Book Review: Traitorborn is Mind-Blowing

For some reason, I find myself reading multiple books right now that revolve around the theme of power: mankind’s constant struggles for it, what it does to those who hold it, how it affects those who don’t. The one I most recently finished—Traitorborn by Amy Bartol—is remarkably like Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson in some respects, more like K.B. Wager’s Behind the Throne in others, all built on premises of matriarchal monarchies, magic or magical technology, and infinite political intrigue. Traitorborn is the sequel to Secondborn and is a mind-blowing handful of a read.

What Traitorborn (and Secondborn) Are About

In a kingdom called the Fates Republic, Firstborns rule society. Secondborns are the property of the government. Thirdborns are not tolerated. On every secondborn’s 18th birthday, they’re taken by the government and forced into servitude as soldiers in a bloody war. Roselle St. Sismode is the second-born of one of the most elite families in the Fates Republic, but she’s taken away like every other secondborn. And her elite firstborn mother is happy to see her go. Her mother is paranoid that she’ll kill her older brother Gabriel to gain his status, so paranoid she doesn’t see the love between the two siblings. So paranoid she’s willing to try to have her secondborn child killed while in transit to her servitude.

But Roselle had a privileged, if isolated and abusive, upbringing that has earned her the resentment of her secondborn peers. She survives the attempt on her life only to be forced into battles where her life is threatened constantly. Then she’s confronted with the opportunity to kill or spare an enemy soldier on the battlefield. Killing him means she’s like her mother; sparing him marks her as a traitor to her mother, punishable by death. Though she’s able to keep her decision a secret (you’ll have to read Secondborn to find out what it is), she finds herself almost always fighting for her life…when she’s not being regaled by various secret factions bent on destroying her mother and putting Roselle in her place. She has to constantly defend herself against various foes sent by her paranoid mother, and those who pretend to be her allies while killing her family so that they can put her in a position of power she doesn’t want, to maintain a system of government she doesn’t agree with.

The Good and Not so Good…Intermingled

Both books are set in a world of airships, electronic monikers that track every single person’s actions and movements, skyscrapers built like trees, fusion weapons, and a brutally-maintained caste system. The reason behind this caste system isn’t explained until the end of Traitorborn, and while that explanation fits where it’s placed, I would have appreciated it much earlier (or at least intimations of it) in the storyline because so much of what Roselle decides to do or not do depends upon her understanding of the caste system, which turns out to be incomplete. The world-building in this series is breath-taking; it incorporates highly-imaginative tech with stunning architecture that directly reflects the values of the people that built it.

Both books (the first of which I bought on Amazon, the second of which I got an ARC of from NetGalley) also incorporate a lot of fighting, killing, political strategizing, romance (with three different love interests, no less), and recognition of the value of filial love. If these books were made into movies, they would both be rated-R for the fighting and killing. It was difficult for me to wade through those parts, and I ended up skipping over some of them, as I’m not a fan of gruesomeness. There is a lot of political strategizing, with Roselle constantly trying to figure out who she can trust, who she can be herself—a supremely-skilled fighter who gets panic attacks from all the death she sees—around, between those who would put her in power so that she can maintain the caste system, those who would put her in power so that she can take it down altogether, and those who just want to make everybody stop fighting. If I were a person in the world of these books, I’d be part of that last group. If there’s anything that I’m tired of after reading so many books about what power does to people, and seeing it (I think) play out in real life, I think that no one person should be in charge of any country or kingdom or province, even if there are checks and balances and councils and congresses in place. But that’s just me. I’d be interested in what you think of that.

So, with the fighting and strategizing and romance (i.e., heat – no sex scenes), there’s a lot of action, and both books are fast-paced and intense. That, along with the world-building, I really liked. I also really liked Roselle as a main character: incredibly tough but also very vulnerable.  My big complaint with both books, though, other than they (like the other power-based books I’ve read recently) are based on flat antagonists whose hunger for power makes them stereotypical and one-dimensional, is that they both end with huge cliffhangers. I mean, HUGE. On the one hand, I’m absolutely convinced that I won’t read the third book in this series when it comes out in 2019 because I don’t want to reward the author and publisher for that kind of baiting. On the other hand, the cliffhanger at the end of Traitorborn is so wild and unforeseen and crazy that I might not be able to resist, especially if I can get another free ARC from Netgalley.

So, if you liked Dark Breaks the Dawn, Behind the Throne, The Sin Eater’s Daughter or books about power set in worlds other than our own, you’ll like both Secondborn and Traitorborn. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this ARC, and have provided an honest review.