Promised is the final book in the Birthmarked trilogy, the first of which I reviewed here. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, but as the third book wasn’t published in the UK, I had to wait for my local library to get hold of an American copy before I could finally find out what happened to Gaia and co. And when it did finally arrive in the library, I actually squealed with excitement! I don’t think the poor librarian behind me expected the surprise! But she was pleased I was enthusiastic, at least.
Warning: there will be mild spoilers for the first two Birthmarked books below.
Book three of the trilogy finds us with Gaia and co, leaving Sylum and heading back towards the Enclave. They can’t stay any more, and they plan to return to Wharfton and form New Sylum. Unfortunately, the Enclave rears its ugly head again, causing havoc for all involved.
I found the pace across this whole series well done, with the three books clearly being set phases of the overarching story, without being hammed in or unnecessarily extended. In terms of story structure and execution, it it done very well. Nothing feels rushed, and yet there is tension where tension is required, added pace where needed, and slowing down for moments that need dwelling on some more. This is one of the main reasons I have got on so well with this series, and I hope others have found this too. The first third of the book is Gaia, as Matrach, negotiating with the Protectorat. There is a moment where you think “so where’s the rest of the book got to go?”, but very quickly O’Brien unravels a few more layers of the Protectorat’s disturbing regime.
The premise of the Birthmarked books is a deeply disturbing one. The idea that women are turned into harvesting machines feels both dystopian but horribly real at the same time. It’s a clear result of the Enclave having an unreasonably small population, which doesn’t allow for gene diversification. Everyone will grow closer, biologically. The introduction of the ‘baby farms’ that the Protectorat is starting, to get more and more genetic diversity into the Enclave, is awful, and there are other disturbing things occur too (but which I will leave for you all to discover, otherwise I will have spoiler-ed it!). The way O’Brien handles this is neatly done, with observations from both sides as to what has happened. We see the Protectorat’s view, and the need for diversification, but at the same time women are being held ransom, essentially, by their own reproductive system. It’s a horrifying thought that this might one day happen – but then, a good dystopia goes into that territory.
In other aspects, however, it is a journey/adventure narrative. This is no black-covered doom-predicting YA book about how the apocalypse is coming to get us. I don’t have a problem with those kinds of books, but the Birthmarked series is not simply a dystopia. It’s about Gaia’s journey from Wharfton to the Enclave, to Sylum and back again. It’s about the friendships she develops, and the systems she has to work with. Sylum itself, in the second book, has just as many issues as a settlement as the Enclave does – but flipped. Watching Gaia negotiate these challenges gives us a greater understanding of her character, and we are invested in her journey very quickly.
In an interview at the end of Promised, Caragh O’Brien says she chose the opening scene of Gaia giving a baby to the Enclave as “having [her] main character do something so henious right from the start, but [she] was hoping readers… would give Gaia a chance.” And we are rewarded by giving Gaia that chance. She is no born leader, and we see her struggles against people who clearly think they are there to rule. Her reluctance in leadership, however, pairs off very well with Leon’s skills, and the two balance each other out very effectively.
The Leon relationship is one that I think has been strong from the start: introduced excellently in Birthmarked, and then experiencing that relationship through the trials and tribulations of Sylum, gave us a deeper understanding of both their individual characters, which meant that as readers we go into the final book knowing them almost as well as ourselves. And this character-building through the series feels perfectly natural. Lots of show, and very little tell! The exploration in this book of Leon’s relationship with his father, building on our earlier knowledge, dovetails very well with the plot, and always feels relevant to the wider happenings of the book. There is no info-dumping, and no lengthy exposition. If only all books did this!
The only thing I was less keen on was how much things were unpacked. Especially with the end of the book, and the changes in the order of things, it could be far more unpacked than it was. We, as readers, got that satisfying ending which I was hoping for, but as a result the actual world-development was left to be skimmed over somewhat. I would have liked to read more of the fallout after the climax of the story, but we don’t get as much of that as I would have hoped.
The things I most liked were: The pacing and quality of the writing, and making Leon more substantial than simply a love interest.
Things I was less keen on: I feel like it could have been unpacked more, and that while it was very enjoyable the length it was, there were elements that were fractionally underdeveloped.
If you liked this, try:
Slated by Teri Terry
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
Half Bad by Sarah Green
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