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Prized by Caragh O’Brien – review
Growing up all too often means picking your battles. As you grow up and develop your own system of values, you choose the things that are important to you based on your experiences with the people around you. Not everyone has the luxury of simple choices and not everyone gets the opportunity to become an adult gradually enough to keep it from being painfully obvious.
In Prized Caragh M. O’Brien carries on the story of Gaia Stone, a girl born into a dystopian society and forced into wisdom beyond her years. The book opens with Gaia trying to make camp with her infant sister in tow. The baby is dying from malnourishment, and Gaia isn’t in much better shape. She has fled the Enclave with her baby sister in the hopes of making a better life for them. Their meager resting site is discovered by a man riding a horse. He rescues Gaia and her sister by taking them back to the settlement of Sylum, where Gaia promptly runs afoul of their ruler, a blind woman referred to as the Matrarch.
Gaia’s crime is endangering the life of a child, which she committed by taking her baby sister across the wasteland without enough supplies. When the Matrarch announces that Gaia’s sister will be removed from her care, Gaia immediately protests. Her anger at being tried for violating rules she was not aware existed make her a target for scorn and punishment.
Gaia soon proves that she is a worthy member of the community of Sylum by demonstrating her skills as a midwife. Even though she is only sixteen, she has the ability to turn Sylum’s society on its head. At the first birth she attends, Gaia discovers that female births are very rare. Women in Sylum are expected to settle down and start having babies very early in their lives. It’s not only their duty to make every attempt at ensuring that Sylum continues but also the law.
As she discovers more about Sylum, Gaia grows increasingly frustrated with the restrictive nature of their rules. She chafes under the bonds of their expectations and grows angrier at the way the men, who are the majority of the population, are treated. Gaia attracts the attention of a pair of well-respected brothers in Sylum. Through them, she grows more compassionate for the plight of men born in Sylum.
Everything starts to change when a young man from Gaia’s past arrives in Sylum. She struggles to reconcile everything she went through in the Enclave with what she has learned in Sylum. As she investigates further into Sylum, she uncovers a surprising reason for the dwindling rate of female births and has to find a way to try to help the citizens of Sylum save themselves.
Prized is the second novel of the Birthmarked Trilogy. I had not read the first book in the series and, while it felt like that first novel may have informed the way Gaia thinks and acts more logically, it wasn’t necessary for understanding the second book. Enough information was given to the reader to be able to piece together that Gaia has fled one totalitarian society for another, exchanging only the balance of power in the female favor.
Gaia is not an idiot teenager. She’s angry and she’s a fighter, but she doesn’t make truly stupid decisions. The impulsive things that she does are the kinds of things that other teenagers would do. She behaves rationally, even if the only rationale for her behavior is her own. She struggles between the values that she was taught and the values impressed upon her by the people of Sylum. The abrupt change in attitudes would be confusing for anyone, especially a teenager.
The book does make a point of romance. Gaia has a pair of suitors in Sylum. Kissing without being married is forbidden, so the complex dance of courtship is made even more complicated. As a fertile female, Gaia is highly desirable. As a newcomer, she is even more prized. Gaia has scars on her face (a fact mentioned a few times in the book but it’s very easy to forget) and has not been considered attractive in the past. She’s shocked that there would be any competition for her affections.
The point of Prized seems to be less about action and much more about developing Gaia as a character. She has conflict not only romantically but also emotionally and mentally as her assumptions and her will are tested on an almost daily basis. Her ultimate decision involves whether she will adjust to life in Sylum or not. That’s not to say that nothing happens in this book; there are competitions held on a monthly basis between the eligible men vying for a coveted spot as a husband and father, and there is the whole mystery of why someone who stays in Sylum for a couple of days develops acclimation sickness any time that they try to leave.
This isn’t really a fun book to read, it’s too serious for that, but it is a compelling book to read. Gaia is forced to grow every time she takes a stance against some rule that she feels is unjust. She has little time to actually contemplate her circumstances and, instead, has to act upon what she feels is the best decision for her situation. Her world has clearly become a vastly different place from where she started.
I would recommend this book to older teen female readers, especially any of them who want a strong, female character that they can identify with. Prized has other characters, several of them are well-written women, but if there is one failing in the book, it would be that Gaia stands head and shoulders above all of them. The book is her story, and rarely is the reader given a chance to forget about that. Everyone else is obviously secondary to Gaia and what happens to her.
I don’t think adults will dislike the book, they should just be aware that it’s a bit of a dystopian romance, in case that’s something they would prefer not to read.