Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Grades 8+ Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2011. 448 pages. Reviewed from ARC snagged at ALA.
Hot. Dry. This is what Saba knows on her homestead in the middle of the desert. It hasn't rained for months. Her father has been slowly losing it since her mother died nine years ago and he's just about around the bend. The only bright spot in Saba's life is her twin brother Lugh. The two are as close as siblings can be and Saba knows that Lugh's thinking about leaving, setting off in search of a better life. When he goes, she'll follow him. That's what she does. Lugh leads and she follows.
But after a violent dust storm springs up, strange men in black coats take Lugh away. Saba's world is breaking in two, but she's determined to find Lugh and bring him back. What she finds when she leaves the homestead is a complicated world she has no idea how to navigate, but Saba will stop at nothing to bring back the brother she loves so dearly. No matter who she has to kill to do it.
Okay, so I'm at ALA Midwinter, right? And I'm stopping by the Simon & Schuster booth to chat with the reps and editors and I'm asking them what books they're particularly excited about for the spring. And one of them says, "Oh, Blood Red Road! It's like our Hunger Games!" And I'm thinking "Hmm... yeah, right, okay. Of course you're going to say that because you know it'll sell the book." And then she says, "And the main character Saba? She could kick Katniss's ass*!" And then I'm really thinking "Hmm... yeah, right! And also, how dare you!"
But later that day, I'm at the S&S preview lunch and I'm hearing all about how they were so excited about this book that they're publishing it only months after receiving the manuscript. And I start thinking that if they're this excited about the book, I am going to have to get my hands on it. I stop by the booth again and ask for it and they hand me a bound manuscript (no cover image, even) and tell me that it'll make a great read for the plane.
So, in the airport on my way home from San Diego, I actually do crack it open.
And holy cats. I could not put it down. I am not the biggest fan of being crammed onto an airplane with a bunch of other people, but I actually wanted my flight to be longer so that I would have more uninterrupted time to read. I am totally serious.
I was first drawn in by the writing. Moira Young seriously knows how to show and not tell. And she writes in this dialect that she's concocted and it gives Saba a voice right off, but I didn't find it difficult to read. She doesn't even use quotation marks for dialog, which normally I don't like, but in this case it felt totally right for the character.
Saba's mother died from complications after giving birth to Saba's little sister Emmi. And Saba described her as "A ugly little red scrap with a heartbeat like a whisper" (pg 11)**. I sat up and took notice. A bit later, Moira Young perfectly shows us the relationship between Saba and her brother:
His necklace catches the light. I found the little ring of shiny green glass in the landfill a while back. I threaded it on a piece of leather an hid it away till I could give it to him fer our eighteen year birthday. That was five days ago an he ain't took it off since. What did he give me? Nuthin. Like always. (pg 17-18)**
I love how that one slight paragraph instantly gives you the picture of Saba and Lugh's relationship. He's precious to her and she found him something precious and rare for his birthday, hiding it away until it was time. She's precious to him and he treasures the gift she gave him, not wanting to take the necklace off. But he's also still a boy and a brother, so he doesn't get Saba anything. Him treasuring the necklace so much is gift enough for her.
I have felt that same way about my brother. Moira Young gets it.
So, the writing drew me in and I knew I was in for something special. But THEN. THEN the action started and it did NOT let up! Moira Young's got a good sense of pacing and the action ebbs and flows, allowing the reader to catch her breath now and then. When the action's high, I was glued to the page, breathless, heart pounding. And even though the book's 400+ pages long, it did not feel that long. It was a quick read because I just couldn't put it down.
I will say that a LOT happened in the book and I'm not quite sure that everything that happened was completely necessary to the story. Parts of the book felt like the author was trying to encompass everything you could ever want in a YA book, which was maybe not necessary. But I will also say that I enjoyed reading every bit of it, so who cares if the story wasn't perfectly streamlined?
The ending definitely paves the way for a sequel and, though there's nothing huge left unresolved, there are definitely some things I'm wondering about that I hope will be addressed in the next book. Blood Red Road has the kind of ending where I'm definitely looking forward to the next book, but I don't feel like I might die if I can't read it right this second (which is good since, y'know, I can't).
Of course, this is an excellent Hunger Games readalike, although instead of straight up speculative science fiction, there are some elements of fantasy in Blood Red Road. They have the same fast pace and similar scrappy female characters having to make it in an unfair and incredibly violent world. I'd also hand it to fans of The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and anyone who has jumped on the dystopian bandwagon (and doesn't mind violence - there is a lot of violence).
Do not walk, but RUN to your nearest bookseller and preorder this book. You may also want to buy a copy for, oh, every Hunger Games and/or dystopian fan that you know.
Blood Red Road will be on shelves June 7!
* Probably the rep did not actually say "ass" to me, but I'm saying it here anyway.
** Quotes are from ARC and may not appear the same in the final copy