Simon and Schuster, 2011, 466 pages
Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That's fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother, Lugh, is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives, along with four cloaked horsemen, Saba's world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back.
Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she's a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.
Blood Red Road has a searing pace, a poetically minimal writing style, violent action, and an epic love story. Moira Young is one of the most promising and startling new voices in teen fiction.
Blood Red Road is a fun, briskly-paced post-apocalyptic adventure I would have liked a lot as a teenager, especially with its tough girl protagonist. Unfortunately, as an adult I can recognize safe characterization and mediocre plotting and derivative worldbuilding that drains what promise the author showed as a writer and storyteller. Moira Young has borrowed Cormac McCarthy's writing style but none of his dark violence and horror; her story will remind you of The Hunger Games and Mad Max and a few other inspirations, none of which do I think it actually "rips off," but it's not memorable enough for its own sake.
Not all books — particularly YA books — need to be filled with grimdark blood and guts and explicit sex. However, a post-apocalyptic adventure does require a certain amount of gut-twisting bloodshed or what's the point? Blood Red Road is something suitable for teenagers, and tediously targeting that all-important demographic with a "hot silver-eyed" hero who makes kissy-face with the heroine because she's there.
Saba has grown up with her cranky father, her shining, golden, blue-eyed twin brother Lugh (about whom she speaks in terms that border on the non-sisterly), and her unwanted little sister Emmi in a place called Silverlake, which is a near-uninhabitable dust hole. Then some riders from the outside world show up and abduct Lugh and kill her father, so Saba goes after them. Along the way, she discovers that she really does love her little sister after all and it's not the poor kid's fault that their mother died giving birth to her. She also meets a handsome guy named Jack who's a wandering rogue of some sort and he has MOON SILVER EYES as we are reminded about every other chapter, every time Saba and he are dancing their trite little courtship dance — mutual loathing and sniping and bickering and mistrust and pretending that they totally aren't hot for each other, in between saving each other's lives.
Gads, I got tired of Saba's heart going pitter pat and "heat washing across her chest" and other YA euphemisms for "OMG I WANT TO DO THIS GUY!" every time she talks to Jack, not to mention his silver eyes. An old woman even gave Saba a "heartstone" just before she left on her quest which tells you what your "true heart's desire is," and of course it gets warm every time Jack swaggers by or Saba thinks about him. "Heartstone" is evidently YA-speak for "wet panties." Although Jack approaches minimal levels of interestingness and his interaction with Saba is nothing that wouldn't do a RomCom scriptwriter proud, there's really not much explanation for their insta-lust. Well, other than the fact that he's the first fuckable male Saba has ever met (the only other males she's ever met being her father and her brother).
I found the entire romance subplot to be as elegant as a piton hammered into a rock, meant to give girls something to latch onto. And it's so clearly aimed at girl readers who, you know, couldn't possibly be interested in a bad-ass chick on a quest in a post-apocalyptic wilderness to save her brother (and, eventually, sister) for its own sake, no, you have to throw in a slightly dickish (but only slightly, so he remains safely snuggable) bad boy with "hot silver eyes."
As a post-apocalyptic epic, Blood Red Road fares better, though never wandering outside the comfortable and watered-down sensibilities of YA fiction, and not even approaching the more visceral levels of dread that The Hunger Games sometimes managed. This is evidently far in the future, after the "Wrecker" civilization has collapsed so the world has mostly gone back to pre-industrial levels of technology; things like binoculars and firearms are rare artifacts.
There's a "land boat" and some giant mutant sand worms. Saba spends a month as a cage fighter (where the violence is, once again, toned down to YA levels). There is a band of all-girl bandits/fighters called the Free Hawks. Saba bonds with her little sister, all while chasing after her brother and mooning after Jack (BUT I TOTALLY DON'T LIKE HIM OMG!).
Here again the book stumbled where it might have been more interesting had this been a book for grown-ups. Saba's time as a cage fighter is made relatively bloodless. Oh, people die, but though Saba becomes known as the "Angel of Death" for never losing a fight, she doesn't actually kill anyone herself. The cage fighters fight to submission, and anyone who loses three fights in a row must run "the Gauntlet," in which basically you are torn apart by the crowd. The author does give one tiny nod to humanity and survivor's guilt when Saba dreams of the ghosts of the girls she sent to the Gauntlet coming back to haunt her accusingly, but after that she pretty much puts it behind her and forgets it.
Likewise, the Free Hawks — an all-girl band of bandit "revolutionaries." Cool idea, but implemented without any explanation or background, they just show up for some rousing action scenes. I mean, an all-female band of fighters in a post-apocalyptic society is fraught with all kinds of implications, and no, I don't think the author needed to provide us with horrific tales of escaped sex slaves and rape gangs and the like, we can read between the lines just fine, but really, she doesn't even hint at why a bunch of women would be running around doing their Grrl!Power thing.
The writing is sparse (written in Saba's voice) and does manage to carry a fair amount of emotion, and Moira Young is good at describing action scenes and giving us interesting secondary characters, though as is so often the case, the bad guys are more memorable than the good guys. But the story falls back on lots and lots of predictable cliches. Besides the romance, about which the only really positive thing I will say is that at least there was no love triangle, there is a climax in which the author's hand became visible in the manipulations required to arrange Saba and the chief villain facing off against each other one-on-one. Also, every death was pretty much a checkbox. (When one of the secondary characters declares that after this, he is going to go home and settle down with his lady love, he could not have a "Dead Man Walking" sign more visibly attached to him if you nailed it to his forehead.)
And, although the story is pretty self-contained, it is of course the first part in a trilogy. Why, I don't know. Sure, there is scope for the continuing adventures of Saba, but I wasn't left with any burning questions or unresolved plot points. Do we really need to keep reading the next installment to find out whether or when Saba and Jack will actually get around to Doing It? I wish so much that authors could get multiple book deals that didn't obligate them to write more books in a series that really doesn't need any.
Verdict: This is a perfectly pleasant if unexceptional bit of YA adventure. It is fun and a decent read and it's really not fair to call it derivative of The Hunger Games since it's clearly its own world and its own story with only superficial similarities. However, it's a middle-of-the-road YA offering; there is promise here and some engaging writing, but the author did not risk enough or do anything really new. It's better than a lot of YA books I've read, but certainly not a book to convince you that YA books have anything to offer that their grown-up equivalents aren't much better at.
My complete list of book reviews.