WARNING: If you haven’t read this book, there are spoilers ahead.
I’d heard about this series from a few of the authors I follow on Twitter who’d tweeted about it a month or so ago. Of course I wanted to know what they’re reading, so I looked it up at Barnes & Noble.com. Several things drew me in: the two-line hook above, it was likened to The Hunger Games Trilogy, which I loved, and the cover, which even without the telling series header of “Dust Lands” lets you know that there’s a wasteland and seemingly insurmountable odds happening in this book, sort of a YA Mad Max with a female protagonist. I love that combination. Add in the summary of a young woman who must set off on her own through unknown territory to rescue her twin brother, well, that made this book irresistible to me.
Despite, or maybe partly because of Young’s unconventional use of dialect and lack of dialogue tags (quotations), this book sucked me in right away. It quickly became as addictive as my daily caffeine habit.
Eighteen-year-old Saba is dedicated to her twin Lugh to the exclusion of everything – and everyone – else. Her whole world revolves around him. He was born two hours before Saba, defining their relationship. She describes the two of them succinctly: “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…He’s my light. I’m his shadow.” So it’s not surprising that when Lugh is captured by four men in long black robes and leather body armor, and their father killed while trying to prevent the kidnapping, Saba sets off in search of him, undaunted by the unknown, intending to leave their nine-year-old sister, Emmi, in the care of a family friend named Mercy. Saba resents Emmi, whom she blames for their mother’s death in childbirth. Mercy tells Saba about the Tonton, the men who kidnapped Lugh, and the dangers of Hopetown, where Saba believes Lugh’s been taken. Mercy also gives her a heartstone, which had belonged to Saba’s mother, and tells her that it will lead Saba to her heart’s desire. The closer she gets to what she desires, the hotter it will become.
But Emmi refuses to be left behind. She catches up to Saba, who is furious with her, especially when having to look after Emmi gets them captured and Saba sold as a cage fighter, while Emmi is held captive against Saba’s cooperation.
Saba discovers the “red hot” that allows her to survive. “…the red hot kicks in an at last I unnerstand what it is. It’s like animals. A animal will do anythin to live. Even chew off its own leg if it’s caught in a trap. That’s the red hot. An I’m gonna hafta learn to use it if I wanna survive in the Cage.”
Within a month, the populace of Hopetown has dubbed Saba “The Angel of Death.” She’s never lost a fight and is kept segregated from the other female fighters. She meets Epona, a fighter of her own caliber and the first real hope for escape. Epona is a member of the Free Hawks, a band of female warriors, and their leader, Maeve, partners with Saba to free all the cage fighters, rescue Emmi, and escape Hopetown. While planning their move, Saba meets Jack, a fighter on the boys’ side, who stirs unfamiliar feelings within Saba, and makes her heartstone burn, something it’s never done before.
It soon becomes apparent that Emmi doesn’t just favor Saba in looks, she’s also Saba’s mirror in personality, writ small. Though Emmi is a captive herself, she manages to pass messages between Saba and Maeve, and aids in the coup that sets the Cage and Hopetown afire. Literally. When Saba once again attempts to leave Emmi behind, this time with the Free Hawks, Jack intervenes. He’s decided to accompany Saba to Freedom Fields where Lugh is being held, and stubbornly insists that Emmi must come too.
When they reach Freedom Fields, Jack, Saba, Emmi and their friends must face the Tonton, who serve the mad king who has declared that Lugh – a boy of eighteen years born at Midwinter – must die to rejuvenate his majesty. Upon rescuing Lugh, Saba and Jack discover that Emmi has been captured by the Tonton. Fortunately, the sisters’ relationship has evolved from mutual hostility into friendship and Saba is just as determined to rescue Emmi as she was to rescue Lugh.
Colors and shades play major roles in this novel. The black of the Tonton’s uniforms, the soft pink of Saba’s heartstone, Jack’s moonlit eyes, Lugh’s light, Saba and Emmi’s dark. And the red hot that fills Saba when she fights. The red hot changes Saba, tempers her obstinate personality while sharpening her survival skills.
Saba is a heroine to be reckoned with. If you loved The Hunger Games, you’ll adore the Dust Lands series. Blood Red Road is so much grittier, starker and hopeful than The Hunger Games. Dust Lands series is the next big thing in the YA Dystopian realm.