitty's relationship was lovely because they're together before the book begins. It's always nice to join an established couple, and I enjoyed the fact that they reminisced on things they'd gotten up to before the book began: a simple but effective back story that adds depth to their emotions and makes their coupling believable. There's potential for a love triangle between Kitty, Benjy and Knox, but despite the fact that it seems like a obvious choice for the plot there's too much life-threatening political drama for it to be explored.
The books is a springboard for discussion about good and bad, and how it's not always black and white. We automatically think of terrorists as bad people in our mind, because they do so many horrific things. The Blackcoats set off bombs and convince Kitty to attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister, but because they're fighting for the greater good you support them and want them to succeed. Meanwhile, Daxton takes Kitty on a trip to Elsewhere, where he shows off by hunting terrified people who the ranking system have deemed as worthless to society. It's very controversial, particularly with the political landscape looking the way it does at the moment: this trilogy is utterly relevant, and I definitely feel as though I've read it at the right time.
However, the plots gets a bit convoluted. The ranking system is easy to get to grips with, but the political side of things tied my brain in knots. Daxton is the Prime Minister, but Augusta is in control. Celia is Daxton's sister, but is also the leader of the Blackcoats. Kitty discovers that Daxton isn't Daxton: a Masked man is masquerading as him, just like she is pretending to be Lila.
Then there's Lila, who isn't dead after all...
Celia kidnaps Greyson, Daxton's son. To get Greyson back, the Harts make a public appeal which features both Kitty and Lila. The general public don't know Lila is supposedly dead, so can't understand why she would suddenly need to make an appearance with her body double, and I was completely lost. It's the only reason it didn't get 5 stars, because it was very close - particularly when Kitty killed Augusta, showing a marked character development from the girl who couldn't kill Daxton when she tried earlier in the novel.

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'Captive' - 3 stars
"There's no such thing as a bloodless revolution."

'Somewhere nearby, Benjy was waiting for me.'
'Captive' starts three months after 'Pawn' begins, so not much has changed since the end of book one.

Kitty is determined to discover the identity of the man behind the Daxton mask. She breaks into his office and finds a file filled with information and a photograph from before he was Masked, but because she can't read it she has no choice but to take it with her. She squirrels it away somewhere no one else will be able to find it, making herself indispensable, but Daxton discovers that the file is missing. He storms her room, gets Knox to shoot Benjy, and ships her off to Elsewhere.
Kitty is distraught. Knox revealed that he was betraying the Blackcoats, and she has no way of warning them about the traitor in their midst.
But it's not all doom and gloom. The hunting ground isn't all there is to Elsewhere. It's a society in itself: prisoners live in different sections, working and experiencing a semblance of freedom (unless they're chosen by the visiting politicians to be used in their hunt, or they break the rules). If they break the rules? They're put in a cage with another prisoner, and they fight to the death.
Kitty sees more people get brutally murdered in her first day in Elsewhere than she ever has before. It shakes her: even though she looks like Lila Hart, she's not untouchable in this environment.
Elsewhere is ruled by the Mercer family. Kitty recognises Jonathan Mercer, because he was in the photograph with the Masked Daxton, who she realises must be Victor, Jonathan's dead brother. Hannah, Jonathan's wife, is also a formidable opponent: she used to be a prisoner, but managed to claw her way up to a leadership position after having an affair with Daxton himself.
The Mercers invite Kitty to stay with them in their mansion, an offer she accepts when Knox arrives as their guest. If she can get close enough to him, she can take her revenge for Benjy. She doesn't care if it's the last thing she does.
But the Battle of Elsewhere is brewing, and Kitty needs to decide whether to focus on her own problems or secure a better future for the United States.

I found this installment mind-numbingly predictable.
Of course Knox isn't a traitor! Of course Benjy isn't dead! Of course Daxton and Hannah are Kitty's parents!
As soon as the guard in 'Pawn' commented on the fact that Kitty had the same distinctive eyes as Lila, I knew she had to be biologically related to the Hart family, so I'd been waiting for this reveal since the beginning.
Aimée still writes it as though each of the twists should be a surprise, but there's no way anyone didn't see them coming. I've never read anything more obvious.
It definitely reduced my enjoyment of the book. Whereas the first book gloated a gripping plot and brilliantly crafted characters, this felt like a lazy fallback on the least interesting tropes of the dystopian genre: the death fake out, the "I'm a traitor, lol jk", the parentage reveal... All of them made me groan.
That being said, I thought it was interesting to see the revolution in a different setting. The prisoners of Elsewhere are disillusioned with society, so it's a lot easier to convince them that the Hart family and the ranking system need to be dealt with. I appreciated the brutality, because when you're placed in a 'kill or be killed' situation you will do everything possible to save your own life: I was genuinely shocked at a couple of points, which doesn't often happen in YA, but none of it felt gratuitous. All of the deaths were necessary, because they inspired Kitty in a way that living Lila's charmed life couldn't.
In this installment Benjy and Kitty take the next step in their relationship. I was grateful that it didn't happen in book one, because it often feels as though YA authors are encouraging teenagers to make that move as quickly as possible, but the timing was dreadful! Bombs are going off around them, war is raging and Kitty doesn't even know if her birth mother is alive, but they think it's the perfect time to sleep together. Cringe!
I did like the way Aimée portrayed their first time, though:
'I wish I could say that night was perfect - that it was straight out of one of the romances Benjy had read to me, full of fireworks and grace and everything a first time should be.
But it was awkward. And we fumbled. And neither of us knew quite what we were doing. And afterward, once it was over and we lay tangled together underneath the sheets, we both watched each other as if we couldn't quite believe what we'd just done.' 
It's very realistic, and definitely doesn't set Hollywood standards!
I felt a lot more conflicted about the trilogy after reading this installment. It was still a very quick read - I finished it in two sittings and I could hardly tear my eyes away for a moment - but because it felt hackneyed I wasn't as impressed as I was by 'Pawn'. It closed with another tense cliffhanger, making it impossible to resist reading 'Queen' straight away, but I felt apprehensive.

