Book Review: Given to the Sea

Given to the Sea: Given Duet Book 1 by Mindy McGinnis

Given to the Sea orbits around an ancient tradition of sacrificing a young women, The Given, to the ocean every generation in order to stave off a violent wave that otherwise threatens to flood the kingdom. Before she can be sacrificed, she must give birth to a daughter, who will in turn give birth to a daughter before her own death, and so on. Khosa, the Given in this novel’s timeline, must have sex, become pregnant, and give birth, so that she can sacrifice herself to the sea before it is too late. However, Khosa can’t bear the touch of another human being. That is, until she meet the last Indiri, the two survivors of a horrific genocide of their people.

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When her village is attacked by the neighboring kingdom of Pietra, Khosa flees and eventually ends up in the kingdom of Stille, where the prince, Vincent, and his friend/adopted brother, Donil, one of the last two of an ancient race, both fall for her. Meanwhile, the king of Stille slowly becomes obsessed with forcing Khosa to fulfill her duty, and will stop at nothing to make sure that she does. Throw into the mix Donil’s sister Dara, a powerful young woman with desires of her own he must constantly fight off the lecherous king, and the looming attack from the Pietra, and you get a novel packed full of tension and characters hanging on the precipice of disaster.

The premise of this novel is really interesting and offers the potential to explore important questions about gender, autonomy, and disability. The story was well paced, moves quickly, and was housed in an interesting world. But this pace and movement come at the cost of rich world building and character development, making the characters hard to connect with. Told from four different points of view, the novel gives us access to Khosa, Vincent, Dara, and Witt, the Lithos (some kind of celibate leader) of the Pietra. While these shifts in perspective were interesting, particularly in the ways that we see two sides moving imminently toward each other, the quickness and frequency of the switches left certain characters lacking in depth and others completely flat. With three points of view in the same place and one on the other side, the relevance and complexity of the Witt chapters especially was sometimes lacking.

I found the novel’s focus on sex problematic. Not sexy sex, not loving or romantic sex, not fun sex, not even problematic sex used to a greater novelistic purpose. But awkward animalistic desire and control issues that are used as a possible stand in for love. The threat of rape that haunts the text and the fixation on breeding Khosa for the sacrifice could possibly offer some critique of society’s obsession with the female reproductive body (and particularly control of that reproductive body) and its reduction to vessel for the future, which is enacted quite literally in the give-birth-then-die-to-save-us plot line of the tradition.

And yet, the power plays and questions of control that this sacrifice brings to the surface do not seem so different from the ways that sex circulates between and around the “good” characters in the novel. Vincent’s obsession with Khosa and Dara, his frustration with not being able to have them in the ways that he wants, his manipulative behavior when he realizes Khosa might be developing romantic feelings for someone else, and even Donil’s treatment of the women he sleeps with, despite the novel’s claims to the contrary, all rehash these same problematic issues surrounding sex and female agency in the novel.

I was uncomfortable too with the rendering of the people called the Feneen. This is a group of cast offs, children left to die because of some disability or birth defect that marked them as undesirable, who are saved whenever possible by this community and given the chance to live and lead fulfilling lives. On the surface, this is an excellent chance to combat ableism and give voice to disabled characters in a meaningful way. And yet, in actuality, the representation is that of a group of people who are easily disposable and often fetishized. The means of “normalizing” a female character with no arms or legs, is to talk about her beauty and her sexual desirability. To be fair, it does seem that book two will spend more time with the Feneen and possibly develop these characters in a less problematic way.

All that being said, I do think I might read the second book in this “duet” because I am interested in seeing how these issues are resolved. I enjoyed McGinnis’s writing style and the world she created, and I particularly like the ending of the novel, which offers just enough closure, but sets up an interesting problem for the second book to solve.

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