book reviews / dystopia

Book Review: Birthmarked

Caraugh M. O’Brien

Gaia Stone is a teenage midwife. And those two words, teenage and midwife, encapsulate many of her struggles in the Birthmarked Trilogy.

  1. TEENAGE. It’s a coming-of-age story. Gaia loses parental guidance, challenges a dystopian system, considers romance, and struggles with how her birthmarked face has come to define her.
  2. MIDWIFE. This series is all about reproductive questions. Can an elite class (those who live inside the Enclave) demand the children of an oppressed class (those who live outside)? Is a baby better off raised by biological parents in poverty or adoptive parents in wealth? What are the consequences of forced adoption, inbreeding, and regulated marriage? What is a “perfect child?” What makes a “perfect parent?”

Much of the excitement comes from Gaia’s relationship with the young, mysterious, and cold-hearted Sgt. Leon Grey. Leon is part of the Enclave system, yet he seems to have a weakness where Gaia is concerned.  Might he help her escape prison and free her captured mother?

And what is this secret message everyone is after? Does it hold the key to the Enclave’s salvation or destruction?

O’Brien loves codes.  The reader peers over Gaia’s shoulder as she decodes, step-by-step, an enigmatic message left by her mother. Few books care so much about the nuances of code. They are more interested in the message and its effect. But I have no doubt some readers will geek out over the detailed mechanics of the code itself, in the same way some readers of Tolkien study Elvish. I bet somewhere, right now, a couple 8th grade readers are passing notes in school written in this code.

Young readers will especially identify with Gaia’s struggle to accept the birthmark that sets her apart. Her facial disfigurement disqualified her from “Advancement” (being adopted into the privileged Enclave class). Yet the disqualification was also protection – she stayed with her loving biological parents as her older brothers could not. The birthmark also labels her as a freak. The midwife who delivers countless children will probably never marry or bear her own children. Gaia’s birthmark defines her, yet as the plot advances we see how she might become more than her birthmark.

Birthmarked is a book full of intrigue and complicated ethical issues. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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