Received from author for book tour
Every time she sleeps it's the same. Her hands are tied. Her face is covered. She stands before a cadre of angels, both exalted and condemned, judgment passed down to her for crimes not of her making. Then she is burned. A searing red X at the nape of her neck every time the one for whom she stands trial is condemned. But even more disturbing than the nightmares is the fact that when she wakes, her brand is there, a glaring testament to the reality of her daily punishment.
Such is the way of Jessica's life. It's been this way for as long as she can remember, and has caused her more pain than just the burning of her skin when she dares to sleep. Her mother has disowned her, tired of her lies regarding angels and judgment, and she now works alone as a caretaker for a lake house in a fairly isolated area. Her solitude is interrupted with the arrival of Alex, the grandson of the couple who owns the home, and he informs Jessica of his grandparent's passing and his subsequent ownership of the property.
Alex agrees to keep Jessica on as a caretaker, and though she fears the repercussions of living with someone who will be able to hear her screams as she wakes from the nightmares, she begins to find comfort in living with someone else. While Jessica works up the courage to tell Alex the truth, her dreams begin to change. The leader of the condemned is missing. Her one saving grace, the bag over her head hiding her true identity from the angels, has been stripped away and all have seen who she really is. Voices plague her. Blackouts consume her. And the nightmares are only getting worse...
Branded has a powerful and memorable premise, pumping us full of a vicarious adrenaline and a very real fear our own dreams may come to reflect some of the terror of Jessica's now that we have knowledge of them. The thought of enduring constant persecution night after night for the sins of strangers is horrifying, a fear only compounded by the fact that Jessica's waking hours provide little escape or solace, her brands a permanent reminder of what awaits her when her eyelids fall. This story is one that forces us to think, to question, and ultimately to worry about the possibility of finding ourselves in a similar situation when the time comes, facing judgment as a detailed list of our rights and wrongs are read aloud, and a simple vote of up or down seals our everlasting fate.
While the overall concept is thought-provoking and mesmerizing in it's ability to stay with us once the covers of the book have long since closed, the characterization doesn't entirely match the book's potential. Though Jessica has an undeniable fortitude and we are instantly sympathetic to her plight, a connection never fully forms beyond a phantom tug at our heartstrings every so often. A strong pull to her remains elusive, as though we are watching her through a frosted plate glass window where her voice, her fears, and her actions are effectively muted, and we receive only the moments extreme enough to make their way through the barrier, the full spectrum of emotions still locked behind the cool surface.
The romance between Alex and Jessica is sweet, and while we're glad she has a sliver of happiness to counter her slumberous torture, the relationship seems almost too easy. He shows up, there's an instant attraction, and then he breezily accepts the part of her past boyfriends and her own family have vehemently pushed away, irreversibly denying her the comfort of their understanding. There's no real challenge for them as a couple, nothing to make us want to fight with them and beside them as they attempt to interpret the new developments of her nightmares. The relationship quickly becomes everything to Jessica, and though it's understandable based on her previous solitary existence, her actions toward the end blatantly contradict the strength of will she's shown up to this point. She attempts to take the easy way out when things take a final disastrous turn, giving up entirely, abandoning all hope, and surrendering body and soul to the epic battle that has crossed the threshold from nightmare to reality. All along she's shown immeasurable strength, constantly raging against her dire circumstances, and it's not until a boyfriend enters the picture that her courage begins to wan, her overwhelming attachment to Alex seeming to leech her strength instead of bolstering her against the onslaught of an unimaginable horror.
Overall, Branded has a great deal of promise and a truly enticing concept, and though certain elements are predictable and a bit too convenient, the conclusion provides quite a few surprises and leaves events open enough that we know this story is far from over, but also gives us enough of a resolution that we aren't screaming out in frustration. I look forward to reading more of Jessica's story with the hope she'll find a balance between the strong, lonely girl who's fought alone her whole life, and this new girl who's found a partner she can trust but also one on whom she's become dangerously dependent.