Book Review: Blackcoat Rebellion #3 – Queen

Title: Queen
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2015
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.97
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

I Spoil Everything

queen aimee carter

Plot Description: The Blackcoat Rebellion continues with its characteristic incompetence and worthlessness. Boredom, predictability and frustration ensues.

Previously on “The Blackcoat Rebellion…”

We saw a seventeen year old girl co-opted into two different sets of conspiracy and forced to help maintain as well as overthrow the existing government. Kitty Doe is put through cosmetic surgery to turn her into the doppelganger of Lila Hart, niece to Prime Minister Daxton Hart and member of the ruling Hart family. The real Lila Hart, it would appear, has been murdered by the Prime Minister and his mother to keep her from spreading further treason. Kitty meets the leaders of this treasonous revolution, the “Blackcoats” Celia Hart and Knox Creed – and agrees to continue Lila’s treasonous speeches. She also attempts to assassinate Daxton and fails – in the process discovering that Daxton was long dead, and an imposter named Victor Mercer had taken his place. As a result, Kitty is stripped of her rank and thrown into the vast and brutal prison known as Elsewhere. She then helps the inhabitants of Elsewhere revolt, joining forces with part of the Blackcoat rebels’ army. Oh, and they realize the original Lila Hart was alive and well.

In my reviews of Pawn and Captive, I felt that the childish mentality of whiny teenagers felt completely out of place in a revolution, and Queen is no different. This might actually have been a great premise for a spoof novel – a bunch of brats trying to revolt – but unfortunately, The Blackcoat Rebellion takes itself very seriously.

For instance, this paragraph from Queen

“You know what would be great?” I snapped. “If you could stop treating me like a problem for five minutes. I’m not completely useless, you know. You never would’ve taken over Elsewhere if I hadn’t helped.”
“Debatable,” he said coolly.

…sounds remarkably similar to this paragraph from Captive.

“Maybe if you stopped acting like I’m an untrained dog and started treating me like a person who’s as much a part of this as you are, I’d stop pulling against your invisible leash,” I said. “I have every right to be there, and you know it. If you keep acting like I’m a liability—”

“I wouldn’t if you stopped being a liability.”

“—then I’ll leave,” I finished, ignoring him. “If I can’t work with the Blackcoats, then I don’t have any reason to be here anymore.”

Kitty and Knox are each very good at pointing out that the other is being a terrible brat, but neither can recognize it within themselves. That being said, Knox is actually quite good at strategy – for someone so young. Leaders like Celia and Kitty are the wildcards of the rebellion. They are constantly at the mercy of their own knee jerk reactions, which is a terrible thing when they have the power to command armies. The only difference between the two is that Kitty’s decisions mostly come out positive, whereas Celia’s mostly have negative consequences. For instance, Celia takes a decision that pretty much derails the entire rebellion and results with hundreds of rebels publicly executed. The book decides to make up for this by turning her into a martyr at the end, but the fact remains that it could have been avoided.

Something that does ring true is Kitty’s feeling of being adrift. In the first two books, she claimed that Benjy was her “home,” her sense of belonging. In this book, it’s clear that the Kitty-Benjy relationship is fast crumbling.

“Yeah, but—” I hesitated, not knowing how to put the knot of frustration in my throat into words. “It’s not just that. I don’t know where I belong anymore. I’m a Hart. I’m a former prisoner. I’m a Blackcoat. But I’m not really any of those things, either. And I’m not who I look like. I’m not anything except that speech. And even that wasn’t good enough for Knox, not really.”

Benjy wasn’t always a sweetheart – he shows irrational jealousy at the very beginning of the book when Kitty is planning to become a sex worker. Even insists she sleep with him first. In Queen, jealous Benjy is back – and this time he may have a point. It seems that everyone but Kitty realizes that she and Knox have feelings for each other. Fortunately, both Kitty and Benjy also start to wonder whether their relationship with each other is based on familiarity rather than strong emotion. Their decision to stay best friends is one of the more mature points in this book.

