The Brotherhood, a patriarchal religious group, rule Victorian era America with an iron fist. In the previous rule, witches were in power and women were revered, educated, and powerful. The Brotherhood is the opposite in every way: women are forced to be uneducated and oppressed or they are sent to prison or mental institutions. Cate Cahill and her sisters are considered eccentric because they don't involve themselves in the society and don't bother to try to fit in. Cate's first priority is to hide the fact that she and her sisters are all witches from the Brotherhood and keep them from using their powers frivolously. Her plan has worked so far, but soon she must either declare her intention to marry someone, become part of the Sisterhood (the weaker, feminine counterpart to the Brotherhood), or allow the Brotherhood to choose a husband for her. She despises the Sisterhood and would loathe any old man that would be chosen for her to marry. The boy she has feelings for is below her station and inappropriate to marry. With any of her choices, the separation from her sisters is inevitable, which puts them in danger and goes against her deceased mother's wishes for her to protect them. Can she conform to her society's rules and protect her sisters? Can she find happiness despite the control the Brotherhood has over her life?
Born Wicked is a wonderful blend of science fiction and fantasy that weaves together themes of love, duty, religion, magic, and feminism. It took me a little while to get acclimated to the changes in history. I had a clear idea of the historical events and climate in the real world, so it blew my mind a little that the alternate history was so complete and hugely world changing. The Victorian era is even more oppressive and misogynistic than it was in real life, which is no small feat. Not only can women not pursue any sort of education beyond the home-making arts at any age, but if they do anything subversive or offend the wrong person, they can be imprisoned in a mental institution or sent to a prison labor camp indefinitely. It isn't uncommon to be condemned without so much as the smallest opportunity to prove one's innocence. Women are expected to act vapid and shallow and have no other ambition than to serve their husband, who in turn may treat them as an object. They can't hold jobs or positions of power and alternative lifestyles are also not tolerated. This is a frightening society that is based enough on real events that it's complete believable.
On top of the well written setting and dystopia, I really connected with the characters. Cate and her sisters had their own interests and their own viewpoints about life. Cate is a strong character that puts the safety of her sisters above her own wants and needs. The pressure on her to choose a path that will inevitably end in both her separation from her family and her own unhappiness is astronomical, but she continues to soldier on. It's also nice to see a YA heroine think of someone else for a change instead of putting their own selfish needs in front of everyone and everything else. Her sisters had a few surprises up their sleeves, but I didn't like them as much as Cate because they didn't really appreciate the sacrifices she made for them and mostly treat her badly.
I was very impressed with Jessica Spotswood's debut novel Born Wicked. Despite my own misgivings about its genre, the book greatly surprised me and proved to be attention grabbing and interesting. It bypassed all the typical YA tropes in favor of rich story telling and realistic characters. I am very sad I read this so early because I will have to wait even longer to find out what happens next.
My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins
** Born Wicked is released on February 7, 2012. Check it out here. **