Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 2/15

More dystopian fiction! Can we ever get enough of this stuff? I have to admit, that for all my enthusiasm for the answer is "maybe." The problem when the market becomes saturated with a genre is that new additions have to work so much harder to stand out from the rest of the crowd, and I'm not sure Birthmarked is up to that task.

An accident as an infant condemned Gaia to a life of poverty, hunger...and the love of her birth parents. In Wharfton, every month a certain number of babies must be "advanced" for the good of the Enclave; taken from their birth mothers and given to adoptive families inside who will ensure the child will never want for anything. When Gaia was born, the infants got to live with their parents for their first year before going into a lottery, but after a severe wax burn left Gaia with scars all along the left side of her face she was no longer eligible. Now Gaia is 16 and working as a midwife alongside her mother; the new requirements for advancement call for the first three babies a midwife delivers in a month to be delivered to the Enclave within 90 minutes of their birth.

Gaia has always been unwaveringly loyal to the Enclave - until her parents are arrested in the middle of the night, accused of treason. Gaia narrowly escapes arrest as well, and continues her mother's work outside of the wall, until she hears of her parents' impending execution. Gaia sets out on a nearly impossible rescue attempt, which seems to be thwarted at every turn, but as Gaia is convinced of the rightness of her mission, she refuses to give up.

A lot of life in the Enclave made me think of this as sort of a pre-Handmaiden's Tale. Citizens of the Enclave are increasingly infertile or are carrying debilitating genetic diseases due to generations of inbreeding, leading to the need to take in babies from the outside. I could definitely see the society veering towards Gallahad-ian policies if the birthrate continued to fall - they even already have a class of women who dress exclusively in red! (Though it seems to connote more about their status in society than their fertility)

But even that is a sign of how reductive parts of this book are. There's very little here we haven't seen here before. The bits about inbreeding do add a bit of freshness to the story, as it would be a very real danger for insular societies, but that isn't enough to really keep the momentum of the story going.

I also had a huge, huge problem with the romance. It felt soooooooo forced, like O'Brien got halfway through the book and thought, "Oops, YA books need romance. Quick! Have that boy kiss Gaia!" I exaggerate, but not by terribly much. Authors, I promise you: we don't actually *need* romances in our YA books - sometimes the focus of the story really should remain elsewhere, and you should keep your male and female leads platonic. Those who want/need romance will read sexual tension into the relationship anyway, and sometimes UST can be more satisfying than any on-screen romance (see: X-Files).

I do have to admit, though, I was very excited to realize this was set around the Great Lakes - Wharfton is near Unlake Superior, as the environmental disaster didn't even leave that massive lake unscathed. Whether Wharfton is in present-day Michigan, Wisconsin or Canada isn't revealed, but I like the idea of the upper peninsula becoming a desert wasteland, so I'm going with Michigan ;-)

I suspect this is a great story for those who haven't spent the last year and a half reading every single piece of dystopian literature that's been published. For those of us who are well-versed in the genre, however, there's really nothing substantially new to see here.
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