4 out of 5 stars.
This review may contain spoilers from the first book.
I really, really enjoyed both of these.
Kitty lives in a society where everyone is tested and graded, from I to VII, and that grade determines their path in life. Higher numbers get good jobs, good food, and a good life. Everything goes downhill as the numbers decrease, until the number I means you just disappear and are never heard from again.
Kitty is given a grade of III and a job as a sewage maintenance worker in a different city. Unwilling to move far away from her childhood friend and love Benjy, she desperately tries prostitution. The Prime Minister of the country picks her up, but instead of merely taking her virginity, he offers her a deal. Come with him and be made a VII, the highest possible rank in society, or get a bullet through the brain. What she is not told is that being made a VII means being made into a duplicate of the Prime Minister’s recently assassinated niece. She wakes up in a new body, in a secure facility, with only a couple of weeks to erase all of her poverty-born habits and completely transform herself into a member of the most powerful family in the country.
Her new position means trying to figure out the intricate relationships and alliances between the members of the ruling family while preserving her secret. Some are initially nicer than others, but all have their own ends and are fairly ruthless about pursuing them. When Benjy gets hired at the palace, she has to start playing the game with both her life and Benjy’s on the line.
The politics and intrigue are really well done. You know Kitty cannot trust anyone completely, but you still have to try and figure out who she can trust enough to keep herself and Benjy alive. Several family members are involved in the rebellion, others would kill anyone and everyone to stop it. Kitty has to choose between her ethics and safety many times over.
Throughout the book we learn more and more about the corruption of a system that is supposed to be designed to be fair (everyone takes the test (except for VIIs, which are always and only the ruling family, the Harts) and are placed according to their ability). I love that premise because it is a very clever way to keep a population subjugated. Instead of ruling purely through fear, you make the people feel they deserve to be in their relative positions. If they do not do well on the test, well, that is their fault. The higher ups just have better skills and more knowledge. It is a better justification than most dystopian governments give.
Kitty is a great protagonist. She is clever, sympathetic, but also can act selfishly and irrationally. Her romance with Benjy is fantastically done. She does not fall in love with him because he acts like an aloof jerk, like so many of her heroine compatriots. She falls in love with him because he is an old, dear friend. That just makes so much more sense than most romances in dystopian fiction.
I found these hard to put down. The action was paced well, the characters were complex, the world building was solid, and it was all together a very good read. Very recommended!