Another point of maturity is the development of the Knox-Kitty relationship. There is no YA-mandatory ship kiss. Just a promise that things are on track for the two of them by the end of the book. And while a lot of reviews I looked through are distraught at this fact, I think that a book that’s drowning in this level of immaturity needed a few points that weren’t taken play-by-play from the Big Book of Cliche.

That being said, Aimee Carter’s love for faked deaths and pointless plot twists continues to burn unabated. I personally suspect that Knox faking his own death was a plot device to get Kitty to realize that she loved him (and make a big declaration of love which I completely skipped over).

The derailed rebellion and Knox (and everyone in Elsewhere) being fake killed was possibly the weakest part of the whole book. Because the story was nowhere near over, there were tons of pages left, so it was quite obvious that Knox wasn’t dead, that the major part of the rebellion was still going strong. I don’t know what sort of fake-out Carter thought she was going for. Maybe she figured that Kitty, Lila and Greyson’s terrible attempts at assassinating fake Daxton would hold the answers for the reader. Seriously, I lost count of the number of times they tried to kill Victor Mercer (the man who’s impersonating Daxton) in this book. Just another transparent plot device and stalling tactic.

I also wonder why Carter chose to keep calling this man “Daxton” even after it becomes clear to everyone that his name is something else entirely. Perhaps it was an effort to preserve the focal point of all the villainy under a single name. Daxton was certainly a ruthless dictator – he had Lila’s father executed in front of her and Celia after all – but he was also smarter and less blinded by arrogance, and might not have been as sadistic. In fact, certain characters in the book attempt to distinguish between Daxton and Victor by claiming that Daxton didn’t take pleasure in his cruelty. But there’s no need to make a child watch her father’s execution, and there’s certainly no need to go hunting human beings as if they were big game. Daxton was guilty of both. He was also Kitty’s father, and didn’t let her grow up in Elsewhere. (Yay?) It is important to note that he also never appears anywhere in the trilogy – he was dead by time Pawn began. The villains of this trilogy is – and always have been – Victor Mercer and Augusta Hart. In light of that, continuing to refer to Victor as Daxton seems silly.

As with so many other books, the heteronormativity is exhausting. Dumping heterosexual monogamous pairings by the truckload into your book is truly barf-worthy. If Benjy, Kitty and Knox had chosen a more polyamorous relationship, that might have been interesting. If any of them had been a different gender, that would have been great as well. A female version of Knox would have been awesome, I think. Much preferable to having a broody male order armies around and put the heroine down at every chance.

Which brings me to all the infantilization. Everyone, including the author and Kitty herself, treats Kitty like she’s a child. The Bella-syndrome is quite obvious here. You know the drill: plucky heroine dares to keep doing things that everyone tells her is foolish – like putting herself in danger without first receiving permission forms from Knox, Benjy, Sampson, Rivers and possibly Hannah, in triplicate. Plucky heroine gets into a teeny-weeny bit of trouble as a result, and everybody shouts at her. What’s worse is Kitty’s internal monologue, which is filled with guilt and shame for acting out. I want to shake Kitty and remind her that she’s the same age as the other idiots leading this rebellion, that they’re all being dumb, so she needs to stop beating herself up about it. None of the other characters do this. No other character infantilizes themselves. YA writers, please, stop convincing your protagonists that they’re in the wrong because they did something “plucky.” You’re sending a terrible message to teenage girls who identify with your protagonists. I know this because I used to be one of those teenage girls.

The over-protective boyfriend bullshit is an offshoot of this infantilization. The part where it’s so hot when a guy gets angry at you for putting yourself in danger. Because, you know, it would kill him if something happened to you. Newsflash, everybody. The girl doesn’t belong to the guy. She belongs to herself, and her right to put herself in danger is nobody’s business but hers. And as is par for the course for a YA novel, we’ve got this over-protective crap coming in from both Benjy and Knox.

Perhaps the most hilarious part of this novel is its take on socialism. While in Elsewhere, Kitty gets beaten up by two or three of its denizens because they’re resentful of her apparent comfort. After this incident, she starts wondering whether it’s fair that the leaders always get better amenities than the rest. But Benjy is having none of it. He is happy with his privilege, unwilling to go full socialist, and claims that leaders will always have privileges. Unfortunately, Kitty eventually accepts his perspective.

