The Friday 52: Branded, by Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki

[This review is based on the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) digital edition published by Month9Books in 2014, and provided by NetGalley.]

The single-sentence synopsis:
In a dystopian future, Lexi Hamilton is falsely accused of committing one of the seven deadly sins (which are criminal in this new society), is forcibly branded with a blue band (representing Lust) around her neck, and must learn to live in the Hole under the constant watch of her guard, Cole.

Judging the cover:
Simply gorgeous! Pretty girl — beautiful eyes — interesting, lacy choker-looking thing around her neck. Is that her brand? It looks painted on…no way that’s possible, because being branded has always been associated with pain. They couldn’t have burned this into her neck, could they?!

First thought I had after I finished reading:
I’m so happy I picked up this book…and I hate that I have to wait for the sequel, Hunted!

And here’s why:
As I mentioned in my Divergent-themed Sunday Selections post two weeks ago, I stumbled upon Branded one day while I was scanning my Instagram feed. The cover immediately spoke to me, and Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki were regramming posts from readers who’d hailed the book, making it kind of unavoidable. I knew I’d inevitably read it at some point and was pleasantly surprised when I was approved to read it through NetGalley. Once I finished all of my work related to I Shall Be Near to You, I dove right into this!

I’m buried six feet under, and no one hears my screams.

Abi and Missy, you have my undivided attention! Branded opened with this line and carried this level of dark intensity throughout. It was certainly a great way to suck in readers!

I was hoping for an interesting story and relatable characters, and Abi and Missy made my wish come true! (Yay!) Lexi gets thrown into a terrifying situation, living among a combination of scum (pardon my language) and other innocents. As it turns out, she was accused by someone very close to her, but the reasons behind the accusation are not as cut-and-dried as they initially seem. Once in the Hole, it’s easily to believe that a pretty girl like Lexi — someone physically desirable — could be capable of committing such a sin, despite the medical proof that she’s still a virgin. The whole idea of being branded for committing one of the seven sins left me with a scary thought: If we actually lived under this type of system, there’d be way more people, branded and suffering, in the Hole than living freely outside of it! It brings a whole new level of meaning, and fear, to the “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” quote, right?

Cole…oh, Cole. I knew from the moment that he and Lexi had to share an apartment (if you’d call it that) that there would be some kind of chemistry developing between them. What begins as orders to protect her, without knowing the truth behind why he has to protect her, gradually becomes just as much about Cole’s willingness to look after Lexi, especially when he discovers that she was in fact wrongfully branded. The moment where he truly shines, however, comes when he offers to attend a dinner “date” with a dying girl in the hospital, at Lexi’s behest. You’d think Cole would oblige her begrudgingly, but later on we learn that he came to care about the girl just as much as Lexi has. It’s a really sweet little development, and it provides deeper insight into Cole’s tough-guy character than I’d expected. I was truly thrilled by that.

The back half of the story takes on a very girl-power, tough-chick kind of vibe. I didn’t think I’d like it — I’ve already read many stories with similar plotlines and worried that I’d be bored with it here, but Abi and Missy take it to a completely new level. Not only does Lexi find herself participating in war (full gear and everything!), but she maintains equal parts girly-girl and hardened soldier throughout the big battle. I worried with her about Cole’s beloved dog, Zeus, and whether he’d survived the gunfights and explosions; I cheered her on as she pulled the trigger on the horrible guards without stopping to wonder if she’d messed up her hair or broken a nail. She’s my kind of heroine, exactly the kind of girl I can relate to!

The biggest shock of the book came with the revelation of the Commander’s identity, and their ties with Lexi and one of her closest allies. I’m so happy that douche is dead. I know it’s a terrible thing to say and a strange word to use to describe someone, but when you read the book and learn about just how horrible this person was to Lexi, you’ll agree with me. Trust me on that. I’m so happy that Cole stepped up to the plate in her stead. I literally sat there after I’d finished reading, just shaking my head and saying wow over and over again!

Just don’t let Lexi’s accuser turn out to be the new Commander, please?!

On a scale of 1-5, I would give it a…

Follow Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads (Abi and Missy), and don’t forget to check out their website!

Click here to order Branded via Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or IndieBound!