I posted a grand total of 3 book reviews on this blog last year, and hey, all the books were by brown women! I’m going to continue with that demographic trend for 2018, so here’s the first of my BIPOC women authors for the year–Livia Blackburne, author of the YA novel Rosemarked. From her site: “I was born in Taiwan, raised in Albuqurque, and spent my twenties in Boston, where I earned an A.B. in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard and PhD in cognitive neuroscience from MIT.” After graduating, Blackburne switched to writing full-time. STEAM, yawl, not STEM.
Seventeen-year-old Zivah is a healer, equally adept at blending herbs and at extracting iocane-style venom from spiders/snakes/scorpions. Zivah is of the Dara people, who’ve been colonized by the Amparan empire. The Dara must pay taxes to the empire, and house and feed any battalions of the Imperial Army passing through. As with all Empire types, the soldiers wear “arrogance like mantles over their shoulders”, and far too many look at her in a way that makes her “want to scrub their gazes off [her] skin”.
The head of the forces stationed at Dara, Commander Arxa is arrogant but not creepy, and when his soldiers fall ill, Zivah willingly helps out–it’s her duty as a healer. The soldiers have caught the Rose plague, a horrible disease which usually leads to death. Survivors either develop immunity (they are recognized by their umber scars, and known as the umbertouched) or house the disease for a few years till their death. The latter are known as the rosemarked, and are instantly recognized by their blood-red rash, and are banished from society as they are contagious. (I think Blackburne modeled the rose plague on leprosy–consider the fear of contagion, visible marks, the long incubation period, and the existence of rosemarked isolation colonies. It’s all fascinating, and her world-building and the details of the disease are very painstakingly done.)
Zivah cures Arxa, but catches the disease and is rosemarked. Damn. Arxa, however, offers Zivah a place in the rosemarked compound in Ampara, where she can continue her healer studies. She could research the origins of the disease, find a way to slow its spread, and maybe even concoct a cure for the rosemarked.
Meanwhile! Eighteen-year-old Dineas is an umbertouched rebel attempting guerilla warfare against the Empire from his home of Monyar, near Zivah’s hometown Dara. Dineas holds Dara in contempt for surrendering peacefully to the Empire–they should have fought, right? The leader of the rebel forces however suggests an alliance with the Dara. Zivah will take Dineas along with her to Ampara, where she’ll introduce him to Arxa as an amnesiac fighter. Dineas will join the Amparan army, spy on their plans, and report back to the rebel leader in Monyar. Zivah will be living in Arxa’s house with his rosemarked daughter–yet more opportunities for spying.
To make Dineas’s role truly convincing, Zivah will concoct a herb+venom drug to give him amnesia, and another to temporarily return his memory. The returned memory will include the new memories Dineas has made after taking the initial forgetfulness shot. He’ll lose his memory again organically by the next morning. (Dr. Blackburne’s cogsci background is coming in handy after all; there’s talk of muscle memory and the like. ) Then there’s a third potion to permanently return his memory.
This is all getting a bit fiddly–Dineas glugging potion after potion, remembering and forgetting and remembering endlessly. Blackburne grounds her story by focusing on her characters’ emotions rather than on plot mechanics. She sets up imaginative conflicts centering around Amnesiac Dineas (hereafter known as AD) versus Original Dineas (OD). AD’s loyalties lie with Empire, while OD is all about defeating them. OD is moody, complex, and resentful of his dependence on Zivah and her potions, while AD is an easy-going chap who falls in love with her…
The love story, while easily anticipated (girl, 17, and boy, 18! in a YA novel!) is nicely done, because their attraction is truly inconvenient, even dangerous, for them both; Blackburne is very good at showing how they fall in love despite themselves. If these two have a Happily Ever After, they’ll really have earned it.
Will they have a HEA? So….I picked up Rosemarked without knowing it was the first of of a duology. I HATE waiting for sequels but it turns out that Umbertouched is out this year, so the anticipation isn’t too dire. Also, Rosemarked is Blackburne’s third book, so I plan to read her earlier work during the wait.
Finally: there is so much dross in the YA novel world that I’m truly grateful for this thoughtful, carefully plotted work that respects a reader’s intelligence. The characters are well-realized, with minimal emphasis on their looks, and much is made of their resourcefulness and stoicism. The triangle-free romance actually moves the plot along. The conflict between margin and empire, colonizer and the colonized, is a time-honored one, and provides a solid setting and context for this story. And there’s so much in this book that resonates with the state of the world today. Living in a world where you’re visibly marked by your skin as an outsider, check. The powerlessness of the marginalized in the face of state-funded armed might, check. The machinations of the powerful to preserve their wealth and power at the cost of the poor and the powerless, check. Power grabbed and held through betrayal, spin and lies, check. Blaming all woes on outsiders, check. Female vulnerability–and female resourcefulness, check. Hopefully, Umbertouched will hold out some cheer for those of us whose ancestors battled empires–and won.