But here’s the thing. You guys are leaders because you were born with certain privileges, nitwits. Kitty – illegitimate daughter of a VII, only person to have escaped Elsewhere, brought into the Hart family because of her facial resemblance to Lila Hart (another VII, and her cousin), met the Blackcoats that way. Knox and Celia, leaders of the Blackcoats, VI and VII respectively. Benjy, a VI and enjoying the privileges of being Kitty’s boyfriend. You don’t get to deny those circumstances and then claim that you’re some sort of special snowflake who deserves privilege due to your leadership abilities.

The Blackcoat Rebellion could actually have been a good story if it weren’t quite so bloated. This is a one book story, or maximum two books. Perhaps YA writers like Carter can take a few pointers from that Jack Reacher author, you know, figure out how to pack the action tightly, keep it interesting.

Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive

Title: Captive
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

Spoilers

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Plot Description: Kitty is supposed to continue pretending to be Lila Hart, but her rebelliousness gives Daxton Hart, the Prime Minister, reason to publicly disown her and send her Elsewhere. In Captive, Kitty navigates survival in Elsewhere and continues her efforts to further the Blackcoat Rebellion.

The word Blackcoat is unnecessarily grandiose and superficial, just like everything in this book. I mentioned in my review of Pawn (Book 1 in this series) that the story could easily have been wrapped up by the end of that book. But Carter sacrifices good writing in favour of world building (and the mandatory YA trilogy) and Captive suffers the brunt of that choice.

In a word, Captive is as superficial and redundant as the name Blackcoat (which is what the rebels choose to call themselves). The book opens on a celebration of Lila Hart’s birthday, and talks about how Kitty is a 7 in a room full of 6s, which makes her more powerful than any of them. But as anyone who has read Pawn knows, Kitty isn’t really a 7. Sure, the back of her neck is marked by a 7, but the ridges of her original tattoo still exist – and they show a 3. She talks about how any of the people in that room (a bunch of Ministers) would have her killed if they knew her real identity. This is false – those Ministers couldn’t care less about her. Like Carter, Kitty focuses on the unimportant details, the fancy trimmings (like what rank she’s currently pretending to be) rather than the important details – like the fact that 7 or not, Lila Hart is a powerless puppet – a teenager who can’t make much of a difference in the world. She whines about none of this is actually part of her life, and how “stealing” moments with her real boyfriend is more important to her than celebrating her fake birthday with a fake fiance. And it is profoundly unclear as to why this celebration is important. What are they keeping appearances up for? What is the real cost of not pretending to be Lila, or of not being on her best behaviour? Who cares if Kitty does a less than stellar job in pretending to be Lila?

Kitty whines to Knox about how they had a deal – that she’d play nice for a couple of hours and then be allowed to leave. Knox lectures her about the importance of keeping up appearances – a lecture that Kitty completely ignores in favour of snagging something to eat off of a nearby table. As a result of this conveniently stupid narrative device, both Kitty and the reader are left in the dark as to the potential importance of this celebration.

When Kitty is rude to a Minister who is ogling her chest, Knox pulls her away and tells the Minister that she’s being rude because she had too much to drink. I resent the implication – that a well behaved girl is supposed to put up with the unwanted advances of lecherous men – and I resent the fact that Kitty’s actions here aren’t in any way supported by Knox or by the author. The author seems to use this example to demonstrate the gamut of Kitty’s bad behaviour, rather than to subtly condone her reaction.

Here’s a pathetic attempt to explain the reasons why the plot is the trainwreck that it is:

That was the only reason I’d agreed to stay when Knox had asked me three weeks ago. It had been after an exhausting night and day, when Augusta Hart, Daxton’s mother and the real iron fist around the country, had tried to not only kill me and Lila, but Benjy, too. Instead, I’d put six bullets in her. Now, with Lila seriously injured, it was up to me to pretend to be her until someone took the Prime Minister out of the picture.

