Review: “Promised (Birthmarked #3)” by Caragh O’Brien

Title: “Promised (Birthmarked #3)”

Author: Caragh O’Brien

Genre: YA, dystopian/post-apocalyptic

Publication Date: October 2, 2012 (Macmillan – North America)

Source: Publisher-provided ARC

Summary: After defying the ruthless Enclave, surviving the wasteland, and upending the rigid matriarchy of Sylum, Gaia Stone now faces her biggest challenge ever.  She must lead the people of Sylum back to the Enclave and persuade the Protectorat to grant them refuge from the wasteland.  In Gaia’s absence, the Enclave has grown more cruel, more desperate to experiment on mothers from outside the wall, and now the stakes of cooperating or rebelling have never been higher.  Is Gaia ready, as a leader, to sacrifice what–or whom–she loves most?

☆: 4.5/5 stars – a satisfying conclusion to an awesome trilogy!

Review: Out of all of the books (and novellas) in this trilogy, I think this one is the hardest to read (and to review). Why? It deals with even more reproductive issues than the first, but more in the vein of “The Handmaid’s Tale” than any other book. With Gaia leading her people as Matrarc to New Sylum/the Enclave, “Promised” brings everything full circle and O’Brien tells one of her finest tales yet – one of homecoming, loss, and sacrifice in order to survive. Warning – this review is full of spoilers, so if you want to remain in the dark for some of the bigger reveals in this book, you might want to read this review after you read the book.

I think this is the most difficult out of all of the books to read. It deals with the issues of surrogate motherhood, forced DNA registries and possible sterilizations. I know I had to keep putting this one down every once in awhile (especially more toward the end), if just for some of the more disturbing aspects of all of these issues alone. Once again, I must applaud O’Brien for having ovaries of titanium to bring these issues to the fore in YA lit, regardless of subgenre. If you have any triggers about reproductive issues like the ones I’ve just mentioned – be warned, as O’Brien really hits on all of them pretty hard at different times throughout the book, so you may need to take breaks. But I urge you to keep reading, as the result is really good.

I would say that this book really focuses on Gaia’s homecoming to the Enclave/Wharfton, and wrapping up all of her unfinished business that’s been waiting for her since the ending of book one. If you’re looking forward to more romance development between her and Leon, and/or the continuation of the love rhombus between her, Leon, Peter, (and to some degree) Will, you’re probably going to be disappointed on those accounts. While Gaia and Leon do work out more of their issues to a certain extent, it’s not the focus of this book, just as Gaia is still having issues with trying to get Peter to focus on his loss of her to Leon. Gaia and Leon are trying to make their relationship work as she balances the responsibilities of being Matrarc (and all that comes with those responsibilities), and how all of that can both possibly break a relationship or make it stronger.

This book doesn’t immediately start from where we left off in “Prized” – there is another in-between novella, “Ruled”, that fills in the short gap between both books. Regardless, O’Brien made it really easy to fall back into this world and these characters, and I felt very at home in it, even if everything is more than a bit dysfunctional. I loved the fact that even though Gaia and Leon’s escape from the Enclave did change some things for the better at the end of book one, O’Brien hints just a bit that it might have all been for the worse. The Protectorat has gotten crueler, and now, there’s the advent of the Vessel Institute – run by one of the wealthiest men in the Enclave. The Vessel Institute is where things get very “Handmaid’s Tale”-ish – girls getting compensated for bringing healthy babies to term (“promised” children) and then handing them over to their parents, other wealthy citizens of the Enclave who have pretty much paid for these kids upfront from the beginning.

The best part? Even though this is the “pilot program” (the first run) for the Institute, it comes into question – will the services of the Institute remain just for the rich of the Enclave? Or will it be made available to everyone, even those beyond the wall in Wharfton? All signs point to no, though we never do get an absolutely clear answer. O’Brien hits hard on the message of equal distribution of health services in this book, everywhere from the kinda illegal blood bank run in Wharfton by Myrna to the Vessel Institute, to the absolutely horrible (I mean, I had nightmares about it horrible) choice Gaia has to make in order to keep her people in water and thus giving them the means to survive – the harvesting of her ovaries to give to the Institute. Not just a few eggs but the whole shebang (minus the uterus), leaving her pretty much with no chance to have kids afterward (though there is a tiny chance she might be able to have a child through in-vitro). Gaia’s bravery and how her character arc expands and its final conclusion were a pleasure to read, even if painful at times.

There’s also an incredibly hard-to-read torture scene and the forced harvesting of said ovaries later in the book, and I nearly got to my limit. But you know what? Even with how hard it was to read, I’m glad O’Brien put all of that in there. I’ll be interviewing her for the blog tour about why she hits so hard on repro issues for the YA market in this trilogy to get more answers because I’m fascinated (and amazed) by her techniques of getting the audience to question their own status quo when it comes to healthcare for women. Should all women be given the chance to maintain their own bodies, rich or poor, for better or worse? Or should that choice be taken out of their hands for their own good? This book is full of extremely relevant social commentary, and I really commend O’Brien for bringing it up at all in a market of nearly nothing but shallow love triangles and paranormal romance. And hey, I love those books too, sometimes, but sometimes we also have to look at extremely unpleasant current social issues that are staring us back in the face.

The worldbuilding doesn’t expand much – but we finally do get a solid date (October 2410) to this world, and thus a better understanding of why things are so very, very dire in this future. That alone was enough to make me happy, as I’d been wondering how far along in the future we were from now. A lot can happen in 400 years, and the world of the Enclave/Sylum is just one terrible possibility.

To say that this book has a happy ending would be a lie – it doesn’t. Gaia is damaged, mentally and physically from her repeated experience in V-Cell within the Enclave, and she has every right to be angry. Hell, it made me angry to read it. But at the same time, there is hope. There is a LOT of hope. There is reform, and there is a beginning we see at the end – seen through the final sentence, the metaphor of the refilling of the Unlake. Sometimes there are no happy endings, but we can get hopeful endings out of those un-HEAs, as O’Brien shows us. And it’s generally a very rewarding book to read. I feel like the entire trilogy feels very finished, and nearly all of my questions about the world, the characters, and their motives have been put to rest. And I love it when that happens.

Final verdict? If you’ve read the first two, you simply must finish your journey with Gaia and the rest with “Promised”. And if you haven’t read the first two yet – what are you waiting for? Go! Now! This is some of the best dystopian YA you will ever read. “Promised” is out from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan in North America on October 2, 2012 so be sure to check it out!


2 thoughts on “Review: “Promised (Birthmarked #3)” by Caragh O’Brien

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! | birth of a new witch.

  2. Pingback: Stacking the Shelves – Week 20 | birth of a new witch.

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