Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Birthmarked and Prized

So, I made the mistake of starting (and then finishing) the second book, Prized, in this series before I managed to review the first, Birthmarked. Normally, this wouldn't be that big of a deal, but Prized was such a surprise that I think it will make it difficult for me to review the first as if I haven't read the second book. So I decided that I will just review them together and know that my thoughts of Birthmarked are very much now colored by my thoughts of Prized. There also might be some spoilerish things, but I will try not to reveal too much.

Birthmarked Caragh M. O'Brien


ISBN13: 9781596435698

361 Pages, Hardcover

Series: Birthmarked Trilogy #1


Summary from Goodreads:

In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those, like sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, who live outside. Following in her mother’s footsteps Gaia has become a midwife, delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing a quota over to be "advanced" into the privileged society of the Enclave. Gaia has always believed this is her duty, until the night her mother and father are arrested by the very people they so loyally serve.

Now Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught, but her choice is simple: enter the world of the Enclave to rescue her parents, or die trying.

A stunning adventure brought to life by a memorable heroine, this dystopian debut will have readers racing all the way to the dramatic finish.

My Thoughts:

Ok, I think the first thing I need to address is the last part of that summary. While I enjoyed Birthmarked both times I read it (I couldn't remember it well enough from when I first read back in 2010, so I decided to just read it again) and I didn't feel any of the anger and annoyance I felt when I was reading Fever, I just don't think the words "stunning adventure" and "dramatic" really fit this book for me. I read in someone's review on Goodreads that this book was originally marketed as a cross between The Handmaiden's Tale and the Hunger Games. If I had gone into this book thinking it was like that, I probably would have been really annoyed.

My biggest problem with the dystopian conflict in this book is that the Enclave isn't clearly bad. They clearly do bad things: They imprisoned Gaia's parents with no explanation. They hang an almost full-term pregnant woman (for "genetic" crimes). They take babies away from loving parents. But these bad things aren't as terrible as things we normally expect from a "dystopian" society. Yes, the Enclave keeps the families outside of the wall poor and wanting, but even Gaia admits that they never suffered horribly. Yes, the Enclave was imprisoning women with medical expertise, but they were kept in reasonable conditions. So, to some extent, when Gaia begins to feel rebellious against the Enclave, I'm kind of like....so what?

A large part of the conflict between Gaia and the Enclave is based on this coded record of babies that Gaia's mother delivered. This list would allow the Enclave to identify particular people who had been advanced from that sector and who could have a suppressor gene that could possibly help the Enclave stave off some hereditary disease issues cropping up because of interbreeding in a small population. So, the Enclave could start advancing more babies and forcing certain people to breed. I kept asking myself, what is so terrible about this (within the context of Gaia's world) and why are the Enclave people being so secretive about it? It's clear that there is no established rebel network, so who are they even protecting this information from? That piece of it did not make any sense to me and I think it's definitely the biggest flaw of the book. O'Brien doesn't delve deeply enough into the issues to answer the "so what" questions regarding the meaning of family both genetic and adopted, the importance of sustaining a society over individual rights, or why the Enclave doesn't just open its walls up to increase the gene pool. She asks some questions, but she does not do enough to answer them to make the message of this book satisfactory. Basically, I ended this book hoping the next would delve deeper into these issues.

Having said that, I still enjoyed this book and think it is worth reading. I liked how O'Brien handled the romance aspect of the book. I can't stand it when characters see each other from across the room and are suddenly unspeakably in love. I thought there was a natural progression to Gaia and Leon's budding feelings and some authorial respect for the short time frame in which they actually knew each other.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Despite being somewhat uneven, I think fans of dystopian YA would enjoy this series.

Prized Caragh M. O'Brien


ISBN13: 9781596435704

369 Pages, Hardcover

Series: Birthmarked Trilogy #2

Summary from Goodreads:

Striking out into the wasteland with nothing but her baby sister, a handful of supplies, and a rumor to guide her, sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone survives only to be captured by the people of Sylum, a dystopian society where women rule the men who drastically outnumber them, and a kiss is a crime. In order to see her sister again, Gaia must submit to their strict social code, but how can she deny her sense of justice, her curiosity, and everything in her heart that makes her whole?

My thoughts:

This book was so far out of the realm of what I was expecting from the next book that I hardly know where to begin. Instead of continuing the same lines of inquiry from the first book, O'Brien cracks open an entirely new can of worms. Just having escaped one (supposedly, see above) cruel society, she is plunged directly into a totally different one: the matriarchal society of Sylum.

Sylum is faced with a major genetics problem. Instead of the issues that the Enclave was having with interbreeding, the people of Sylum are facing extinction as only one out of ten babies born are girls. In order to keep up the population, women are expected to bear as many children as possible (preferably ten) in the hopes that they will bear a girl. In response to this problem, Sylum has developed a government in which only the women have a voice, despite being outnumbered by the men. Men are put in stocks and prison for rape (which we come to find out later could mean only that he touched a woman he was not married to). But having babies isn't enough, the babies must be had in a proper marriage otherwise the women would be outcast for disrespecting the sanctity of marriage and that of the proper family.

One of the first things Gaia is asked to do once she identifies herself as a midwife is to end the pregnancy of a young girl who is not married. Can I just say, I was NOT EXPECTING the book to take this turn. I'm not going to go into my own opinions about abortion, because that would just be begging for abuse, but I was shocked that Gaia actually "assists with a miscarriage" (in other words, she helped a mother abort her baby using an herbal concoction). I thought it was brave of O'Brien to go there considering how controversial a subject it actually is. Gaia's reasoning is that, despite being unsure whether inducing the miscarriage is morally right or wrong, it is her duty as a midwife to honor the mother's decision.

Naturally, when the leader, the Matrarc, gets wind of this, it does not go over well. (Interestingly enough, few residents of Sylum are scandalized by premarital sex. It is only something they refrain from because they think it will protect their population in the end, not because it is morally wrong. In Sylum, abortion is wrong because it impedes the population.) This leads us to what I actually think is the more interesting aspect of the book. In the first book, and at the beginning of this book, Gaia is a person who does what she believes is right and won't let anyone stop her. In the first book, she was imprisoned for a time and questioned her own motives, but stuck with the belief that the Enclave was wrong and acted accordingly. In this book, Gaia is again imprisoned and expertly manipulated by the Matrarc. Gaia's subsequent confusion over what is right and wrong and her eventual submission are the most interesting part of the book, for me. The question that I think is asked here is: does right and wrong change according to the situation? Is what Gaia believes to be morally right (based on what she learned growing up with the Enclave) still morally right when she is faced with Sylum's completely different set of standards and beliefs?

Again, I think O'Brien asks good questions, but doesn't necessarily pan out with the answers. Gaia's actions are somewhat uneven, but this isn't necessarily bad for the book. After all, she has just jumped into a highly sexualized society but has no sexual experience of her own. She is bound to be confused and unsure of herself. While that might make the message of the book uneven, it is still within her character for me. I also thought she handled the romance part of it well, though it was a bit complicated given Sylum's bizarre no touching rules. It was clear who Gaia would end up with, but that didn't bother me much.

I have some issues with the ending, but I hesitate to say more because I don't want to give away the ending of Prized. So if anyone out there has read it and wants to discuss what they thought of the ending, by all means email me! Since O'Brien managed to completely surprise me with this one, I'm definitely interested in reading the last book. Given the ending of Prized, it has potential to be really good or really bad.

Rating: 4 out 5.

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