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'Queen' - 5 stars
"The brightest and most privileged in the country aren't interested in equality."
'I gazed out across the gathering crowd, my heart in my throat. The citizens of Elsewhere shifted restlessly, their red and orange jumpsuits bringing color to an otherwise gray winter landscape, and I could feel them growing impatient. 
They weren't the only ones.' 
Two weeks have passed since the end of 'Captive'. We rejoin Kitty, Benjy, Knox and the Blackcoats in Elsewhere, fighting to get support from the general public by revealing the truth about Daxton's identity.

After Kitty outs Victor to the world, he denies all of her claims. The Blackcoats know that they need proof to get the public on their side, so Kitty and Knox return to Somerset to recover the file on Victor Mercer that she hid at the beginning of 'Captive'.
But Kitty gets captured, and Knox has no choice but to leave her behind and get the information released to the public.
Kitty is reunited with Lila and Greyson, who are both being held hostage by Victor. Lila's been forced to speak for him on multiple occasions, because if she doesn't say what he wants he's going to kill Greyson. Kitty doesn't want either of them to die, so she agrees to appear on camera repealing the accusations she made on one condition: if she does it, Greyson and Lila get to leave. Greyson and Lila counter her, saying Victor should allow her to leave as a show of good faith, and he agrees - he'll accept one of their offers once Kitty's made her speech, but they'll have to wait and see which one he'll take.
As soon as Kitty's finished speaking, Victor tells her she can go. But Lila is desperate for freedom, and Kitty's well-trained in pretending to be her: Lila begs her to allow her to leave in her place.
"I don't want to be me anymore. You can be me - you're good at being me. But I'm done. I don't care about the risk involved. I don't care about where I end up. I just want to be gone, Kitty. I want to be free. And if that means dying in the middle of nowhere, then fine. I'd rather die out there tomorrow than die in here a hundred years from now."
Kitty begrudgingly agrees, and her and Greyson watch Lila get on a helicopter and leave... Only for it to be shot out of the air moments later. Lila is dead, and Kitty is forced to act for her life: if she can't convince Victor that she is the real Lila, he'll have no qualms about taking her out.
Victor continues to psychologically manipulate them. They must watch as he murders members of the Ministers of the Union, taking them out one by one until they agree to sign over full control. He then orders an airstrike on Elsewhere, and Kitty and Greyson have to watch as bombs are dropped: they had no time to warn everyone, which means all of the Blackcoats - all of their friends - have just been decimated in seconds.
Victor has no one to answer to. He holds all of the power, and there's no one that can stop him.
There's only one way to solve the problem: Victor must be killed. Kitty tries to shoot him, but he survives, and teaches her not to try that again by inviting her to his personal torture room where he's flayed the man who was previously his closest adviser.
With the Blackcoats and Lila dead, Celia still on the run and Greyson and Kitty trapped with a madman, it looks like time is running out for the United States.

I couldn't find anything wrong with this installment. I don't know if that's just because I was so excited to finish the series and see how everything ended up, but I couldn't put the book down! It's such a brilliant ending: there were a couple of main character deaths that almost had me in tears, torture and tense scenes that had my heart racing, and the defeat of the dastardly (fake) Daxton - hurrah! 
I know protagonists don't often die, but I was genuinely scared for Kitty's life. There isn't much overt violence against her (at least, not until the end of the novel), but Victor's psychological abuse is very hard-hitting, and left me shaken. I'm never going to get the image of the torture room out of my mind; I knew he was a terrible person, but I didn't think anyone would go quite that far. Aimée Carter is a sick genius for being able to create a villain that disturbed.
All of the characters make huge progress throughout the series, and when you look back to who they are at the start of 'Pawn', they're completely different at the end of 'Queen'. Benjy and Kitty decide to call time on their relationship but remain best friends, because they know that the events they've been through have changed them too much. There's a whiff of a love triangle, but because Kitty's already distanced herself from Benjy, her feelings towards Knox are both unsurprising and reasonable: no one can argue that the relationship is very authentic. 

This is a strong trilogy
The plot is tight, and each installment moves the characters to a different setting and keeps it fresh and exciting. There's no way that this could have been cut down to a duology, because though there are slight bits of waffling at times (particularly at the start of each sequel, which gives an in-depth recap of the events of the previous book) the majority of the events are necessary and add something to the story.
The conclusion is satisfying: I haven't been this happy with a the way a series ended in a very long time! I loved the fact that it's left open for Aimée to return to the characters in the future if she wishes: we get to see Daxton's comeuppance, but we don't get to see how they implement the change in the government, how Greyson copes as Prime Minister or whether things work out between Knox and Lila, and I'd be interested in reading more from all of them! 
I'm just surprised this isn't more popular. It's much better than some of the dystopian novels I've read in the past: the family dynamic, the realistic relationship, the scarily possible future... This could easily have been adapted into a successful film, and I'm sad that it flew under the radar in favour for less developed and interesting releases. 
I haven't read any of Aimée Carter's writing before, but after enjoying this so much I'm definitely going to change that. The way she crafted this trilogy blew my mind: I just hope her Goddess Test novels are as good! 
Overall, this series gets 4 stars from me

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