Hello everyone! I'm SO excited to be part of this tour! I was first introduced to Branded when I participated in a blitz for it late last year (here, which also includes all of the first chapter), and then it zoomed back onto my radar with a gorgeous never cover in February (here). Two short months later I decided that the universe was trying to tell me something when I heard that the novel had been revamped AGAIN, this time with permanent changes to the story. So here it is, for the third time on Marked By Books (I think that may be a record for us!), at long last, ready to be reviewed.
Branded by Abi Ketner & Missy Kalicicki
Fifty years ago the Commander came into power and murdered all who opposed him. In his warped mind, the seven deadly sins were the downfall of society. He created the Hole where sinners are branded according to their sins and might survive a few years. At best. Now LUST wraps around my neck like blue fingers strangling me. I’ve been accused of a crime I didn’t commit and now the Hole is my new home.
Darkness. Death. Violence. Pain.
Now every day is a fight for survival. But I won’t die. I won’t let them win.
The Hole can’t keep me. The Hole can’t break me.
I am more than my brand. I’m a fighter.
My name is Lexi Hamilton, and this is my story.
Abi and Missy met in the summer of 1999 at college orientation and have been best friends ever since. After college, they added jobs, husbands and kids to their lives, but they still found time for their friendship. Instead of hanging out on weekends, they went to dinner once a month and reviewed books. What started out as an enjoyable hobby has now become an incredible adventure.
I know that I've posted Abi and Missy's bio up here three times now, but I still get so happy every time I read it! If you're just popping over here (in which case, HI!!!! NICE TO MEET YOU!!!!), then you may not know that I co-run this blog with my best friend Gabby, and I LOVE it when we get people over here who have been such good friends for so long. Abi and Missy, you two are amazing!
For the majority of the novel, not loving it seemed pretty impossible. I'll admit it, I had huge expectations for this book, and it probably isn't fair that I held it to such a high standard going in. I can't say that all of those expectations were met at the end of the book, but what I will say is THANK GOODNESS this book is part of a series. Because if it wasn't, there's no way in the Hole that I'd be able to sleep at night. (Get it, "the Hole" / Hell.... oh, c'mon, I tried.)
As a standalone novel, there's no way that the story, the way it is now, would have held up. As a singular book, I do think that it COULD have held up, if it were not for all of the loose ends. Yeah, there was sort of a cliff hanger, but there was also legitimate closure, which I appreciate more than words can describe. My problem was that SO MANY really interesting outlets for potential twists or extra plot depth were introduced and never used. And then that just left me waiting and waiting for something really spectacular to happen, only to be left at the ending with the thought, "Well, I guess it will happen in the next book."
But why am I even saying any of this? There obviously ARE going to be other books, as is evident by the big, white words "A Sinners SERIES" right above the title, so why am I getting all worked up? Aren't some things supposed to be left for the other books?
Well, yeah, but I still wish that a few more of those potential avenues had been explored at least a little bit in the first novel. For example, Keegan had a RIDICULOUS amount of hatred towards the guards, but I only knew his character for such a short amount of time that I never really understood it. Keegan's not branded. Keegan never lived with the guards as far as I know. So why does he keep adamantly protesting that they're not even human when Lexi, someone who is very aware of the cruelty some of them can possess, is unnerved by her brother's idea? What happened that made him think that?
And then there's the identity of the Commander. I can't say my mind was blown by who he is, but there were certainly others I expected before him. But when I found out for sure, I really liked the choice the authors made. I LOVE a villain with a backstory and a lot of depth, and that's exactly what I was expecting once his identity was revealed. I want to know his REASONS for everything he did, both as the Commander and as who he was to me before. I want to see Lexi put two and two together to give me a character who may have been completely insane, but was still a person all the same. But she didn't. That time never came, and I was really disappointed that the idea was touched on but never fully explored. There was just SO MUCH POTENTIAL. And that's not even mentioning his relation to Sutton and Lexi's dad (or her mother for that matter, although I'm very confident that idea will be extensively explored in the next books).
But before you think I completely hate this book (which I DON'T) because all I've done is complain about it so far, let me tell you what I did like.
Zeus. No explanation needed other than he's the best goofball guard dog out there, and if anything had happened to him, I would have gone on a rampage in some unsuspecting medieval village. Ready the pitchforks.
Reason Two, although not NEARLY as exciting as a slobbering Great Dane afraid of his own farts (yeah, you try to make sense of what I just said), is how well the pieces in between dialogue fit together. What am I supposed to call that? Prose isn't right. Descriptions? Text? Neoskizzles? I don't know what the heck that means, but it's what came up when I clicked on a made-up word generator. I'm trying to add some pizzazz to this review.
What I was trying to say before I went completely off track because of the wonders Google has to offer is that I actually WANTED to read those parts. And that's really rare for me. What usually happens is I catch myself skimming between pieces of dialogue and going back to the "neoskizzles" later once I realize I missed something important. But I didn't do that with Branded. In fact, I think I enjoyed the neoskizzles MORE than the dialogue (which at times felt a little bit rushed or forced), so that definitely says some very good things about the authors' writing abilities.
Reason Three: THIS WORLD. Oh, this world, this world, this world. It lived up to my expectations in every way. The idea behind it is SO COOL, and the only complaint I have is that I wish I had gotten to spend more time with it before the book ended. It's just something you'll have to experience for yourself.
Finally (and I SWEAR I really am about to end this really long review), I want to talk about Cole (aka Mr. Love Interest). Oh, Cole. Sweet, sweet, confusing Cole. You, my dear, are an enigma to me. At first you seem so very concerned about the dangers of your relationship with Lexi, and next thing I know, there's hugs and longing glances and bagels for everyone, every morning. You have no middle ground. And then towards the end, you get all mysterious and suspiciously confident about what's going to happen, so I think that you're sabotaging or plotting something. You make me start to believe that Keegan might actually be right about something, which I really DON'T want to do because I do not like him at all. Then, after all of the literal and metaphorical smoke has cleared, you just pop back in at way too convenient of a time. And then nothing further is explored. Lexi has zero hunches or even suspicions, and now I'm left wondering if I'm just crazy or if you're sending some freakishly mixed signals.
I don't say this often, but I really think this book would have really benefited from being told in third person, or at least from dual perspectives. There was so much that I was left wondering about other people (namely you, Mr. Love Interest), and I think Lexi being the only voice for the entire story kind of held it back. She is surprisingly unspeculative, and I'm so curious about all of this that I just needed more. Actually, what I REALLY want from Branded now is a retelling of some of the crucial scenes from Cole's perspective. I feel like if I could actually see his progression from "I'm your guard, Lexi" to "PLEASE LET ME BE YOUR BOYFRIEND PLEASE" and so on, a lot of my original issues with this book would be gone. That way I could do more than just like it, and love the story for all that it is like I had hoped.