Dystopian fantasy

It is an unstated law of the entertainment industry. If one creative work (a book, a film, a song) becomes a hit, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of works that take inspiration from that one, hoping to cash in on the same success. 

If some of the derivative works sell, there will be a secondary wave of inspirations. And so on. It’s how genres are spawned and how new markets are conquered.

In the case of Pawn, by Aimee Carter, one can trace the lineage back to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. 
 
Pawn, like its literary ancestor, falls under “YA Dystopian Fiction With A Spunky Heroine.” 

Does it mean Carter has borrowed anything of the plot of Hunger Games? Of course not. Pawn has a totally different plot (which is a common trope in itself, but we’ll come back to that in a bit). 
 
But the list of what it does borrow is quite telling: In the future, the world, aka the US, is tightly controlled by a dictatorial family. 

People are slotted into concrete social strata, never to escape from where they’ve been placed. 

The heroine, Kitty, is thrust onto the world stage by a quirk of fate (specifically, the colour of her eyes). 
 
She now has the chance to change the world for the better, if only she can play her part right. 

And for romantic tension, there is her old boyfriend from her ‘normal’ days, and two other boys who may or may not be romantically inclined towards her. 

Told this way, Pawn sounds like a carbon copy of Hunger Games. But the plot itself is quite different: Kitty lives in the aforementioned dystopian world where people are given grades, from I to VII, based on an aptitude test they take when they turn 17. 

She’s just been given a bad grade, which will mean she will spend her life cleaning sewers. 

Suddenly, she’s kidnapped by the prime minister, and given plastic surgery so that she looks like his niece, Lila. 

Lila has been going around giving revolutionary-type speeches, and goading the people into rising against the government. 
 
Just as well that she died mysteriously a few days before — Kitty will now be more obedient than Lila, and will do the bidding of the prime minister and his politically-minded mother. 
 
But almost as soon as Kitty is brought into the fold, she finds out there are other factions within the family. 
 
Lila’s mother, for example, and her fiancée are not keen on the whole experiment and want Kitty to continue Lila’s good work. 

Kitty must not only fight for her own survival, but also make the right choices in an ever-shifting game of loyalties. 

The trope of the duplicate taking the place of a powerful figure, controlled by other forces, is an old one — Bollywood has its Don and the recent Aurangzeb, while Twain’s 

The Prince and the Pauper and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda had similar elements. 

Carter uses the idea well, giving the story a lot of twists and turns. 
 
Kitty’s impersonation of Lila is only a starting point, and she must do more things to keep herself safe. 

To make everything worse, there is a mysterious rebel army that may be responsible for Lila’s death, which makes Kitty their next target. 

All in all, there is never a dull moment in the story. 

What does let the book down are two things: the writing, and the characterisation. 
 
Carter is nowhere near as skilled as Suzanne Hunger Games Collins in getting her words to flow smoothly. 
 
Games is no masterpiece, true, but it feels more internally consistent, and everything from the dialogues to the scene descriptions fit together well. 

Carter has everyone speaking like an American teenager, with “Yeah”s and “So what”s. 

The plot itself seems workshopped and artificial, as if it’s a series of chapters checking off a list of revelations prepared beforehand. 

The characters also don’t seem to grow or change except when a twist is demanded — Lila’s grandmother, for example, is a stereotypical “dictatorial mother”, and wherever a hard decision is required to be taken, it’s pegged on her. 

Kitty herself has one single change of heart at one point, but it’s so obvious they could have written it on the back cover and we wouldn’t have lost a thing. 

The characters exist only to advance the plot, and not to live their lives within the pages. 

Overall, do the plot differences and the twists give this book an identity of its own? Not really. 
 
Pawn still sits in the long shadow cast by Hunger Games, and will sell on the basis of the popularity of the genre, not on its own merit. 

Pawn 
Aimee Carter
Harlequin
2014,
pp 343
Rs 250

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