Caraugh M. O’Brien
The first half of Prized slowly strips away a lot of what we liked about Gaia Stone, fugitive teenage midwife. She escaped the dystopian Enclave with her baby sister, but at the cost of the guy she sorta-not-quite-sure-she-loves, Leon. After weeks in the wilderness, she’s scooped up by another dystopian society, Sylum, where males outnumber females 9 to 1. In quick succession she loses custody of her sister, traps herself in a medical prison, gets herself put on house arrest and then acquiesces, and alienates our main love interest.
Does her submission mark a broken character, or a maturing one?
What the reader finds hardest to forgive is her treatment of Leon. He’s followed her into the wilderness, and now he’s in prison for no justifiable reason. It’s the reverse of the situation we had in book one, where Gaia was in prison and Leon belonged to the ruling class. Yet Gaia does nothing to help Leon. She is too wrapped up in trying to make a political statement.
Which makes the bitter diatribe Leon delivers at the midpoint of the book both painful to the reader, and strangely vindicating. Could Gaia have done more to try to free Leon? And what would have been the cost?
So we all know about love triangles. O’Brien one-ups this concept and writes what she dubs a “love square.” (There’s an interview in the back of the book.) I found the love square both a drawback and a logical consequence of living in a society where females have all the power. It makes for lots of good old romantic angst, but at what cost? The main cost is the reader gets frustrated with Gaia for stringing these guys along. She doesn’t mean to, and she’s only a confused 16yo, but she does.
An equal cost is that there isn’t room to full develop all the characters. I really wish we knew more about Chardo Will, one of my favorite guys in this book.
On the plus side, there are some truly romantic moments in the book. Romantic not just for physical reasons, but because two characters accept both the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Reconciliation is perhaps the most poignant part of this complex story.
Besides trying to sort out romantic entanglements, Gaia faces yet more reproductive and social quandaries, as she did in book 1.
What right does the state have to regulate birth, marriage, and even PDA?
We even tackle abortion. While I may not agree with the author’s leanings on the issue, she does allow at least a token voice to each side.
What is causing the gender imbalance in Sylum?
Is there any way to escape Sylum when anyone who tries gets sick and dies? (Sylum is like the Bates Motel.)
And most interesting of all to me, what does a society ruled by a minority of women look like? What does reverse discrimination look like, and how can we fix it? Once Gaia finally gets off her abortion soapbox and focuses on civil rights again, she regains her footing. We see the character we grew to admire in book 1.
The most complex character in the book is the Matrarc. She is our antagonist, and yet every move she makes is understandable. She becomes a stand-on for a compassionate but stern mother figure. Our main character must question her authority, and finally come into her own.
One of the biggest plot points in book 1, Gaia’s disfiguring facial mark, is dropped almost entirely from the plot in book 2. Is this plausible? I think so. First, Sylum is a society where females are so rare, Gaia could have a 2nd head and still be considered a candidate for the cover of Vogue. And second, it shows Gaia has grown up some. In the beginning of book 1, she defined herself by two things – her career as a midwife and her birthmark. Now she and those around her start to see her for who she is inside. To emphasize this point, the Matrarc (leader) of Sylum is blind.
If we are to look at the trilogy at one large coming-of-age story, Prized is a complex and interesting middle passage. Our heroine loses herself, but then she starts to find herself again. And isn’t that what coming-of-age stories are all about?
I give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars.