In an opening letter concerning Caragh O’Brien’s new book Birthmarked, her editor says that she could describe the book as a “Hollywood-style pitch (The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games)” but chooses to avoid the lazy and instead describes how the main character, in the book’s first chapter, must deliver a baby solo (not hers) and then, against the wishes of the mother, take it away and deliver it (literally this time) to a group called The Enclave.
It was a good choice, not only because that opening chapter is more intriguing, but also because it would have been cruelly unfair to Caragh O’Brien to set up readers with such high expectations. For all its relative merits and its general surface similarities, Birthmarked is nowhere near as gripping or as rich (emotionally, linguistically, or plot-wise) as either of those two books — and it would not have taken a reader long to realize that.
So, that unfair comparison aside, how does it stand on its own? I’d call it a decent read but not a particularly strong one, and a book that doesn’t quite hit its potential, coasting along in a low gear but not revving it up often enough or long enough to make it stand out among its YA competition, even amongst the more narrow field of dystopian YA fiction (a field growing by leaps and bounds).
Birthmarked is set in a future, climate-changed, dystopic world where resources, including basic ones like water and food, are scarce. Seemingly comfortably and happily ensconced in a walled city on the edge of Unlake Superior are The Enclave, who divvy out resources to the less comfortable, more wanting population that lives in a village of sorts outside the city. Gaia’s mother is a midwife (Gaia herself is at the start of the book just coming out of her apprenticeship and into her own midwife position) who has for years faithfully delivered a quota of babies to the Enclave, including two of her own.
On Gaia’s arrival home from her first solo delivery, she learns that her parents have both been arrested by the Enclave, leaving behind a mysterious artifact which the Enclave seeks and which Gaia hides away, even though she has no idea what it is or what its purpose is. Gaia decides to try and rescue her parents, and most of the book is taken up with her actions inside the Enclave, where she learns things aren’t always what they seem and where she and others begin to question the system they’ve been toiling under for some time.
Birthmarked’s major strength is its active main character. Gaia, though understandably passive early on, quickly moves into being a young girl that takes matters into her own hands, again and again creating her own situation rather than letting others dictate it to her. Sometimes she might need to wait a bit longer, but you always sense she’s ready to pounce. One or two of the side-characters, mostly among another group of women she spends some time with, are quickly but sharply drawn and have a sense of complexity that enriches the storyline. My one complaint about Gaia (beyond the name) is that she doesn’t grow much in the book: she learns and changes her mind about some things, but I didn’t get a sense of her becoming a different person.
Beyond that, the book is mostly just a bit above adequate. The worldbuilding is pretty minimal, and I never felt wholly “there” or left behind the idea that I was reading about a place/world rather than experiencing it. It’s also a very narrow view, with no sense of what lies beyond a few footsteps outside the village/walled city, which is a little hard to believe. The quota system — its origination, its reasons for being, the changes over time — also never felt fully thought out. Caragh O’Brien did a solid job with it on the surface level, but almost more like dealing with an outline/summary of a system rather than a fully functioning one that’s filled with richness, nuance, complexity and intensity (especially as it deals with probably the most intense bond — parent-child). I never felt that I had a good grip on either society and why they do what they do (not the “big themes” but the smaller day-to-day existence things).
Characters beyond Gaia and the two other women were mostly almost non-existent or uninteresting, unfortunately including the main male character who has the most non-Gaia time and could have been — and needed to be — much stronger. In addition, the plot is at times a bit too predictable and at other times relies too much on coincidence.
Birthmarked comes to a solid resolution, while also clearly setting us up for a sequel. My recommendation is to wait until the sequel comes out to see if the series improves.
Birthmarked — (2010-2012) Young adult Publisher: IN THE ENCLAVE, YOUR SCARS SET YOU APART, and the newly born will change the future. Sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone and her mother faithfully deliver their quota of three infants every month. But when Gaia’s mother is brutally taken away by the very people she serves, Gaia must question whether the Enclave deserves such loyalty. A stunning adventure brought to life by a memorable heroine, this dystopian debut will have readers racing all the way to the dramatic finish.
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