I've been hooked on books since childhood, and still am. I usually have at least three books going at any given time. After nearly two decades teaching middle school, I've developed strong opinions about YA fiction. A married mother of many adult children, and a practicing Catholic, my moral paradigms do play into my reviews.
Blood Red Road, by Moira Young
Not as deep nor as touching as Hunger Games, but pretty exciting, and definitely on the better side of most of today's young adult distopian fictions. I enjoyed reading it, though it is rather lightweight, and I am planning to read the sequel. In other words, it's a rollicking story, with a likeable heroine and an interesting world, though it never really attempts to make any political commentary.
I could not help but like the heroine, Saba, and was happy to discover that she grew up and changed as the book progressed, becoming both a better person and a deadlier one. As the novel opens, Saba and her small family are struggling to survive on the shores of a lake that is drying up. Her mother is long dead. She has her father, her twin brother Lugh who is her whole world, and a pesky younger sister, Emmi, whom she really does not care for. Saba is fairly self centered and a bit whiny at first, but is forced to step into leadership when Tontons ride in, kill her father, and cart away her beloved twin brother.
Saba swears to find Lugh, no matter what. She leaves Emmi with a distant friend of her fathers, a likeable wise woman named Mercy, in what she considers a safe place, and sets out on foot through the terrifying world beyond the shores of their dried-up lake. Gradually the larger picture of how things are out there begins to form. Emmi refuses to be left behind and catches up to her sister. They encounter their first town, Hopetown, an ugly and dangerous place, and their first con artists as well, the beautifully written and deliciously twisted Pinch couple.
One bad thing after another happens, and Saba must find a way to escape Hopetown and continue on her quest to find Lugh. Along the way she makes several enemies and a handful of friends, including the romantic interest of the novel, Jack, an enigmatic young man who says little but seems to know much.
Girls throughout the novel are presented as powerful. In fact they often rescue the boys, which is a nice change in youth fiction. Saba is out to rescue her brother: along the way, she rescues Jack, and it is the girls only group, the Free Hawks, who ride in at the last minute to assist with the climactic rescue scene.
The catastrophe that destroyed this particular once-modern world is never explained, only hinted at. We hear about "The Wreckers" and it's clear that most people have died, along with most technologies. No mention is ever made of what exactly happened: it's not important to the story, so it never gets handled, and I think that is fine. This story could happen on any planet anywhere, where civilization has collapsed in, say, the last two to three generations.
It's rather like living in the Dark Ages, I think. Small feudal-style leaders (including Vicar Pinch, who styles himself after The Sun King) have set themselves up in power and control what they can with their personal armies (here, Pinch's men are called The Tontons) and/or with drugs, in this novel the addictive crop called cha'al. Kings can get people hooked on cha'al and then make them basically into slaves.
Towns eventually form in areas where there is sufficient water and food, often featuring the kind of brutal entertainment mankind has always preferred, prostitution and variations on gladiatorial games.
Rebel groups are also forming, such as the all-female warrior group The Free Hawks, and the mysterious Raiders from the Western Road, who appear towards the end of the novel. These groups reject the towns and the kings.
I was hooked early on by Saba's world view and the unique way the author has written, or more properly NOT written, the dialogue out. You won't find any quotation marks in this book. Thoughts, words, and actions are all laid out side by side, and the reader quickly learns to decipher the one from the other. Many words are intentionally misspelled, giving the characters their dialect. Mr. Pinch's elegant blithering in proper English is amusing, compared to the way everyone else speaks, for instance.
I was also happy that no one in this novel runs and leaps into bed with anyone else, at least not any of our main characters, and what very very little sexual content there is was NOT graphically described: in fact it is barely hinted at (Saba sees and hears about some prostitutes in Hopetown) and might easily be missed by a younger reader, so it is safe for the 8th grade classroom in which I teach. There are one or two loving kisses, which are described thoroughly, but nothing more at all.
Dystopian (or distopian) fiction is all the rage right now. It has certain advantages for the writer, including being allowed to set up whatever discombobulated system works for the story you want to tell. In this case, a young woman of 18 who must accept her own responsibility in this world, make a few difficult ethical choices, and fight back against what amounts to a nasty little drug cartel that has kidnapped her brother.
Towards the end of the book there were a few hints of a larger societal issue. I am hopeful that the sequel will delve a bit more into what happened to bring the world to this point, and what Jack and Saba will do to make it right again.
The novel is over 400 pages, but I considered it an easy read. It won the Costa Book Award in 2011. Costa is a coffee company, sort of the English Starbucks if you will, which awards five prizes each year to authors from the UK and Ireland, and this book took the prize in youth fiction.