In the world of Branded, colors are used to label sinners. Red is wrath. Orange is gluttony. Yellow is greed. Green is envy. Blue is lust. Purple is pride. Black is sloth.
The colored tattoos symbolize capital vices and solidify your fate. Sinners are criminals that are locked up in a Chicago-sized prison called The Hole and forced to work. The Hole is supervised by Guards, corrupt followers of The Commander, who commit sins themselves. It is a place where chaos runs wild.
The concept for the novel came to Abi Ketner one day after a run. She couldn’t keep herself from writing the idea down. After beginning the story, she sent it to Missy Kalicicki, who added to it. The friends went back and forth, adding words and editing details; three months later, Branded was finished. And although it’s been re-written a few times, Christianity was always an inspiration and influence for the overall plot.
“We’re both Christians, we’ve both been judged, and we’ve both experienced grace as well,” said Kalicicki. “We wrote [Branded] so that people can see how those attitudes affect others, whether negative or positive.”
Branded follows Lexi, a young woman labeled a sinner, even though she’s innocent. Her brand is the color blue, which symbolizes lust. Not only does it mark her as a criminal, it also causes people to judge and make assumptions about her character. But she isn’t the only victim – every sinner in the Hole is treated differently based on assumptions made about his or her brand.
“We really focus on the sinners as a whole, because if you think about it, we are all sinners of multiple sins. But those that are branded ‘wrath’ are looked at differently, simply because people might be afraid of them. So there it becomes more of a trust issue.”
While the novel details and explores societal judgment, it also examines love and self-growth. When readers first meet Lexi, she’s at the weakest point in her life. Throughout the novel, readers watch her grow and develop. She builds friendships, becomes a caretaker and falls in love. She also learns self defense, and finds the power to fight and stand up for herself. Lexi becomes someone she never imagined being.
“Lexi’s a mix between the both of us. With faults, fears and weaknesses,” said Kalicicki. “She grows as she lives.”
Lexi’s newfound strength is discovered with the help of people she meets in The Hole, one of which is her personal Guard, Cole. Although Cole’s assignment is to keep Lexi alive, their relationship blurs the line between profession and friendship and slowly, they become something more. With Cole, Lexi not only learns to love, but also experiences what it’s like to be loved and fully trust someone.
But love comes in all shapes and sizes. The other person that affects Lexi is Alyssa, the 13 year-old patient at the hospital Lexi works at. Loosely based off of Kalicicki’s friend who passed away at a young age, Alyssa brings out compassion and protectiveness in Lexi.
“You don’t have to be an adult to make an impact on those around you,” Kalicicki said. “You can be courageous, mature, and strong regardless of your age.”
Although the world of Branded is bleak and terrifying, Lexi is able to find the courage to make it through each day with the help of those around her and the hope of a better life.
Ketner and Kalicicki are still shocked about Branded’s success. “Branded was written as a hobby. … We never planned for any of this. We just wanted to tell a story, that we would love. And I guess, we are just blessed others love it as well.”
For more on Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki, visit their website or follow them on Twitter.