This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, both because the book left me heartbroken, and because it was so confusing that it left me quite exhausted. It is also difficult because I highly respect the author, especially for her openness to honest feedback, and though I disagree with some of the things in this book I continue to respect her and will eagerly await whatever else she may write. The other difficulty is that the themes dealt with are highly controversial, and yet they are too important to leave undiscussed.
So the following review will contain some spoilers which I have tried to explain with as little detail as possible. I would have preferred to know these things before reading the book, and perhaps others may too.
I considered the first book in this series, Birthmarked, to be a rare find in contemporary YA literature. In my review I couldn’t praise it highly enough.
Some of these qualities can be seen (somewhat faintly) in Prized, but it is a completely new story in a different place with different people and different values.
In general terms the story seems to have lost its ‘epic’ quality: while Birthmarked created a logical and coherent world and told the story of one girl’s place in it, this book is more about the ups and downs of Gaia’s personal struggles, and the ‘world outside’ in Sylum (her new home) sometimes seems a mere backdrop. This book also places more emphasis on emotions and physical appearance than the first, and it is a lot more morally confusing.
Feelings determine right and wrong
I must acknowledge Gaia’s admirable appreciation for honesty and her earnestness in wanting to do what is right. However, in Prized, Gaia’s earnestness is set above the question of whether or not she acts rightly, and so her moral choices become cloudy. She no longer asks ‘what is the right thing to do?’, but rather ‘do I feel right about this?’
The most confronting example of this is the reasoning behind the ‘about-face’ that Prized has taken on Life issues. Peony, a girl from Sylum, asks Gaia’s help to abort the child she is carrying. Gaia reasons that 1. Though she doesn’t like abortion, she has never had the need for it herself so perhaps her feelings about it could change, 2. Precisely because she feels so strongly that she would never do it herself she must respect the other girl’s decision, 3. The girl in the situation is the only one who can decide what is right, and 4. They will feel better about it if they call it ‘miscarriage’, even though it is neither accidental nor caused by nature.
She doesn’t question whether society is right to push the girl into this position by threatening her with banishment or an arranged marriage, and neither does she question whether her own involvement (giving the girl a poison which will kill her baby) is right. She almost tries to disqualify her own misgivings by the fact that she’s never needed one, and if she experienced the need herself her feelings may change. This implies that in order to know what is right or wrong one must experience everything oneself, an assumption that would be difficult to live by.
This method for evaluating right and wrong is more easily seen for what it is when the situation above is compared to another at the end of the book.
Gaia is called to assist the Matrarc of Sylum’s difficult childbirth. When it is clear that both mother and child will die without intervention, Gaia sees that she may be able to save the child but that the mother has already lost too much blood to survive. The mother tells Gaia to save the child, which she does, and the mother subsequently dies from loss of blood. Gaia feels terrible about this because she knew the Matrarc well – better than she had known the unborn child – and since her understanding of right and wrong is based upon how she feels about it, she determines that because she feels worse, this act is wrong while the previous one was not. In her words, the Matrarc has “made me a killer for real this time.”
Yet a simple comparison of the two episodes is clear.
With Peony: Mother and child were going to live, Gaia acted, one died.
With the Matrarc: Mother and child were going to die, Gaia acted, one lived.
Killing and saving are very different things, however bad you may or may not feel about them.
There are plenty of things about the government of Sylum which are wrong, starting with its presumption that its own laws are legitimate simply because it said so. Laws are not automatically right just because they are established by someone in authority. Instead, just laws must defend the common good of all the people, and if they do not (for example, if they require or approve doing things which no one should ever do, or if they distribute burdens unfairly in favour some groups over others), they are unjust and should be rebelled against.
So Gaia is right to rebel against Sylum’s unjust laws and customs, such as the inequality of men and women, or the enforcement of some traditions by unnecessarily harsh punishments, or the odd custom of a game-winner’s right to choose a woman who must spend a month with him. But Sylum has some good values too, such as upholding marriage and family so that children can be raised by loving parents, and prohibiting the killing of an unborn child. And instead of identifying what is actually wrong (or right) with each law and value, Gaia writes them all off as ‘the most backward thing she’s ever heard’. Instead of rectifying the unjust laws she claims that laws and values become outdated with time, and throws the good out with the bad.
