by Caragh O’Brien
November 8, 2011
Received Arc from NetGalley
Striking out into the wasteland with nothing but her baby sister, a handful of supplies, and a rumor to guide her, sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone survives only to be captured by the people of Sylum, a dystopian society where women rule the men who drastically outnumber them, and a kiss is a crime. In order to see her sister again, Gaia must submit to their strict social code, but how can she deny her sense of justice, her curiosity, and everything in her heart that makes her whole?
I reviewed the first book in this trilogy a week ago. If you haven't read Birthmarked yet, this review contains spoilers for the outcome of that book but not for particulars.
My favourite thing about Caragh O’Brien’s dystopian societies is that they make so much sense. Slyum, the main society in Prized is completely different from the Enclave that Gaia escaped in Birthmarked, but the reader can clearly see how both societies developed in reaction to their particular circumstances. As I said at the end of my review of Birthmarked, O’Brien threw all the pieces up in the air at the end of that book, and as the sequel begins, those pieces are still falling back to the ground.
After a horrific journey and almost losing her baby sister to starvation, Gaia Stone is rescued by the people of Slyum and given an immediate choice. If she chooses to stay, she must allow her sister to be raised by a ‘more fit’ mother, but she and her sister can stay in this veritable paradise of lakes and greenery unknown to the drought-stricken Enclave. There are, however, two other conditions. If they stay, they can never leave because everyone who leaves the area dies, and they must obey the Matrach. On the other hand, Gaia and her sister are free to continue traveling into the wilderness, leaving the place her mother told her to find.
The repercussions of Gaia’s choice resonate through the rest of the book. I really enjoy this type of catch-22 especially when the consequences are so dire. Slyum has very few women, and the percentage of baby girls born has been falling every year so their society has developed to value being female above anything else. Only women – and only women who agree to follow the Matrach’s dictates and bear at least ten children - are allowed a voice in society decisions. Men compete to gain a woman’s attention and perhaps her hand in marriage, but touching a woman without being engaged to her is viewed as the crime attempted rape.
Gaia continues to be a fascinating character, and I appreciate how the author allows her to be flat out wrong at times and be judged by the other characters for it. She never falls into that trap where the main character appears to be wrong, but at the end she’s shown to have been right all along and just misunderstood. Gaia makes terrible choices, and she and her friends sometimes suffer from them. She’s still the stubborn and intelligent girl that she was in Birthmarked, but it’s clear that Maya near brush with death as a result of Gaia’s actions along with the events of Birthmarked have changed her. She’s almost grateful at first to accept the Matrach’s authority over her – anything to prevent all responsibility from falling on her shoulders. It’s frustrating as a reader to watch her allow herself be led so obviously, and it’s an utter relief to see her finally accept the inherent injustice in Slyum’s society and start to rebel against it.
I complained a little in my review of Birthmarked that Gaia swung too quickly from accepting the Enclave’s system to rebelling against it, but after reading Prized, I feel quite a bit differently. She almost takes too long to act against Slyum’s injustice, and the difference makes an interesting study of how power affects actions. In Slyum, for the first time, Gaia is a highly valued and potentially powerful member of the society as midwife but more importantly as a potentially fertile woman. Her acceptance of this position makes it more difficult for her to support reforms against the establishment even when she notices and knows that the society is far from just.
As I touched on earlier, the author’s worldbuilding is absolutely fantastic. She obviously has a firm grounding (no pun intended) in the geographic reality of her story, but also the way her society is structured, the firm internal rules of the world and characters, and the effects of the environment on both personal and societal development. That last is something that often seems negligible, but I believe it’s one of the most important factors in making a society feel real to the reader instead of just dreamed up and plopped anywhere convenient.
There’s much more romance in this book than in the first, and it’s here that O’Brien seems most uncertain. The love quadrangle that develops makes sense within the society – when there are so few women, of course men are going to compete for a viable mate, but the reasons why two brothers choose to focus their attention on Gaia seem less clear. William’s interest makes more sense to me – Gaia’s the only person in the society with the same insatiable curiosity for figuring out why their society is, but Peter’s seems tacked on. Perhaps the societal impulse is all there needs to be, but I kept hoping for more.
Leon was a character I loved in Birthmarked, and I was so happy to see him reappear. He rejected his privilege in the Enclave, but his adjustment to the true loss of it in Sylum was an interesting character arc. Again, that theme of power affecting actions came into play, and in Prized, it’s Leon who instantly wants to rebel against the system and make changes to the way things are done. The swap in roles between him and Gaia affect their relationship dramatically, and while I didn’t always agree with Leon’s handling of the situation, here too, I appreciated that the author let the character be absolutely wrong at times.
By completely changing the surroundings and forcing Gaia and Leon to adapt to a new society, O’Brien managed to avoid the typical second installment letdown. Prized is built upon the reader’s previous knowledge of the characters, but it allows itself the freedom to tell a different though complementary story to the first book. I enjoyed Prized even more than I did Birthmarked, and I absolutely look forward to seeing where the third book in this trilogy leads us.
Thank you to NetGalley and Roaring Book Press for allowing me to read this arc!