Sunday, September 07, 2014

Book Review: Birthmarked

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Yes, one of these days I need to read another non-fiction book. But I do love the escapism provided by the YA post-apocalyptic and dystopian genre.

I enjoyed Birthmark - it was a pretty easy read with a great ending - satisfying as a read but with a decent cliffhanger to make you want to read the next one. This book would fall into the "haves/have nots" subgenre - facing an end to petroleum and declining sources of water, an enterprising group formed a walled community, designed to be self-sufficient, ruled by a benevolent first family. Situated on the shore of one of the now empty Lake Michigan (or "unlake"), its scale is difficult to understand - they are big enough to be able to produce intricate technology like watches and water bottles (despite the lack of petroleum?), but it's small enough that the only forms of transportation mentioned are walking or carts and beasts of burden like horses or donkeys. Inside the wall, they enjoy lights on motion-sensors, but both inside and out use gutters and cisterns to capture water for drinking and bathing.

Around the outside of the walls, communities formed. They have bakers and tailors and small business, but they don't have full autonomy - the militia of the walled community may interfere in the business of the people outside, including arresting them. In time a co-dependency formed - the "Enclave" would provide valuable things (like water, mycroprotein - a manufactured food - and passes to an entertainment complex it maintained for the have nots) and eventually grew to a requirement to provide the first two children born each month to the Enclave. For a brief moment, I wondered about the connection between the babies and the mycoprotein and had a worry that it was going to be a Soylent Green thing but I was relieved that it wasn't. Without giving away too much, the founders miscalcuated the size of population needed for the Enclave and now after too many generations the gene pool is contaminated and weak and the Enclave needs outsides to add diversity back in - they are having trouble conceiving children and too many who are born die young from diseases like hemophilia.

Our heroine is a 17-year-old girl named Gaia who was burned by hot wax when she was 10-months old. At that time, the Enclave chose children once a month from all one-year-olds, so she had been passed over because of her scarring, and that was not the last time she'd be passed over. Later, the Enclave decided that babies would need to be surrendered within 90 minutes of birth. Gaia followed in her mother's footsteps, becoming a midwife, a lucrative job. She had apprenticed with her mother, but the story picks up the night she's forced to deliver a baby on her own after she can't find her mother. The delivery goes well but she returns home to news from her neighbors that her parents have been arrested and to find a member of the Enclave militia in her living room.

An interesting distinction from a lot of this genre, the relationship between the haves and have nots is not as adversarial as you might expect. It's not great - despite promises that all children who wish to leave the Enclave on their 13th birthday to return to their birth parents, none ever do. But it's also not a war. There is subversion, but I liked that it's not an out-and-out war where every single person is suspect. You can't trust people's motives, but the book lacks that sort of paranoia and edge of fear that can be a little wearying. Maybe I've been reading too many zombie books.

I also liked how well things were described - it was easy to get a picture in my mind of surroundings, even when they passed quickly during action sequences. It just seemed effortless to read.

I'm looking forward to book 2. Right now, you can read the first five chapters for free
on a Kindle, Kindle app or the web Kindle cloud reader.

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