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Posted on 8 Dec 2022 in Fiction, SFF |

JO RICCIONI The Branded. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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In the world of Jo Riccioni’s debut fantasy novel, surviving a plague carries a price.

How I longed to be allowed to wield a sword, to fight, to kill the Settlement’s enemies when I trained with Brim in the Fornwood. Now I’d give anything not to.

Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Jo Riccioni takes readers to an exciting new world in her first fantasy novel, The Branded. There are some very deliberate parallels to our own society, with a magical, Medieval-inspired, apocalyptic world bearing the scars of a past plague. Nevertheless, even if you never want to hear the word ‘pandemic’ again, this doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the genre on offer here.

As children, orphaned twins Nara and Osha are raised in the wild Fornword by their grandmother. When she is killed by raiders, the girls are forced to seek shelter in the nearby Isfalk settlement, where they are valued only for their unmarked skin as Pure breeding stock. A century earlier, a plague ravaged the world, leaving most survivors and their descendants Branded with blue markings on their skin and more susceptible to other diseases. (Interestingly, a recent study has found that descendants of Black Plague survivors are more likely to get some autoimmune diseases today.)

The two classes in Isfalk live very different lives: for the Pure, strong, healthy and immune, it is a life of idle luxury; for the Branded, born weaker and immunocompromised, it is one of drudgery supporting them. An ancient prophecy predicts a time when a saviour will arise and the Branded will be healed, but no one really seems to believe it. Life goes on, with the Branded going hungry so the Pure may eat.

Osha seems peacefully resigned to her fate in this gilded cage, but Nara longs to return to the forest where they grew up and make a life on her own terms. When she is forced to run and accept the help of an enigmatic Brand from the distant south, everything she thought she knew is challenged. The wider world is bigger and more complicated than she ever could have imagined. With more than just her own life in the balance, she needs to work out who to trust and how to control the uncanny abilities she is coming to realise she possesses, before it’s too late.

There’s something engaging about the immediacy of Nara’s first-person narration and her impulsive, passionate character that makes this book hard to put down:

She fixes me with that frank look – the one that says I’m being simplistic and naïve, the one that makes me want to wriggle away so I don’t have to confront the messy truth.

This book is also full of fun dialogue and lively humour:

‘What? You assume because I work with dogs that I share their sophistication?’

‘Not at all.’ I reach down to scratch his companion about the ears. ‘I’d never be so insulting to dogs.’

The Isfalk school’s motto for the Pure girls to live by is one that would make George Orwell proud: Through Pairing and Progeny to Purpose. The most senior and respected woman in the settlement is one who has given birth to a record 18 children (and lived), which is a horrifying thought. The irony of a society that demonises medicine and simply prays for the very real dangers of constant back-to-back pregnancies to go away is as amusing as it is tragic.

The Branded has a lot to say about class, gender roles and the value of human life, told with an intricate plot, a side dish of humour and a consistently fast pace. One of my favourite things about the way this novel showcases its strong female characters is the acknowledgement that there is more than one way to be strong. The relationship – and differences – between the two sisters is an important part of making this point throughout the story. The second and final instalment of The Branded Season, The Rising, is expected to be out next year.

Jo Riccioni The Branded Pantera Press 2022 PB 394pp RRP $29.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy The Branded from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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