Rosemarked by Livia Blackburn

What would any of us be like without our past? If I could no longer remember my years growing up with you and Alia, if my training as a healer was erased, would I still be me? If I started a new life, made new friends, fell in love, decided to apprentice in farming instead of healing, which version of me would be real? Would it matter?

The Amparan Empire is vast and powerful, controlling a majority of the continent with its military might, and the unbending rule of the Emperor and his family. For Zivah, a young woman who has just earned her healer’s sash in the mountainous village region of Dara, the Empire’s reach is frightening, but not an immediate danger. When Amparan soldiers show up in Dara bearing the symptoms of the deadly rose plague, Zivah gravely goes about her duties—she is a sworn healer in fealty to her Goddess, even if the ill are the tyrants who threaten to destroy her village’s way of life. Her kindness and care catch the attention of the Amparan soldiers suffering from the plague—especially the battallion’s commander, Arxas, who, upon recovery, offers Zivah the chance to study healing in Ampara.

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But then Zivah collapses—the rose plague’s latest victim. Unlike Commander Arxas, or the other lucky survivors of the plague, Zivah emerges from her illness rosemarked; the telltale red marks covering her body a constant reminder that she is contagious and living on borrowed time. One day, the plague will return tp claim Zivah’s life.

Months have passed with Zivah in quarantine on the outskirts of her village, waiting for her life to end, when a Shidadi warrior appears. Dineas is a young man who survived the rose plague and emerged umbertouched—that is, he is no longer contagious and immune to the disease. The rose plague is one of the easiest things he has survived—as a resistance fighter against the Empire, Dineas has been imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead. Now, he is determined to make the Empire pay, before Ampara consumes what is left of his people—and Zivah’s.

Together, Zivah and Dineas concoct a dangerous plan: they will travel to Central Ampara together. Zivah will accept the role as a healer and scholar, extended to her by Commander Arxas, with a post in the rosemarked compound just outside of the city walls. Using her skills and knowledge of herblore, Zivah will take away Dineas’s memory temporarily so that the young fighter can pose as an amnesiac plague survivor and earn his way through the ranks of Amparan soldiers—bringing down the Empire from the inside-out. That is, if they don’t get caught first…

Livia Blackburne’s newest novel, Rosemarked, is an alternate historical YA novel—while there isn’t overt magic, Zivah and Dineas’s Amparan Empire certainly has elements of high fantasy, especially when it comes to the titular rose plague. There are machinations and daring espionage scenes aplenty in this novel, just as there are high stakes and double-crossing twists. For all that fraught suspense, however, at its heart, Rosemarked is truly a novel about identity, memory, and second chances, viewed through the eyes of two (actually three) very different narrators.

Zivah has always worked at becoming a healer. She is compassionate and strong, but in a quiet and unyielding way—trusting always in the guidance of her Goddess and in her purpose as a healer. But then, she is rosemarked and her life—her carefully planned and constructed life—is destroyed. While Zivah buries the hurt and heresy of her thoughts deep inside, she tries to find another way to help others. With Dineas, and with the act of taking his memories temporarily, restoring them each time he can visit her in the rosemarked compound, however, she crosses a line that deeply troubles her. Hubris, as it turns out, is a real bitch, and Zivah grapples with this heartache every day.

Dineas’s arc is even more profoud; a warrior suffering from post traumatic stress and burning enmity at the Amparan troops, there’s no possibility that Dineas would have been able to fool the army were it not for Zivah’s medicines and his amnesia. But losing his memories, even temporarily, to construct a new Dineas comes at a huge cost—since he can remember everything that his other self does when Zivah restores his memory, Dineas struggles with the sense of living two lives and becoming a man he never believed he could be: an ally of the Empire, a trusted soldier in arms, fighting, even killing, members of his own clan.

Dineas and Zivah struggle throughout Rosemarked with their slipping senses of identity and the ever-growing stain of guilt. As Zivah becomes closer to those in the rosemarked compound, and as she bonds with Dineas—both versions of him—the weight of her choices weighs heavily on her mind.

And this is why Rosemarked truly shines, in my opinion. Livia Blackburne builds to a crescendo of this hubris, this guilt and internal conflict for both Zivah and Dineas in this first book. Instead of building to a cheesy romance, or a melodramatic cliffhanger, Blackburne uses a quiet restraint—there’s a romance that unfolds, almost inevitably, between these characters… but it’s not really what it seems. I loved the way Blackburne avoids the pitfall of forced melodrama and sappiness by focusing instead on the nuanced, complicated bond between the two characters.

The only areas where I wish we had more nuance and depth were in regards to the politics and worldbuilding of Ampara. The Empire’s reach is far and its grip is strong—but there’s a lack of complexity in the reasons for revolution that I hope will seriously be addressed in the next book.

Still, this criticism said, Rosemarked shines. I’ll be back for the second book in the series. In Book Smugglerish, 8 out of 10.