Tiadone is a firstborn female, and by law, not allowed to live unless her parents declare her male. They do so, and Tiadone grows up knowing that though her body is female, she is male, and must conform to all cultural standards of masculinity (more than any other male) to prove that she is worthy of life.
This is my first fiction of 2015, and it was really, really good. I’m having a hard time formulating my thoughts, so I’m just going to do this in categories. Note that there will be very minor, world-building-related spoilers, but no plot-related spoilers.
1. Transgender Issues – Okay. So this isn’t exactly transgender. In fact, I would say that Tiadone is more cisgender than transgender, as she finds herself relating more and more to feminine roles, cultural traits, and magic than those she’s expected to relate to. However, I still think this addresses a lot of transgender issues. Tiadone believes she is supposed to be male. She believes that a religious amulet received at birth makes her male, despite her female form. She works very hard to live up to what is expected of her as a young man, and is thrilled when her rapion (more on rapion in a moment) bonds with her (further proof that she is male). At the same time, she feels betrayed by her body as she gets older and begins to exhibit signs of womanhood (physically and emotionally). She is desperate to find a more powerful charm for her amulet, to rid herself of all feminine traits. She believes she is male, she knows she’s supposed to be male, and yet, she feels wrong as a male, and thus does not align with her society-given gender. This is not an area explored all that often in fiction, and I love the way it is presented and resolved in Firstborn.
2. World-building – I really appreciate great world-building in fantasy. By “great” I mean that not only is it well-developed and believable, but also doesn’t take center stage. The characters are the center of this book, but the world that they exist in is fantastically and subtly drawn. Tiadone is a first-person narrator, and so Grover walks the difficult line of “too much info-dump” vs “narrator knows the world and thus doesn’t need to explain anything.” Grover found creative ways to get the cultural differences across without ever resorting to long expository boringness. At first things are a little confusing, but not too much, and as you go along, everything becomes clearer. Also, I love the language she used in their culture. Much of it is the same as our language, with a few tiny changes. They say hair twists instead of hair or curls. Soul’s portion is self-explanatory. Backside and backend both refer to one’s rear, but the former is free of innuendo, and the latter is derogatory and lewd. Then there’s my favorite, a combination of sever and separation: severation. This is a word so charged and powerful that I wish I could use it in real life.
3. Religion and Magic – This is related to world-building as well. Both religion and magic are well-defined, with very strict boundaries. There are two religions in conflict in this book (with different ties to magic), and you meet characters on all end of the spectrum. There are those who worship devoutly on either side, some who claim faith but disobey rules, some who pretend to believe one way while secretly studying the other side, and some who don’t care and just want to survive. Tiadone herself struggles with her faith all through the book, stuck in the conflict between her family’s traditions and the reigning world order that has forced her maleness on her. Note: After reading, I looked up the imprint that published this book and discovered it’s a mainstream YA imprint of a Christian imprint of HarperCollins. If I’d known that in advance, I would have worried about Christian influence, and would have been more leery going in. I’m happy to say that I saw nothing like that in this book, and found both religions entirely fictional. The book certainly talks a lot about faith, but never felt preachy at all.
4. Rapion – I very rarely enjoy books with major animal characters, especially characters that communicate in some way with people. Rapion are fantastical birds. When a child is born, the rapion present an egg to that child. The egg is then kept wrapped to them throughout their childhood. In adolescence, the egg hatches, and the rapion that emerges either twines with or rejects the person they grew up with. (Rejection is almost unheard of.) That person then takes the rapion out to whatever service position they’ve received, a year-long service where the rapion grows to almost man-size and learns to communicate both through gestures and almost telepathically with their twin (for lack of a better word). The bond between person and rapion is far deeper than a friendship, and becomes something so physical that if one half of the pair dies, the other very well may die also. At the end of the year comes severation – as mentioned above – and the process is immensely painful to both person and rapion. Tiadone’s rapion is Mirko, and unlike usual for me, I completely fell in love with Mirko. The bond between them is written so well that it overcame my normal distaste for person-animal communication.
5. Surprise – Firstborn could have easily fallen into the seriously overdone trope of “falling in love makes it possible to save the world from oppression.” Honestly, at one point, I thought it was going to fall into that trope. There was also the strong possibility that the book might succumb to the “I’m different and that makes me the chosen one” trope. I’m not going to say what actually happens. I don’t want to give away spoilers. All I’m going to say is that the ending was entirely unexpected and absolutely wonderful. I loved all Tiadone’s reasons for everything she did. I loved the circumstances under which the religions and cultures were left at the end of the book. I loved the ambiguity and the realism. I love that this is an entirely closed story that, as far as I’m aware, has no sequels planned, but there could easily be further stories in this world.
So there you go. All the reasons I loved this book. It’s a good one. More people need to read/review it. Highly recommended.