This review and others are posted at Read, Rinse, Repeat.
"It would be like you deciding if it was worth befriending a butterfly, even though it wouldn't be there in the morning."
If you imagine a dog that has been abused by people its entire life, you have a sense of Ana, the narrator of "Incarnate". Ana is wary, distrusting of kindness, and extremely cautious, and she has good reason. During the eighteen years of her life, she suffered constant abuse at the hands of her mother, Li.
Ana inhabits a world of exactly one million people. Each time someone dies, he or she is reincarnated into a newborn's body. The cycle has continued for thousands of years until the day of Ana's birth. A woman named Ciana died, and Ana should have been her reincarnation, but instead, Ana is a "nosoul," someone who has had no past lives. Most of society fears her, worrying that her existence is a sign that their own lives may not be infinite.
When Ana sets off to the city of Heart to discover the reason for her existence, she quickly runs into trouble in the form of a sylph, a nasty being with a murderous touch. She's rescued by a boy (well, a several thousands-year-old person in the body of a teenager) named Sam. Sam takes a keen interest in Ana, and he acts as a mentor and supporter, shepherding her through Heart's society.
Jodi Meadows did a fine job demonstrating the origins of Ana's distrust of others, so it seemed a bit abrupt when she rather quickly opened up to Sam. Perhaps she was so starved for affection that she would have responded similarly to anyone who showed her an ounce of kindness, but that angle is not explored by Meadows. That said, I did like the relationship between Ana and Sam, as long as I did not spend too much time thinking about the fact that Ana is eighteen, and Sam is somewhere closer to three or four thousand-years-old. I did not get a deep sense of any of the supporting characters beyond Ana's hateful mother, something that I'm hoping changes in the sequel, Asunder.
Much of the story is focused on Ana's quest to discover her origin, and this was the part that interested me most. But then it was wrapped up quickly in a bit of exposition at the end of the book. It seemed like a lot of a buildup that led to a conclusion a bit like the sudden deflation of a balloon.
While some reviewers describe Incarnate as dystopian, I don't view it that way. I'm not even sure that the story takes place on Earth, as the location is never specified. The existence of dragons and other monsters is perhaps another hint. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Heart don't seem particularly downtrodden or the victims of villainous leaders, typically a requirement for the dystopian genre.
Despite some misgivings, I will read the sequel. I like Meadows' writing, and I like Ana enough to want to see where her story goes.