Have you ever ordered a fancy desert that looked rich, decadent and delicious, only to take the first bite and find it oddly tasteless? Pawn had such a great premise with a decent setup in its first chapters, only to fall flat as the story progressed. I was left feeling like I’d consumed a whole lot of empty calories that didn’t even taste that good.
Like all others in a future America, when Kitty Doe turns 17, she takes an aptitude test that will determine her value to society for the rest of her life. If she tests at a level IV, she’s sure to be assigned a reasonable job and expect a comfortable if modest life. The idea of testing higher – as a V or VI – is unthinkable. And you must be born a member of the country’s ruling family, the Harts, to get a VII ranking.
But what Kitty never expects is to test as a lowly III. Her functional illiteracy, probably a result of undiagnosed dyslexia, means that she will leave her DC home – and her boyfriend Benjy – to work in the sewers of Denver, never able to rise any higher in life. At least she didn’t test as a I, which would have meant exile to Elsewhere where all undesirables are sent, never to be seen or heard from again.
Benjy wants to run away together, but Kitty doesn’t want to risk his future. Instead, Kitty determines to work for one month in a club as a prostitute until the super-intelligent Benjy takes his aptitude test and hopefully ranks high enough to offer them both a better life. Her first night at the club she’s auctioned off for her services and is shocked when the man who purchases her for an exorbitant sum is none other than Prime Minister Daxton Hart.
Daxton Hart isn’t looking for a mistress. He wants Kitty because her eyes are the same unusual color as his recently deceased niece, Lila. He offers to make Kitty a VII if she agrees to do what he says. The idea of life as an exalted VII is tempting, and Kitty reluctantly goes with Daxton. Before she realizes what’s happening, she’s been drugged and surgically altered to exactly resemble Lila Hart. Daxton and his mother, Augusta, expect Kitty to pretend to be Lila and to use her popularity and influence to quell a growing revolution, a cause that Lila had supported before her untimely death and which Kitty also believes in.
As a VII and a member of the Hart family, Kitty is poised to discover luxuries and privileges she’s never known. But as she meets other members of the Hart family, including Lila’s rebellious mother, Celia, her sweet cousin Greyson who is being groomed to be the next Prime Minister, and Knox, Lila’s fiancé, she comes to understand that the Hart family is far from the unified front it presents to the world. Too, the truth about Elsewhere is far more sinister than she had ever imagined.
Based on the book’s back-cover blurb, I expected a story about a girl who is poised to lead a revolution against an oppressive system. Instead, the vast portion of the book reads like a soap opera of the dysfunctional relationships within the Hart family. At any given moment, nearly every Hart is thought to be dead or kidnapped or about to kill or kidnap another member of the Hart family. One practically needs a chart to figure out who is doing what to whom. And all of this is going on while Kitty pretty much watches or eavesdrops, always thinking about how at any moment she might be killed.
Except I never really felt that Kitty’s life was truly in danger. Indeed, the biggest problem with Pawn is that I was constantly told things but never shown them, and thus I never truly engaged with the characters or bought into any of the conflict. Kitty would witness true horrors and then not think about them at all. Her love for Benjy supposedly drove all of her actions, but many times I as a reader completely forgot about him until he’d appear on the page. We are told that Lila is popular, that the Harts are all powerful, that the revolution is threatening everything they’ve achieved. But since most of the story’s action takes place inside the Hart home, we don’t see any of this.
As far as world building, I was left with so many questions. Why are the Harts so powerful? What did they do to deserve their exalted position? And how did society get to this horrible place? To sell an America that has devolved into a dystopian state, I must believe that some cataclysmic event occurred that caused the fundamental tenets of what it means to be an American – a fervent belief that individual freedom is to be valued above nearly everything else – to break down completely. After all, this is the country that fought the Revolutionary War to break free from the yoke of tyranny. Sadly, Pawn offers only a vague reference to some kind of economic collapse and subsequent crisis as the reason for the current ranking system and a transformation from a democratic republic to what basically amounts to a monarchy. I needed more of the history to buy into this new and vastly inferior world.
I know Pawn is the first title in a series, but I’m not very compelled to see if the other entries taste any better. The seed of a great dystopian story is there, but it is so buried beneath layers of inter-family scheming and telling rather than showing that by the end, I really didn’t care.