Emily's Reviews > Birthmarked

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien
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Oct 21, 11

bookshelves: 2010-releases
I own a copy

From Books and Threads.

I wanted to reread Birthmarked before reading its sequel Prized, and since I never reviewed it, I’m going to do so now. Of course, I’m not totally comfortable reviewing rereads so we’ll see how this goes. On the second read, this book still makes me love it and shudder at the thought of my beloved Great Lakes going dry and becoming desert-dry valleys or ‘unlakes’ in the parlance of the book.

Gaia is an interesting heroine. She’s a midwife instead of the ass-kicker more common to young adult fiction. She’s also incredibly stubborn, not terribly quick on her verbal feet, and has built rarely-breached walls around herself. Gaia believes she fell into a pot of hot melted beeswax when she was a baby, causing a massive scar across her left cheek. The scar and the stares caused by it have caused her to pull into herself, pushing away anyone who tries to become anything closer than an acquaintance. I seriously enjoyed watching her grow from a reticent village midwife into someone who could very easily be called a freedom fighter.

On the other hand, her about face from dutifully taking newborn babies from their mothers to deliver to the walled Enclave to thinking that the Enclave’s system was evil happened almost too quickly - within just a matter of pages. But once Gaia decides something, she decides it with her entire heart and judges all those around her accordingly. It’s a trait I enjoy in main characters even when it makes me want to repeatedly beat them over the head for being a judgemental ass. Her utter loyalty to those she loves - her parents who she runs into danger for, the babies she delivers, her friend Emily who she’d protect at all costs - dovetails nicely with the decisiveness. They combine to effect most of the action in the book.

The overarching world-building in Birthmarked isn’t always of the highest caliber. It’s understandable that the characters wouldn’t wander around talking about whatever happened 300 years ago to cause the climate to change and the lakes to dry up. But some additional information about the current society, how the Enclave and Wharfton developed and how they currently function would have been interesting. My biggest issue here is the use of hemophilia. Those who live in the Enclave (inside the wall) are suffering from inbreeding, and one of the results in this society is ever more common occurrences of hemophilia. Except that it seems to be used incorrectly. Hemophilia is a recessive trait carried on the X chromosome which makes boys more likely to inherit the disease while girls tend to be carriers. So why then does O’Brien have a family with a healthy son and a daughter who died of hemophilia? If both parents have the gene, than both the father and the son should also have the disease. It’s a frustrating problem because hemophilia is such a well-known disease. A rare disease could have gotten away with some errors, and I wish O’Brien had chosen to go in that direction.

This bugs me even more because so much of O’Brien’s other worldbuilding is incredible. Her details about midwivery and herbs are obviously well-researched and considered. The description of Gaia’s rundown village of Wharfton as teeming with life contrasting with the literal and figurative sterility of the Enclave was very well done. The comparison managed to be subtle and slowly grow throughout the story instead of hitting the reader over the head with its obviousness.

There’s very little romance so if that’s what you’re looking for, I’d probably advise another book, but Gaia and her potential love interest have a well-developed relationship that moves from antagonism to uneasy allies to antagonism again to potential friends or more. I was pleasantly surprised that the interactions managed to avoid all the cliches from hate-at-first-sight to insta-love or starcrossed lovers.

The end of Birthmarked throws everything completely up in the air, and I don’t expect Prized to cover any of the same ground (literally or figuratively) as the first book in the trilogy. It should be an interesting ride! I’d definitely recommend Birthmarked to anyone looking for a character-driven dystopian novel with a stubbornly determined heroine at the heart.
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