Review: ‘Win the Rings’ by K.D. Van Brunt

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Win the Rings is a young adult dystopian novel, narrated in first person from the perspectives of two sixteen year old shifters, Jace and Gray. Shifters have the ability to ‘acquire’ non-shifters through touch. Once acquired, shifters take on the physical form, memories, emotion and knowledge of the person they acquired, without losing their own sense of self. Taken by CRACD (Classified Resources Academy Delta, colloquially referred to as ‘Cracked’, a secret branch of the U.S. Army that trains young shifters) at five years of age, Jace is introduced to the reader as a powerful shifter who is both feared and bullied by her fellow cadets. Gray has been on the run with his non-shifter sister, Nia, since he was five years old. He manages to scrape by, by acquiring white-colour criminals and stealing their money. After one of his victims files a police report after realising her bank account has been emptied, Cracked sends Jace to track Gray down.

I found the front cover off-putting, because I personally feel that having a recognisable protagonist featured on a cover intrudes on my interpretation of a characters’ appearance. Having said that, I was captivated by the premise of the book, as described in the blurb, of Jace being ‘the property of the U.S. Army … (who has become) one of its most valuable weapons’.

The alternating chapter narrations makes Win the Rings, for the most part, a fast-paced, enjoyable read. As I was reading a Gray chapter I wondered how the events would effect the following Jace chapter, and vice versa. There was a great contrast of worlds, with the grim regimented military stronghold of Cracked that Jace inhabits add odds with the open-world inhabited by Gray and Nia, where each location presents high risk opportunities for loss or gain.

Jace’s chapters were, at times, frustrating to follow. The reader is often told about relationships and events, rather than shown. I got a sense that this was because there was so much back story about Jace, her relationship with others at Cracked, and the politics and history of Cracked, to cram in. For instance, Jace tells the reader: Once, years ago, I was friends with Max. We survived together at Cracked, but he stopped being a friend a long time ago, as our mutual feelings slipped from friendship to indifference to smouldering hatred. I wanted to see their history, to have a scene played out that showed their friendship dissolving, or, failing that, to see their smouldering hatred played out in a scene, rather than have Max leering in the background. Information, such as the HSK test and the abilities of a shifter, is delivered in bits and pieces in different chapters, which may have been done in such a way as to create suspense, but I found it jarring, as, thinking I had missed information, I found myself going back and re-reading chapters. Probably the most frustrating aspect of Jace’s chapters were references to her vanity. In one scene she expresses disappointment because she feels she is too skinny and flat-chested. In another scene she muses: somewhere in the back of my brain maybe I want to be beautiful, but beauty doesn’t survive well here. At one point she reflects: I’m not sure why I bother with make-up; it’s not like any of the guys around this place would want to have anything to do with me. While her low self-esteem and preoccupation with her image contrasts with other characters’ perception of her as a hardened bully, and would make her relatable to many female readers, I wondered whether other insecurities would have provided greater depth to her character and better matched her environment and circumstance, given she inhabits a place where cadets disappear or are killed. Would body image issues have still applied if Jace was re-written as a male character?

I felt that I learned more about Gray than I did Jace, because there was less back-story, which meant more time was devoted to following Gray and his sister as they tried to evade capture. The strength of Gray’s chapters is that the reader is taken along for the ride, and learns about character relationships as Gray does, rather than being told retrospectively. Gray was an exciting character to follow, with the bulk of his chapters being action packed. The pacing is pretty solid, as is the suspense, as Nia and Gray go from place to place, trying to survive while carving out something that resembles a normal life. It was fun to follow Gray as he acquired the white-colour criminals. There was an underlying suspense with everything Gray and Nia did, whether adventurous or mundane, as I wondered if or when they’d be tracked down.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Win the Rings and read it quite quickly. I wanted to see (not be told) more about Cracked, but I am hopeful this will be explored further in the sequel.  I don’t think the premise of the book was fully realised in Win the Rings but I am hopeful this will be fully developed in the sequel.

My rating:

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I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, K.D. Van Brunt, in exchange for an honest review on Goodreads.