The Birthright books are very, very similar in tone and flow into each other plot-wise, so it’s easiest to review them together as a group, but I’ll break down the exact plot in each for posterity’s sake. The series is composed of:
1. All These Things I’ve Done — Anya Balanchine is a teenager who happens to also be the eldest daughter of a deceased crime boss, though the family still operates under the guidance of her uncle. Their trade is chocolate, because in near future New York, cacao has been banned by an over-reaching government ostensibly trying to protect the “health” of its citizens. Anya, along with her older mentally-challenged brother and her younger sister, pointedly try to stay out of family politics and the business, but being the direct descendants of the onetime big boss tends to draw attention toward them anyway, and Anya finds herself in several situations where, despite wanting nothing to do with crime, her overall loyalty to the bonds of family and her residual pride for her father’s life work are tested.
2. Because it is My Blood — After the events of the first book, which have left Anya in a reformatory (juvenile prison), some additional unwanted attention now means Anya has to actually flee the country for a bit. When trouble follows her even there, she returns to New York and begins to realize that, despite her best efforts, she and her siblings will be a target no matter what they do. She still has no interest in taking over the main efforts of the family business, but she does want to resolve the matter of who is coming for them specifically, which by necessity involves her in some of the tumultuous family politics.
3. In the Age of Love and Chocolate — Anya has set up a members-only nightclub where people can purchase “prescriptions” that entitle them to medical cacao. This is her maneuver to both stay true to her roots as a chocolate princess but also operate legally, based on a law that allows for medicinal use of the product. (Obviously this is a pretty transparent metaphor for medical marijuana and legalization, with the cannabis clubs in states where such things are legal.) So this book, which actually jumps forward in time a few times, focuses for the most part on Anya’s business and actually leaves the bulk of the romance for the back third of the book. I preferred this to the other two, mostly because of the business focus and because of the natural excitement over it being the culmination of all of the choices Anya has made so far in the series; fortunately, Zevin didn’t fumble at the end.
These books won’t be for everyone. There are a lot of elements about the series that I find really interesting, just as there are some really problematic aspects that absolutely detract from my experience with it. In bullet form:
- The “near future” setting of the books, without any implausible sci-fi twists, was rather refreshing in a YA series. Here, the name of the game is government corruption and nods to the kind of barren Earth changes that are being reasonably projected to occur in that timeframe. In an amusing twist, the Millennial generation that is probably reading these books are, in the story, the grandparents of the protagonists, and references to their “back in the day” are occasionally introduced for moments of comedy.
- There is a romance, and it’s fairly blasé. This is one of the main weaknesses of the series, as it’s a fairly significant part of the story; however, I found that the mafia-related plotline was still interesting and well-executed enough that I wasn’t bothered by the lackluster romance.
- The absolute biggest issue I have toward the series is its attitude toward sex and teenage sexuality; there are some messages that I would really rather that teen readers didn’t absorb. I don’t think Zevin is being uniquely awful here, but I do think the messages from the book are very reflective of the dominant cultural messages about sex that tend to be detrimental toward women. So, let me dig into this for a bit.
- In the first place, Anya describes herself as a “good Catholic girl” and as such has chosen to abstain from sex before marriage. This is her decision and I am totally fine with it, and I’m even intrigued by a character with a front-and-center romance that doesn’t have a sexual focus. However, Anya’s somewhat naive views about sex manifest in two ways that I did not like at all.
- The first was that you get descriptions of girls dressed a certain way at a club, dancing with her brother, and naturally they are “sluts.” They are sluts even before one of them was nasty to Anya, which kind of seems like an authorial way to justify Anya calling her one.
- In the second place, you get this EXTREMELY troublesome plot thread (spoilers will follow!) that begins with Anya and her then-boyfriend, Gable. The latter is a major piece of work who does a lot of shitty things to Anya over the course of the first book, but most importantly, he attempts to rape Anya in one of the opening scenes of the first book. She dumps him immediately and doesn’t engage in any sort of blame on herself, making it very clear that he is responsible for his own actions. So, this starts off good, but then takes a turn where it’s implied Gable should have known better not because assaulting women is bad, but because he should have known Anya is a Good Catholic Girl and would never.
- Worse is that later a relationship develops between Gable and Anya’s best friend, Scarlet. Now, there is a lot about this that infuriates me. 1) I don’t unilaterally believe that people who have attempted rape can never be rehabilitated. After all, a lot of people — especially men — receive all kinds of messages that intentionally blur the lines of consent. However, 2) I don’t believe that people are ever under any obligation to forgive the person who assaulted/raped/attempted to rape them, and 3) I don’t believe that people who have survived that experience are also obligated to remain friends with people who keep the perpetrator in their inner friendship circles. But what happens here, when Anya totally reasonably expresses anger and disbelief that her best friend and attempted rapist would form (and continue) a relationship, the dialogue that tends to happen is “Anya, stop making everything about you,” to which her response is mostly “Yeah, you’re right.” NO. NONONONO. This is just an absolutely toxic message for young women. Scarlet, here, is being a shitty friend, full stop. I do not care if it is really true love between her and Anya’s attempted rapist, but she and the rest of their group of friends need to not perpetrate the idea that Anya is being somehow selfish for not being totes okay with this guy and this situation.
- All that aside, probably my favorite thing about the books was Anya herself. Her voice, I felt, was very unique among the YA protagonist set. Where many of her peers in the field tend toward snark when it comes to senses of humor, Anya’s is dry as the Sahara. This manifests both in the dialog, and in the chapter titles (the book is kind of structured as a memoir; it’s written in regular first-person past tense but there are these little narrative asides that indicate it’s supposed to be a recollection.) In some reviews I read, this style did not work at all, but for me it was very funny:
- “On the board, Mr. Beery had written ‘Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.’ I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be inspirational, thematic, or a joke about making sure to study.”
- “Chapter XIII: I have thoughts; am mostly wrong”
- “Chapter II: I officially become an adult; have a series of unkind thoughts about my friends and family; am unfavorably compared to argon”
- “Why’d you give him all that stuff after he tried to rob me?”
“Because he was less fortunate than us, Natty. And Daddy always said that we have to be mindful of those who are less fortunate.”
“But Daddy killed people, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “Daddy was complex.”
Overall, I give the series 3 stars. This is partly because I couldn’t get over the thing in the giant bullet up there, but also because most of the second book was a big waste of time, in retrospect. Just after reading it, I had a similar impression of it as I did of the first book, but now having finished all three, it was definitely a placeholder. As I said just there toward the end, Anya was truly the saving grace of the books, since I enjoyed her perspective so much. So if you’re looking for a dry YA heroine, give the series a shot, but be willing to overlook some shortcomings.