Um. Why? Who is going to take the Prime Minister out of the picture? The Prime Minister has no back up – and he’s not even really the Prime Minister. He’s a fraud like Kitty, a 5 who’s been masked to look like a 7. Why is this so difficult?

Kindly suspend your disbelief, the book seems to be saying to the reader. Nobody cares about logic here.

Daxton arranged a pyrotechnical surprise for the fake Lila on her birthday, but the fireworks send her into a PTSD infused gunshot flashback. Once again, Carter manages to take a serious issue (PTSD) and completely trivialize it. It’s normal for someone who shot her fake grandmother only a few weeks ago to react this way. But with Knox already by her side, Kitty ends up looking weak and foolish when Benjy appears in response to her screaming. As with prostitution in Pawn, the PTSD is used as a narrative device here – to introduce the other part of the love triangle onto the scene in defiance of all logic. Neither Kitty nor Benjy seem to care about the fact that their little display might end with their covers being blown in front of all the ministerial folks.

It’s a cringe worthy moment, and one where neither Kitty nor Benjy are at their best. Rather than being mature, responsible adults who are working to overthrow a regime, they show themselves for what they really are – silly teenagers who are in over their heads and who don’t care about anything other than themselves. I’ve accused Carter of being inconsistent in her writing, but her portrayals of Kitty and Benjy continue to be as consistent as it is bad – this is a page right out of the same book that saw Benjy offering to run away with Kitty so they could be together right after she took the test, and to hell with the consequences.

This is precisely what makes the characters of Carter’s book unsympathetic – their defiance of logic, and their utter selfishness.

Nor did I have any ends to justify my means. Killing Augusta hadn’t done me any favors—it had only removed Daxton’s leash completely, leaving all of us in grave danger. And that, I thought, was the worst part of all. I’d saved Benjy’s life in the short term by pulling that trigger, but in the long term, we were both one whim away from death.

Thanks to her fainting spell, Knox refused to allow Kitty to attend the midnight meeting of the rebels. Then he catches Kitty sneaking away to try and attend the meeting anyway:

“Maybe if you stopped acting like I’m an untrained dog and started treating me like a person who’s as much a part of this as you are, I’d stop pulling against your invisible leash,” I said. “I have every right to be there, and you know it. If you keep acting like I’m a liability—”

“I wouldn’t if you stopped being a liability.”

“—then I’ll leave,” I finished, ignoring him. “If I can’t work with the Blackcoats, then I don’t have any reason to be here anymore.”

Knox has begun to act suspiciously in the meantime, appearing to hold back vital information from the rest of the Blackcoats. This leads Kitty to suspect that Knox is secretly working with Daxton.

They could try to out him, but the media is in Daxton’s pocket. Anyone who went to press with the news would be labeled a traitor and executed before sundown. No one should have to make that sacrifice for nothing.”

The other reason why Kitty and her allies haven’t outed the fake Daxton yet is to protect Greyson – who would obviously be targeted by the rebelling masses the minute Daxton’s real identity was revealed.

Knox’s mouth formed a thin line, and he wrapped his arm around my shoulders. Normally it would have been a sweet gesture, but tonight it felt more like a threat. “Do you want to see the masses go after him once the rebellion begins?”

“You mean it hasn’t already?” I said, but he didn’t answer. I bit my lip. Greyson was one of my only friends, and the last thing I wanted was for him to get caught in the crossfire.

We were meters from the bunker when Knox stopped and faced me, his dark eyes bearing into mine. “Listen to me, Kitty,” he said in a low, hurried voice. “Telling the others about Daxton doesn’t outweigh the risks of Celia finding out—and if the other Blackcoat leaders know, she will find out sooner rather than later. And what happens after that is anyone’s guess. Do you understand me?”

Against Knox’s wishes, Kitty goes snooping for information about the Fake Daxton. With the help of a magical high tech lock-pick that Greyson had fashioned for her, she manages to get hold of two files – one on Daxton, and one on herself. Unfortunately, Kitty’s dyslexia and illiteracy helps serve as a literary device to keep both Kitty and the reader in the dark.
Kitty’s sojourn in Elsewhere is as pointless as the rest of this book, except as a world building exercise. She is introduced to a cutthroat population that simultaneously includes children growing up without having known any other sort of life, and punitive executions which require one condemned person to save themselves by fighting another to death in public cages.
Although she’s offered comfortable lodgings at Daxton’s guesthouse by virtue of her status as a 7, Kitty opts to live with the rest of Elsewhere’s population. The mysterious couple who double as her sector’s wardens turn out to be inextricably linked both to the imposter Daxton’s and to Kitty herself.
She also meets a portion of the Blackcoats while in Elsewhere, and attempts to help them with retrieving military codes securely held somewhere on the premises.
Carter’s fondness for senseless plot twists and faked deaths spills over from Pawn to Captive. So too does the inexplicable need to appeal to a readership of ordinary girls while maintaining the trope that a heroine is always special – a secret princess, if you will. While these plot twists make for interesting storytelling by themselves, they don’t do the books a favour when taken together. An invested reader will welcome further information about Kitty’s parentage, for instance, but won’t fail to see that all the twisted storytelling is achieving is plot confusion.

Next Up – Book Review: Sisters Grimm # 4, 5 & 6 by Michael Buckley

Next in this Series: Blackcoat Rebellion #3 – Queen

Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn

Title: Pawn
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.80
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

SO MANY SPOILERS

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Plot Description: Kitty Doe lives in a world where everyone takes a test at the age of 17 which evaluates their worth in society. She receives a 3, rather than the average 4 on her test. Just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of menial work, she’s whisked off to be a doppelganger for the Prime Minister’s dead niece, Lila Hart. As Lila Hart, Kitty is supposed to help stop a rebellion against the current regime – a rebellion Lila had secretly been fostering.

Disclaimer: I didn’t want to read this book, but it was lying around at home and I was starved for options. Since I was going into this book with no expectations whatsoever, I actually ended up pleasantly surprised at times.

It was only after I started reading YA almost exclusively that I came across the phrase “TSTL” (too stupid to live). And that’s precisely what first comes to mind when we see Kitty Doe stealing an orange and hoping she’ll be shot on sight for theft. The idea gets even more ridiculous when you realize that her boyfriend, Benjy is with her, and she’s putting both of them in danger. The writing is vague and disconnected even here, at the beginning, and this really doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

After escaping from the Shields and relinquishing their orange, Kitty and Benjy discuss her options. With that particular brand of clear thinking apparently omnipresent in sixteen year olds, Benjy proposes to Kitty, because this means they won’t be separated. Thankfully, she has the sense to turn him down, because she’s afraid being married to a 3 will hurt his ranking chances when he takes the test.

Kitty decides to go speak to Tabs, a local prostitute who has been trying to recruit her. Benjy is dead set against this. And while Benjy seems to be speaking purely from prejudice, I agree with him because I don’t think Kitty really understands what it means to be a prostitute. The way she talks about it gives me the impression that she thinks the worst thing about prostitution is having to sleep with strange men. She doesn’t sound like she understands the physical danger involved, or the lack of choice that will end up haunting her with every step she takes. She certainly didn’t know Tabs was recruiting her because Tabs would get a cut of her pay.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said roughly. “I don’t want those pigs touching you.”

Okay, Benjy, I know you’re sixteen, but you can’t build your life around a girl. Like, seriously. Also, possessive much?

Before she leaves, Benjy asks her to sleep with him. I don’t really know what to make of that, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. Kitty tells him that it’s better for her prospects if she’s a virgin, and then he tells her he should be her first.

Why? I know it’s hard for your sixteen year old love-crazed brain to comprehend this, Benjy, but plenty of people who are in love are never each other’s firsts. And you don’t really get to decide who should be someone else’s first. You can want Kitty to be your first, sure. Similarly, she’s the only one who gets to decide who she wants to be her first.

Kitty tells him he’s always going to be her first because sleeping with anyone else won’t count, and she breaks up with him for a month – until he knows what his ranking is going to be.

