Incarnate by Jodi Meadows
In the city of Heart there are one million people, each reincarnated over thousands of years with all their memories of their previous lives intact. Until now, before Ana was born another soul vanished and she is the first new person born in Heart ever, something her mother seems to bitterly resent and other people are suspicious of. Isolated from the rest of the world, she's now reached adulthood and is ready to travel back into Heart and discover why she exists and prove that she wasn't a terrible mistake.
For all that they are shelved and classified together, fantasy and science-fiction rarely overlap in a single work and yet I'm hard pressed to figure out which genre this book fits in or if it might have been both. While the book is big on descriptions which seem like something out of a fairy tale, filled with natural wonders and terrors, it's short on the explanations and the "reveals" at the climax of the book just make Ana and Heart's situation all the more complicated. Is this a fantasy with a capricious god locked in a tower, controlling who lives and who never is? Or is this secretly a strange kind of sci-fi, the fact that the city of Heart stood ready to be inhabited with no one around and that the characters have reinvented all kinds of technology, beyond what we currently have (except possibly for aircraft) feels like a sci-fi story to me, like one where colonists were dropped onto a world and then somehow forgot about it*. And while I do understand that no, you can't reveal everything in the first book of a trilogy, I do feel like the mysteries in Ana's life are big enough that you can at least start explaining some of them while leaving plenty of things for the other two books.
Other than that detractor, this book wasn't bad but it wasn't memorable either, nothing about the setting or the details are, well, detailed enough to grab me and I just didn't really find Ana that interesting a character. She just wobbles too much between being "person who was emotionally and possibly physically abused for years with no reason to trust the world" with "love-struck teenager" too erratically for it to feel like any kind of character development and her obsession with Sam ("can I still love him if he's loved other people in past lives/been a girl?!") got tedious fast. Actually, in this story people can reincarnate as male or female and some people insist that they have true soulmates with whom they fall in love every time, that's not a problem. What is a problem is that one event in this book is going to the joining ceremony of two of these characters, both currently female, and someone mentions off hand that it used to be that if both of them were the same gender in the past they would kill themselves and hope for better luck next time which probably didn't mean to come off as nearly as homophobic as it sounded there but even reading that caused me to raise my eyebrows. Gender and sexuality are complicated things and I almost understand what Meadows was trying for but with how this was followed up by "they've stopped doing that because they've learned that life is too precious to waste" makes it seem like she doesn't understand how attraction works at all (you DO actually have an orientation for your romantic preferences as well as sexual, they just normally match up so people don't think about it much) and I wish the story had either cut that line or used it as a way to explore how changing your body changes your mind at parts because your brain is another organ (instead of just being a semi-metaphor for Ana wrangling her feelings for Sam).
With that, I can't really recommend this book but I wouldn't advise people away from it either, I suspect that I'll probably just forget about it in another few months time and move onto whatever the next book is on my reading list instead. I am also heavily questioning the covers in this series since they look a lot like "artist attempts to do a high-fashion-make-up concept shoot except didn't spend enough time refining the idea" and whenever I have that many words to say on a cover it's a bad sign.
*or stuck in a video game but clearly I watch too much anime, although there are one or two YA novels that deal with AIs living in what they don't even realize at first are video games, like Saga by Conor Kostick so clearly I'm not completely crazy here.