book reviews / dystopia

Book Review: Promised

Caraugh M. O’Brien

Taken as a whole, I’m not sure what genre to assign to O’Brien’s series. Our main characters escape from one dystopian society to another, and then try to fix all the problems by joining the two together. Whether or not it works I will not spoil. But there are enough elements in the series a whole to make me want to push it out of pure dystopia and somewhere else on the vehn diagram that is speculative fiction.

If there is a uniting theme across all 3 books, I would say it’s birth control.  By this I don’t mean to limit it to the standard usage of the term, but any means by which a society tries to shape itself through controlling the process of reproduction. How do we get the babies we want, with the right genes, birth parents, adoptive parents, birthdate, and gender?

While I don’t always agree with our main character’s answers to these questions, Gaia is at least willing to consider (at least nominally) the other side. For example, in Promised we hear from a runaway surrogate mom and from a wealthy adoptive grandparent. Both sides tell their story, and the reader empathizes with the desire on both sides to raise this baby.

And while the ethics of reproduction is an issue explored in countless spec fic stories, from Brave New World to Star Trek, this is the only series I’ve read that explores such it so thoroughly. In one trilogy we consider abortion, adoption, human trafficking, surrogate mothers, inbreeding, incest, infertility, gender identity, nature verses nurture, hormonal treatments, the rights of parents in child welfare, child abuse, forced organ donation, and I’m sure I missed something. And all through the eyes of a main character who is a midwife.

O’Brien is especially interested in exploring how birth relates to either hope or despair.

And if Gaia’s choices sometimes make me cringe, I admire the author for her bravery in tackling the issues. These books are ambitious in scope. (Too ambitious?)

My biggest complaint about Promised is that is does not bring us strong enough resolutions, either with some of the social issues or the relationship issues. I don’t mind loose ends. But this is like O’Brien was in such a hurry to finish the book she forgot to tie her shoes before heading out the door.

No, that’s too strong. Perhaps I simply reject the plausibility of O’Brien’s solutions. They seem too easy. Or the solutions are transparently temporary. If I knew there were a 4th book coming, I wouldn’t mind a few unexplained or tenuous plot resolutions. But as the cover of Promised reads, “The Third Book In The Promised Trilogy,” I think I’m out of luck.

Early in the book, we flesh out the romance between Leon and Gaia. It’s great wish fulfillment for fans who shipped Gaia and Leon in book 2, Prized. And author O’Brien delves into the psychological aspects of intimacy. Why does Gaia refuse to marry the man she loves? Does she, in fact, refuse to marry him because she loves him, and fears the cost of losing him? What does it mean to embrace someone’s flaws, and let them into the dark corners of yourself?

This romantic bit is lost the further we go into the book. When our favorite couple is supposed to be learning to rely fully on each other, instead we have:


Leon: I’m going into Enclave with you.

Gaia: Nope, I’m going alone.


Gaia: I’ll never go into Enclave alone again.

Leon: This time I’m sneaking there without you.


Gaia: Ok, now I’ll sneak into Enclave without anybody.


And so on and so forth.

The author also dares to say Gaia needs Leon to do her dirty work. Well, if that doesn’t kill a reader’s vision of a noble romance… It’s an honest but uncomfortable question about authority (Gaia is now the leader of the immigrants from Sylum). Uncomfortable enough that when Leon’s life is put on the line, I wasn’t sure whether to cheer for his demise or survival.

I won’t tell you how it ends. But in one sense, Leon and Gaia are opposing but linked aspects: Leon is the soldier who believes in necessary death. Gaia believes in life first. She’s the midwife who throws up even after shooting an arrow in self-defense. Perhaps you can’t have one mentality without the other. Or perhaps we need to kill off one to let the other thrive.

It’s an interesting question, which the author proposes but never fully answers.  Guess that part is up to us.

I give Promised 2.5 out of 5 stars, and the series as a whole 3.75.

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