Prostitution is illegal in Kitty’s country, but since it’s the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, and since many of the highest ranking men in the country frequent these clubs, a blind eye is turned. Since she’s young and still a virgin, her virginity is auctioned off – starting with a thousand gold pieces and ending at thirty thousand. That’s more than she would have made as a sewage worker in ten years, and she’s amazed at the idea that anyone would spend that much for one night with her. Kitty’s naivete is once again starkly obvious, since she doesn’t seem to have understood that what was being bid for wasn’t her – not her as a person, but just the fact of her virginity. She’s very much still a child here, because the idea that prostitution can sometimes dehumanize the people working in that field isn’t something she’s completely recognizing.

This is the point at which I set the book down and momentarily wish that this was what this book was really about – the story of a young girl who begins to gradually understand the world through her life as a sex worker – her journey from innocence and naivete to maturity, if you will. It would definitely have made for a better plot than that of the real Pawn. But I guess that’s not what real YA literature is looking for.

I wished this because even though prostitution is not the subject matter of Carter’s book, she introduced it all the same, and then trivialized it. In another review I read, the reviewer described the prostitution sub-plot as a gun that wasn’t loaded, and I think this gun shouldn’t have been brought into the picture and then portrayed as inconsequential. Kitty leaves the club not realizing the exact nature of the bullet she just dodged, and I think a lot of younger readers would have ended up doing the same. Prostitution and virginity auctions are not, after all, some myth conceived of in Carter’s precious fictional dystopia. They exist in the real world, and have a lot of real world dangers and connotations attached to them. Treating the subject as a convenient plot device and reducing it to prejudicial stereotypes is not okay at all.

Okay, that was intense. And it’s only now that the real plot kicks off.

In short, Kitty is made to stand in for the PM’s dead niece, as a cover up for her death. Lila is a bit of a Princess Diana figure – she’d been going around saying things that were technically treasonous, and had acquired a vast following among the common people through her charisma and charm. A lot of time is devoted to describing Kitty’s eleven days of training to replace Lila, and in this time, the rest of the family is introduced. There’s Celia, Lila’s mother. Augusta, Daxton’s mother and the matriarch of the Hart family. There’s Knox Creed, Lila’s fiance. And Greyson, Daxton’s younger son and sole surviving heir.
This is where Pawn becomes a confused piece of writing, and having read the sequel – Captive – I can tell you it doesn’t get better. Pawn has a lot of things going against it. For one thing, it’s a chip off the old Hunger Games block, and derivative as such. For another, it suffers from less than sympathetic protagonists. With the exception of Knox and Greyson, even the auteurs of the rebellion are motivated by selfishness. Celia is out for power and revenge. Kitty’s heroism is impulsive and inconsistent. She’s as confused about her motivations as can be – oscillating wildly between sympathizing with the downtrodden and helping the autocrats in order to save Benjy’s life.
The confused storylines don’t help Pawn’s case. Plot twist is piled on top of plot twist, and one ends up disliking all the characters on principle. Carter seems to care more about shocking the reader and keeping them guessing than on good writing. As a result, by the time it is revealed that the real Lila Hart is still alive, one gives up.
Pawn was greatly evocative of a Meg Cabot book on similar lines – the Airhead trilogy, where a smart girl’s brain is transplanted into a supermodels body. (Spoiler: Airhead also revealed that the original owner of the body was still alive.) These books seem eager to appeal to the everygirl reader while reaffirming the idea that a heroine needs to be conventionally beautiful. It’s a sad attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too, and undermines the lesson that physical beauty isn’t the be-all and the end-all.
The book ends with an action filled showdown between Kitty and the matriarch – Augusta Hart. Where she was previously unable to assassinate Daxton, Kitty now shows herself capable of killing when Benjy’s life is at stake. With Augusta out of the way and Daxton still in a coma, it seems like the perfect moment for the rebellion to take control. This opportunity is, however, wasted in favour of a set up to a sequel that honestly seems unnecessary.

Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive