Lugh got born first. On Midwinter Day when the sun hangs low in the sky.

Then me. Two hours later.

That pretty much says it all.

Lugh goes first, always first, an I follow on behind.

An that’s fine. That’s right. That’s how it’s meant to be.

While there are eventually entire paragraphs, the whole book is like this. It’s narrated by the illiterate heroine Saba, in dialect and without quotation marks. Though that usually annoys me, I could hear the rhythms of her accent as I read, and the stylized, poetic, stripped-down style was my favorite part of the book.

When Saba and her idolized twin brother Lugh are 18 and living in apparent isolation in the post-apocalyptic desert, mysterious people kidnap Lugh and kill her father. Saba ditches Emmi, the little sister she’s never much cared for, on her one surviving relative, and sets off to find Lugh. To Saba’s annoyance, Emmi follows her. (I very much liked the relationship between Saba and Emmi – it was by far the most convincing and well-developed one in the book.) Saba and Emmi are promptly kidnapped by traders and sold into slavery, and Saba is forced to become a cage fighter. So far, so good: atmospheric, well-written, and compelling. The worldbuilding is more opportunities for cool set-pieces than anything that hangs together as a whole, but at this point I didn’t really mind.

Things start to go downhill when Saba begins cage-fighting. Though it’s never stated whether or not she’s ever fought before or been trained by anyone, she is instantly the greatest female cage fighter ever by virtue of sheer animal raaaaaage. I don’t buy this. How hard would it have been for to give the readers some plausible explanation? Like, “I nevvir knew why, but Pa, he trained me to fight. Allus said I might need it some day. Evry day after sundown, we fit till there was no more light. It all come back to me now…”

More unnecessary implausibilities appear with Saba’s magic soulmate-finding jewel. Her aunt gave her a necklace that supposedly gets hot when your heart’s desire appears. Saba sees a hot male cage-fighter… and it gets hot! This was ridiculous and unnecessary. Their relationship would have gone the exact same way if there had been no silly magic jewel, since Saba spends the entire book denying that the jewel is valid anyway. Jack, the hot dude, is a charming rogue. He’s not really characterized more than that, but I did appreciate that he was a rogue rather than the standard brooder. I also appreciated that he and Saba, while first bonding in 30 seconds from across the cage yard, later actually interacted and had conversations.

I’ll avoid spoilers from here on out, except to say that the second half of the novel was lively and entertaining, but extremely, extremely predictable, occasionally promising twists but never delivering them. It inspired my poll in the last entry, so if you don’t want to know who doesn’t survive the final battle, don’t go and see which characters were voted as the top two contenders to die. It also became more and more noticeable how little sense the worldbuilding and plotting made, from the classic element of the inn with no apparent population to support such a thing, to the exceptionally poorly-planned mission to take down the Big Bad.

Despite these complaints, I overall enjoyed this book. By virtue of voice and being an adventure rather than an awesomely depressing slog through gloom and cannibal rape gangs, or a tedious exploration of life under a government inexplicably devoted to controlling the wardrobes and love lives of teenagers, it was by far my favorite of the YA dystopias I’ve read this year. As a bonus, though the first of a series, it comes to a satisfying conclusion.

But while I liked it a lot while I was reading, by the time I got to writing the review, the flaws loomed larger. They were the same old flaws which have marred every single YA dystopia I’ve read recently: worldbuilding and characterization thin as tissue paper, and plot holes you could fly a 747 through.

I think I’m done with teen dystopias. Let me know if you find one that has solid characterization of more characters than just the heroine, worldbuilding that meets my rather low bar of “people have cultures of some sort, and there is at least the suggestion that there is an economy and/or means of production beyond cannibalism,” and motivations beyond “everyone who isn’t evil must help the heroine/everyone who isn't the love interest must betray the heroine."

Dustlands #01: Blood Red Road


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