I just finished Birthmarked. The premise is quite good: an accepted and largely uncontested baby quota, a midwife marking the babies in secret and keeping some kind of record, and a looming, exclusive society inside a large wall.
Sadly, the book did not deliver. The story feels awkward and ill-done.
My main issues as I was reading were:
1. The foundation for the society as a whole.
We get that the Enclave rose up after some kind of environmental disaster. The founders created a community that appears to have most of the advances of our day (called the cool age in the book): electricity, computers, running water, and indoor plumbing, though it sounds like the women mostly wear cloaks and dresses. It seems to be a fairly self-sufficient city, we know they have a factory to manufacture some kind of mycoprotein food item, but we are left to assume that they also have the means to manufacture computer parts, light bulbs, clothing, fuel, and more. It's difficult to suspend reality when you're always wondering how people eat or where they get their water.
The sectors outside the wall don't seem to be needed for any kind of product (other than babies), and Grey hints that those outside the wall arrived after the Enclave was built and 'leeched' off the system. We're told that those inside the wall sneer, somewhat, at the 'lowlifes' outside, yet their babies are desirable for genetic diversity.
It's unclear as to why the larger city inside the wall would have diseases as a result of intermarrying where those outside the city would not. Aren't those outside the wall also marrying each other? Or are new people coming through the 'wasteland' and adding to their populace?
I felt the society itself and how the peoples viewed each other could have been more richly described; more realistically constructed. I wanted her to build me a world, but all I have is a city on a hill with a settlement around it.
The Enclave is not a clear enemy. And perhaps the author intended it that way, but it made it difficult for me to rally behind the protagonist, behind the... purpose.
2. The purpose.
The Enclave's entire purpose is to diversify the gene pool. The baby quota seems like something that should have had a more sinister feel to it; one that would have required a pretty powerful propaganda machine to achieve, yet that doesn't seem to have occurred. Gaia's father explains it with more of a shrug and a 'it's for the greater good' attitude. Though how those outside the wall benefit (other than receiving some meager payments and believing their children will be better off) is unclear. We are supposed to believe that the Enclave is the enemy -- a controlling, police-state dictatorship. I guess. But while there are hints of the Protectorate being tyrannical and evil: video surveillance, executions, people disappearing, disowning Grey, etc, there are ONLY hints. There is never really anything meaty to sink your teeth into so you can get behind Gaia.
Gaia's purpose is first, to rescue her parents and protect the secrets they have entrusted her. She gives up the secrets somewhat easily -- which I found very confusing. Her mother was incarcerated and would have been able to decode the ribbon, yet must have resisted because the secret was important. Yet Gaia gives up the secret, and to what end? Why was it important not to give them up? Did Gaia's mother not want the children reunited with their outside parents? Did she not want to give the Protectorate more power? For... what, exactly? He rounded up some people with freckles for tests... and this was super bad because why? I don't know. Because everyone would be forced to marry certain people to breed the best babies? Where was the rebellion? The people angry at this? The masses who should unify behind the protagonist to overthrow the supposedly terrible, evil government? Nowhere.
Her purpose later became to rescue her mother, which she did, kinda. Then her purpose became to get out with her sister and escape to the mythical Dead Forest. We have no idea if she achieves this as the book stops abruptly after lots of non-descriptive running (no labored breathing, no fear, no explanation about how difficult it would be to run with an hours-old infant) and somewhat of a cliffhanger. Wilderness. Baby. Formula. The end.
3. Character development.
There didn't seem to be much groundwork laid for Gaia's transformation from an impoverished, oppressed, uneducated child from outside the wall to someone questioning the Enclave and breaking laws. And even during all the law breaking and escaping she still seemed to lack resolve and direction. She accused Grey late in the book of having every advantage by growing up inside the wall. She tells him not to tell her that his life wasn't perfect. What? At this point at least, she should be more aware of the enemy -- then again, we aren't aware of the enemy at this point either, so I can see why Gaia is confused. Conflict is needed for character development, but the conflict is all smoke and mirrors. It's not really there. The guards and soldiers are pretty cooperative and nice, prisoners seem fairly well treated. Gaia escapes relatively easily. It feels like there are stabs at character development and conflict, but they fall flat, or go no where.
4. The ending.
As I stated, it's abrupt. The author says on her website that she never planned on continuing Gaia's story, but it sure seems that way. However, based on the negative reviews to the sequel, and the weird "bridge" book, a story arc for a trilogy doesn't feel very well planned.
I'm not going to bother with the sequel. I don't think I can bring myself to read about Gaia waffling about in another oppressive society where, I'm sure, even more plot lines will be abandoned and hung out to dry.