And Leon. Oh Leon, what have you become? You were such a support to Gaia in book one, as well as being an amazing character in your own right for your ability to learn from your mistakes. You’re no help at all in book two. Sure, you’re always questioning Gaia’s actions and telling her she’s wrong – which gives you the impression of being a moral guide, but it leads nowhere because you’re just as confused as she is. You switch one way and then the other, and then use your power over her feelings to push and pull her in all directions. One minute it’s: “quit holding on to some ideal that won’t ever fit here… and get your life back”, but the next: “they’ve broken you… you have no spirit to fight anymore…” You never help her to look objectively at each thing and discover whether it is right or wrong.
Then you are critical of her giving in to the feeling of the moment by kissing Peter, but the next minute you yourself are putting her in a situation of intense physical attraction that she can’t resist, just to prove that your hold over her is stronger than his. You manipulate her feelings by treating her harshly when you are hurt, and then play up her desire when you’re jealous.
It’s not that as a good character you’re not allowed to ever fail and make mistakes, but here your errors are passed over as being excusable and natural, which changes you from being ‘a good character who has failings’ to being not such a good character at all.
In fact, the romance in general in this book seems to have lost its richness. It is practically all reduced to physical attraction, which is part but not all. Between Gaia and Leon in the first book there was a deeper union which involved love of the whole person and sacrifice for the other person’s good, and this gave credibility and stability to their attraction. Here, however, Gaia’s love is selfish and she hardly even thinks of the other person but only how he makes her feel. No wonder she’s uncertain about marrying Leon, she’s worried about whether he’ll always be able to make her feel that way. But love is more than just trying to prolong the feeling that someone gives you. It should be something generous and freely given, not bought through the power of attraction. (I was really impressed with the book The Love Dare and how it shows what it means to love with deeds, wholly and truly. It’s a little bit corny, but you can skip the religiousy bits and see that its message is accessible to everyone.)
Prized is a lot more physical in its description too: men playing sport without their shirts so that the women can stare and comment; or the description of how far Gaia goes with Leon to the point of too much information (this really cheapens their romance), or even just the idea of the games winner getting to pick a girl to spend a month with at the lodge (which conveniently facilitates Leon and Gaia’s ‘togetherness’), and quite a few instant physical attraction moments between Gaia and somebody else. In contrast, the chemistry in the first book was so good because it wasn’t overdone and was warranted by the storyline rather than being thrown in so often simply for gratification.
The romance also seemed a little soppy in this book because suddenly Gaia is the attractive and desirable one, all the guys fall for her and find her irresistible. Of course that’s every girl’s dream, but how does it just ‘happen’ to someone considered such an outcast in book one?
The one thing that redeemed the romance was that Gaia was helped to see that kissing Peter meant more to him than it did to her, and she must face the wrong she has done him. I’m only hoping that it wasn’t just Sylum’s ‘backwardness’ that believes a kiss means something. It would be so good if the story was in fact questioning the attitude wherein a kiss has come to mean little or nothing. When we lose our sensitivity like this it damages our ability to love. Once again I recommend Wendy Shalit’s book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, she explains this point so well.
Bowing before unjust pressure
One last thing I was disappointed with is the lack of positive initiative in the book, something which was so powerful in book one. I was so sorry that the unmarried and pregnant Peony was not helped in any other way: the baby’s father abandoned her, her family would disown her, society would banish her, and Gaia chose not to help her confront these injustices by standing up to Sylum and defending Peony and her unborn child but instead helped her to give in to their pressure by killing the child in secret. That wasn’t how Gaia dealt with injustice in the first book.
In allowing all those negative things to triumph, even offering a long and drawn out justification for it, the book – perhaps unintentionally – reinforces them. If only it had demonstrated a struggle to build an open and supportive attitude towards pregnant women in whatever situation they find themselves, instead of effectively reinforcing the mistaken logic that marginalises such women until they feel pressured into an abortion. Our culture has focused enough on the pressure; couldn’t we now focus on support?
That’s about all I can say for now; there are other good and not so good things in Prized but it would take a book to explore them all. And though book one looks a little different in the light of book two, I still think Birthmarked was one of the best YA I’ve read in a long time. Prized is taking time to get over, but as we learned in Birthmarked, there’s always hope.