It always makes me nervous when a book is pitched to me as “the next Hunger Games” for a few reasons: first, I don’t think any book can ever truly be “the next _____,” no matter what the title; second, my expectations are then set either sky high (if I liked the book in comparison) or quite low (if I didn’t); and finally, it doesn’t let the book stand out for its own qualities. We don’t get a real pitch for the book and what makes it stand out from everything else.
Fortunately, when I was hand-pitched Blood Red Road at Midwinter, I got more than a standard pitch of “the next Hunger Games.” It was sold to me as having the adventure of Collins’s book, but the main character, Saba, was supposed to be a hundred times more kick ass, and the story totally absorbing, different, and addictive. Then there was the added bonus of being told some of the “behind the writing” stuff, too — that Young turned the manuscript in at the end of 2010 and the book would be published in June 2011 (a pace not found in publishing) because the writing was so tight and that this book didn’t follow traditional conventions of punctuation. Okay, so the last part made me a little skeptical, but there was enough to build up this book for me. And then I put it off. And put it off. And put it off.
But then, it met and exceeded my expectations when I did read it.
Saba and Lugh are twins, and they live in an extremely remote place with no one else around except Pa and their younger sister Emmi; there is a guy who lives nearby, but Saba’s always had weird feelings about him, and Pa says it’s best to stay away. Saba feels resentment toward younger sister Emmi and isn’t afraid to voice this; Emmi’s the reason her mother died. Oh, and there’s a crow that Saba’s raised for many years, despite her father’s disapproval. In this remote place, experience a lot of storms — dust storms caused by a lack of rain — and when the book begins, we’re tossed right into a huge storm on the horizon. It’s a storm that they survive, but that doesn’t mean what comes about the corner after is any better: it’s four men on horses here to take Lugh away from the family. Saba can’t stand by and let this happen, and in the midst of a battle, there is death, destruction, pain, and the loss of Saba’s twin brother to these bandits.
She’s not going to let this be the end of him, though, and she promises Lugh she will rescue him; little does she know how much work this will be, especially when younger sister Emmi has to tag along with her. Saba knows where Lugh’s been taken, though she knows nothing about Hopetown. That is, until she herself becomes a victim of kidnapping and quickly learns that Hopetown is nothing like the name may promise. Saba’s been sold into a fighting ring (think Hunger Games here) as a way for her captors to make money, which buys them more drugs. Hopetown, it turns out, is a mega drug town, and people will do anything for another fix, including pillage and steal and sell innocent people into battle. It is here Lugh’s been taken, too, as the chosen boy to be sacrificed by the King. And Saba’s not going to let this happen. No way.
This is what happens in the first 150 pages of the 500 page book.
Blood Red Road is an incredibly fast paced book, and it begs to be read in one sitting. Saba is a killer character, and she’s not necessarily that way because she’s the smartest. In fact, I think Saba’s a bit of a dumb character, and she needs to be that way — if she were more intelligent, she wouldn’t have followed her brother, wouldn’t have fought with the raw power inside her, and she wouldn’t have been so open about her resentment toward Emmi. That last part is important, since it plays a huge role in the structure of the story and the pacing, as well. I believed Saba from the beginning, and I knew she had something inside her that would drive her to achieve a lot despite her upbringing. But as the story progressed, it was wonderful to see Saba begin to believe in herself and begin to understand the raw power within her to do good things and to make things happen herself. She’s not reliant upon a male to be powerful; she relies upon herself, which is something there isn’t enough of in YA lit.
In fact, one of the things I appreciated about Young’s book is that there is virtually no romance. Jack, a guy Saba saves following an incident in the arena, is absolutely in love with Saba from the beginning of their time together. But Saba’s both a little ignorant of the fact and a little bit frustrated by it. She knows he’s interested, but she doesn’t know how interested, but even that slight interest is infuriating. Yes, there will be a kiss, but Saba will not linger on it. She’s got bigger dragons to slay, and even when those beasts have been slayed, well, Jack’s a secondary thought.
There’s a lot of symbolism piled up in the story, and it’s easy to latch onto. The world Young’s created is believable, and it’s easy to picture, as well. It’s desolate and deserted and red. It feels a bit like a story that could be set in the Great Depression, but it’s futuristic, rather than historical. With some of the clues dropped in the story, it felt like it may take place in Europe, though the location really isn’t that important. What is important is how important the setting is to the story, and how scary believable it is because there are places similar to Hopetown existing in our world.
To the writing — this is a book written in a dialect. It’s not standard English, and some of the words dropped aren’t necessarily in English either. That was part of what made me believe this book may be set in Europe. Unlike many books written in a dialect, the use of it in Young’s book is well-placed. It really gives a strong character to both the setting and to Saba, and it enhances our knowledge of who she is and what makes her such a powerful character. As a reader, I had no problem diving into it, and even found myself believing it made the story read faster. I think if it had been done without the dialect, much of the story would be lost. Likewise, I had no problems with the lack of punctuation in dialog, as it made the story read more naturally. Teens and adults will certainly have no problem with this, either.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is that fact that it can stand alone. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a stand alone book, but rather the first in a series. But the story line and characters are completely developed and come to full resolutions at the conclusion of the book, meaning readers can walk away entirely satisfied having read just this volume. I would absolutely read the second volume of this book because I think that this one was engaging and exciting enough I want to know what else Young can come up with, but it makes me thrilled to know I can hand this to a reader and let them know it can be read all on its own and they don’t have to wait a year to find out what happens. It all happens right here.
Hand Blood Red Road to your fans of fast paced, action packed dystopians, including The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Readers of post-apocalyptic stories will eat this one up, as well. Thriller fans, too, will fall into this world without problem. This has wide appeal to males and females, and I think it certainly deserves attention. Will I call it “the next Hunger Games?” No. But I will say it appeals to that fan base, and that it’s a book for readers looking for adventure, high stakes, and a powerful main character who refuses to take crap from anyone who gets in her way.
Bound manuscript handed to me at ALA midwinter. Blood Red Road will be published by Simon & Schuster June 7 — just in time for summer reading!
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).