Birthmaked, by Caragh M. O'Brien

Birthmaked, by Caragh M. O'Brien (2010, Roaring Brook Press, YA, 361 pages)

Far in the future, there is an enclave of civilization in the middle of an arid wilderness. Behind its walls, the citizens of the Enclave, as it's called, enjoy all the trappings of pleasant life...running water, luxury goods, and the like. For the folk living outside the walls, drawn generations ago from the outside world to the Enclave, life is less easy, but still tenable--and the Enclave offers enough "bread and circuses" to keep folks more or less content. Because the Enclave needs these people; in particular, their children. For the people outside, there's only one way to become an insider--to be "advanced" as a baby. Every month, a set number of babies are taken from their birth mothers, and delivered to the gates, never to be seen again.

Sixteen-year old Gaia is one of the midwifes outside. She was never eligible for Advancement because of the burn scar on her face, and her life has been spent trying to hide behind her hair in a society that has little respect for the imperfect. She doesn't question her responsibility to follow the rules of the Enclave; her own parents had two older children advanced, and she knows that they are now living a much easier life than her own. But when her mother and father are taken away by Enclave guards, and Gaia herself is interrogated, she finds out that there are secrets about the system of child advancement that she had never guessed existed. Apparently her parents knew a lot more than they told her...

Desperate to see her parents again, and desperate for answers, Gaia sneaks into the Enclave. There she finds that all is not as perfect as it seems--the foundation of the Enclave is shaking, and Gaia might hold the knowledge that is a vital piece of the solution planned by those in power. The Enclave wishes to make use of her, and will not stop at cruelty enforce its will. But even among the privileged citizens, there are people who have begun to question the status quo...and outside the walls, the bread and circuses will not keep the people quite forever, as the number of children taken from them continues to rise....

A fascinating story of institutionalized oppression, one that raises ethical issues even as it entertains the reader. O'Brien's world building is compelling, and I found the pacing of Gaia's story first rate. It's the sort of book that keeps the reader briskly turning the pages, trying to solve the mystery right alongside the central character, with no tricksy slight of hand by the author. Action and introspection are nicely mixed--the strong characterization and the circumstances of the particular plot complement each other, rather than competing for the reader's attention. And there's a nice thread of romance, which, even though it stretches credulity a tad, provides a pleasant diversion.

The ending cries out for a sequel, and happily O'Brien is writing one even as I type.


  1. I've heard great things about this book, and I definately want to read it!

  2. This one sounds wonderful! Just the thing for my needed dystopian fix. Thanks for the review!

  3. Making an order card and putting our name on it for firsties!


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