In Aimée Carter's 'Pawn,' Typical Dystopian Setup Masks Complex Views of Power, Heroism
Aimée Carter's novel Pawn (Harlequin Teen) begins with a bombardment of imagery in quick succession — an orange, a tattoo, a flower, Shields — that's unsettling and raises dozens of questions off the bat. Pawn as a whole is a compelling meditation on power, societal structures, and heroism, but like this initial kaleidoscope of imagery, the overall point can be muddled.
Carter's novel is set in latter day United States that, after an overpopulation crisis and an economic collapse, has turned into a meritocracy ruled over by a prime minister. In this world, as its rulers say, "everyone gets what they deserve based on what they are worth." Every citizen at age 17 takes a test that determines what numbered class they will be in moving forward, except VII, which is reserved for the ruling Hart family and is awarded by birthright.
The story begins in Washington D.C. on Kitty Doe's 17th birthday. Her test results pits her in the III class, destined for a life of sewer maintenance in Denver, after her dyslexia makes it so she is unable to finish the exam on time. This is a particular problem for Kitty because her boyfriend Benjy is months younger and she's certain his intelligence will mean he will move to a higher class once he has the opportunity to be tested — unless he throws it away to live in near poverty with her, another unsuitable option.
It's refreshing to have a YA novel begin with the main character already in a relationship instead of have the story centered on building one, but this structure doesn't give readers an opportunity to put emotional weight behind Kitty and Benjy's relationship. When, pages into the book, they declare long, bold proclamations of love, readers aren't allowed in on how they're backed up. It's also not clear why or if characters can move from place to place — i.e. from D.C. to Denver — because they do take trains, so when Kitty claims that her assignment means she will never see Benjy again, it highlights some gaps in Carter's world building.
Readers do not have much time to think on this, however, because Kitty is soon bartered for by the prime minister, Daxon Hart, and promised a life of a VII because Kitty's unique blue eye color is a perfect match for his late niece Lila's. Daxon intends to give Kitty a Masked procedure to make her look identical to Lila so she can take her place and the citizenry would be none the wiser. Lila may have something to do with the Blackcoats (Pawn is the first book of the forthcoming Blackcoat Rebellion series), a rebellious group that aims to overthrow the prime minister and bring back elections. Her death could be considered martyrdom to supporters — something Daxon can't risk.
Once Kitty is under the control of the book's antagonist Daxon and his mother Augusta, readers meet Lila's mother Celia and Lila's fiancée, the rich Lennox Creed, or Knox. The compelling characterization of both Celia and Knox, and even the late Lila through video, quickly overshadows the flat Benjy character and, at times, Kitty herself. Knox is a charismatic, funny, and welcome addition to Pawn that quickly becomes the most interesting character in terms of motivations.
Part of what YA novels try to do is introduce complex political and societal issues to teens, and Pawn is full of these truly compelling driving themes, such as the power of education, class systems, power or the illusion of it, and poverty. However, the story rests on a central problem that may be misguided.
The Blackcoat Rebellion and a handful of the characters support reverting back to the old United States societal and political system.
The speeches [Lila] gave were dangerous and full of reasons why there should be equality among the people like there had been during the early twenty-first century—when no one was marked or assigned careers…. When a person's entire life wasn't determined by a single test; when you had the chance to be whatever you wanted to be and life the kind of life you wanted without being told what to do. When we all had a choice. A real choice.
Most liberal-minded citizens of the 21st century U.S. would take issue with this utopian view of our society. And Occupy Wall Street certainly would.
The name Pawn is not just a reference to the main character being a pawn in the Hart family's game, but a statement on what power the pawn itself has. After all, in chess if the pawn reaches the other end of the board, it can become anything — even queen, the most powerful.
Despite this revolutionary spirit, many of the main characters seem more interested in protecting selfish interests rather than seeing the larger picture. Nina, the leader of Kitty and Benjy's group home, tries to tell Kitty about the revolution, and it falls on deaf ears.
"Listen to me, because I will only say this once," Nina says early in the novel. "You have a choice. You can choose to accept the hand the Harts dealt you, or you can pick yourself up and do something about it."
And when speaking about the assignment of a numbered class: "It only means something because the Harts decided it did, and we went along with it."
Kitty seems wrapped up in the idea of "fairness" that blinds her — though both Celia and Knox tell Kitty stop whining and remind her that the world doesn't revolve around her, which suggests that Carter is complicit on making Kitty not your typical no-holds-barred heroine. She even has Kitty say, "Not everyone's prepared to die for the greater good, all right? We can't all be heroes."
Many of Carter's revelations along the way cause audible gasps, and the story is full of exciting twists and turns, which keeps readers turning the pages. But, with the issues in present-day U.S., it's difficult to sympathize with the rebellion's plan, which makes it hard for readers to truly become engaged in the stakes of the novel. However, the interesting questions of heroism that Carter raises toward the end saves Pawn from being just another throwaway Hunger Games copycat and keeps interest moving into the sequels.