As I struggle, I almost have Hawthorne and Gilad off me, despite their size and weight. I crash back down, though, and Edgerton tackles me, too. The wiry soldier from the mountains of Swords gets my arms behind me once more. Everyone hangs on. Wrist restraints clamp onto me while Gilad and Hawthorne hold my legs. Hammon gets down at eye level with me. Her brown ponytail sticks out from her helmet and sweeps the floor. “Look at me!” she orders. “You’ll survive this! We won’t let you die for a family that no longer wants you. You’re a secondborn Sword. You’re our family now!”
–Secondborn by Amy A. Bartol
Secondborn by Amy A. Bartol
Secondborn is a young adult science fiction novel about Roselle St. Sismode, the Secondborn of the wealthy, influential St. Sismode family. She grew up in the spotlight – her life is filmed much like the reality TV shows of our world, and she has many of the advantages of her status: she is financially secure, she lives in a large home with servants, wears beautiful clothes, attends parties, and has the best military training available. However, in Roselle’s world, Firstborn children entering adulthood become their parents’ heirs, Secondborn children become slaves of the state, and Thirdborn children are put to death if discovered. As a Secondborn Sword (the military district of Roselle’s country), Roselle enters the military at the time of her 18th birthday, entering a violent civil war that kills most soldiers within the first 30 days. Roselle, however, has no intention of dying in the first month – with her wits, her diplomatic skills, and her advanced fighting skills, Roselle must carve a place for herself in her violent new surroundings.
Let me be clear: there isn’t anything new or revolutionary about this book and it does not pretend to do so. Instead, Secondborn is purely entertainment, but it does that remarkably well. The world of Secondborn is like many distopian futures: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier, and the poor have gotten even poorer, and the main character is uniquely positioned to upset that balance. Because of Roselle’s family (and because her mother, Clarity St. Sismode, who plans to use Roselle as an example that all must sacrifice their Secondborns for the good of the nation), Roselle grew up in the nation’s spotlight. Much of her life was filmed and broadcast for entertainment, and even put out a series of videos on new fighting techniques. As a result, everywhere she goes, Roselle is recognized and people expect certain behaviors from her. I loved the concept of main character as a celebrity, and it was enjoyable seeing her genuine grit and creativity surprise and inspire those around her, who generally expect her to be another empty-headed rich girl.
I did, however, have a few issues with the world-building in Secondborn – logistical issues that perhaps just needed more thoroughly addressed. The biggest of them was the premise itself: in Roselle’s world, Secondborn children are forbidden from having relationships or children, and Firstborn children may have only two children: one who will become the Firstborn, and one who will become the Secondborn. There are rare exceptions granted for some couples to have a Thirdborn, but only if one of their children has died, and even then, there must be a significant reason for that couple to need another child. Put simply, this dramatic population reduction is not sustainable. each generation would be half the size of the previous generation, quickly leading to a social collapse. If that can be ignored, though, the dramatic status difference between Firstborn and Secondborn children is tantalizing. Roselle and her brother Gabriel are natural enemies – if Gabriel dies, Roselle becomes the Firstborn, the heir to her parents’ wealth and status. However, Roselle loves her brother deeply, and though they had not been allowed to spend time together in many years, she has fond memories of their times together as young children. There are plenty of stories in which siblings become enemies, but I have not read any in which this competition is forced upon them by their society.
Overall, the action in Secondborn was beautifully done. I felt that each chapter came to a natural conclusion while still fitting into the larger story, and the pacing was well done fast-paced action scenes were broken up by slower dramatic scenes that helped me form an attachment to the characters. Just one complaint: about halfway through, one chapter begins with “One Year Later”. I am sure this was done for the sake of realism – resolution usually does not happen as quickly in real life as it does in fiction. However, this desperately needed a better transition. Instead, the book felt as though it should have been split into two novellas, and I found it hard to get back into the action after such a large break in the timeline. However, I was able to get invested in the rest of the plot, and the ending was fantastic, with an intriguing cliffhanger for the next book in the series.
Although this novel did have its editing flaws, I still found myself immersed in the story, and I think that has a lot to do with the character building. Roselle did not have a lot of development throughout the story, but even so, she was an engaging, internally consistent character that I easily found myself rooting for. She has a strong moral code – she is opposed to the war, she saves a life when it might have benefited her to take it, she is loyal to her family even when they seem indifferent to her very existence – and she is quick to act on those morals, so the action moves swiftly but still with that same consistent logic with which the author approaches the whole book. The secondary characters too were just as interesting and three-diminsional.
I will rate Secondborn a 7 out of 10. The writing and characters were wonderful and immersive enough to make up for the occasional leaps of logic and choppy transition halfway through. The science fiction element is rather thorough, so this would be a good choice for readers of science fiction and fantasy, but not for those who do not enjoy those genres.