Title: The Pledge
Author: Kimberly Derting
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
May Contain Spoilers
In the violent country of Ludania, the language you speak determines what class you are, and there are harsh punishments if you forget your place—looking a member of a higher class in the eye can result in immediate execution. Seventeen-year-old Charlaina (Charlie for short) can understand all languages, a dangerous ability she’s been hiding her whole life. Her only place of release is the drug-filled underground club scene, where people go to shake off the oppressive rules of the world they live in. There, she meets a beautiful and mysterious boy who speaks a language she’s never heard, and her secret is almost exposed. Through a series of violent upheavals, it becomes clear that Charlie herself is the key to forcing out the oppressive power structure of her kingdom….
I enjoyed this book more than the grade below indicates, but I had high, high expectations going into my reading experience, and these expectations weren’t all met. The Pledge is a highly readable book, with high tension. It was hard to put down, and I was able to breeze through it very quickly. I was disappointed, however, with some of the decisions that protagonist Charlie made, especially considering the high stakes involved here. I also didn’t like how long it took for Charlie to put two and two together when the solutions to most of her questions were right in front of her. That was frustrating at times.
Charlie lives in a highly segregated society. There is one common language that everyone is allowed to speak, as well as different languages for the various classes in her society. It is forbidden to even look at a speaker of a higher caste when they are speaking. As a member of the Vendor class, Charlie isn’t at the bottom of social system, but she is nowhere near the top. That she can understand all languages, spoken and tactile, is an ability that can get her killed. It is her one great secret – no one can ever know that she can understand what everyone is saying around her.
Charlie’s parents have drilled and drilled the importance of keeping her mysterious skill a secret, and yet she runs into trouble early in the novel when she allows a girl from a higher caste to believe that she can understand a conversation she is having with her family. Sydney has been tormenting Charlie and her friends for a long time, so when Sydney’s family stops at the restaurant that Charlie’s parents operate, only trouble can follow. Charlie lets her anger control her, and almost exposes her secret, and by failing to look down while Sydney is speaking, she still breaks a law, one with a penalty that equals death. Only by sheer luck and the grace of Sydney’s father is she spared.
One of the elements of the story that did not work for me was Charlie’s easy acceptance of her ability. It is something that can get her killed. It is something that forced her father to go to frightening lengths to protect her. It is something that shouldn’t be possible, and yet, here she is, fluent in every language, even languages she has never heard before. It frustrated me that she didn’t seek an explanation for this forbidden skill. I also didn’t understand why her parents would put her at so much risk by not telling her anything about it. Charlie is essentially a walking time bomb. Since she is fluent in every language, since she understands every word spoken around her, by her very nature, she has a difficult time telling when one language changes to another. She has to focus all of her attention on hiding this, and it is only a matter of time before she screws up, in a big, big way. I didn’t feel that her parents were doing her any favors by keeping so much about her background a secret.
The other aspect that irked me was her sudden attraction to Max. This is a common story element in romance, but the love at first sight trope is especially common in YA, and it usually drives me bonkers. I thought that in this setting, in this story, Charlie shouldn’t have been in insta-love with Max. There is so much more at stake than a broken heart here, and this one plot thread didn’t win me over. Charlie is a smart girl, and she knows that discovery of her gift could bring death to her, and quite possibly her family. I just didn’t buy that she would throw that all away for Max, a guy she had just met. Even though he was gorgeous. (And I liked Xander better, which didn’t help me to understand Charlie’s fixation for Max!)
The Pledge is a quick, exciting read, with a very interesting dystopian setting. Certain elements didn’t work for me, but I still could not put the book down until I reached the final page. The characters are likeable, there’s some wonderful action, and the ending is satisfying. Though this is slated to be a trilogy, this book stands on its own, which is a bit of a rarity these days. If it wasn’t for all of the pre-press hype, my expectations wouldn’t have been so hard to fulfill.
Review copy obtained from my local library