Blood Red Road

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Blood Red Road is the first part of the Dustlands Trilogy. It was written by Moira Young and first published in 2011. It also won the Children’s Book Award in the Costa Book Awards that same year. Its sequel, Rebel Heart, is also currently available in paperback while the third part of the trilogy, titled Raging Star, is due for release later this year.

The story is told as a first person narrative from the perspective of a teenage girl named Saba. Saba has grown up in isolation, living her entire life on a small ranch with only her father, twin brother (Lugh) and younger sister (Emmi) for company. Their father is reluctant to allow them to leave the area, claiming that the outside world is a dangerous place.

Saba’s life is quickly thrown into chaos as a band of outlaws attack their homestead during a sandstorm. In the fray, Lugh is kidnapped and her father is murdered. Unable to comprehend the idea of life without her brother, Saba leaves the homestead for the first time as she sets out to rescue him.

Her quest is immediately complicated by the addition of Emmi. Unable to leave her sister to fend for herself, Saba is forced to bring the girl with her – pushing their already strained relationship to its limits. It quickly becomes apparent that this problem is only one of many that she must face as the world beyond the ranch is filled with endless rolling deserts, slavers, drug addicts and deadly beasts. Driven by her desperation to be reunited with Lugh, Saba is forced to brave all of these as she seeks to find out why he was stolen from her.

Blood Red Road is not the easiest book to get into. The narrative is written out phonetically in order to give the sense that Saba is telling the story directly to the reader. There is no punctuation to denote speech and very little descriptive text. Words are also frequently misspelt to give the impression of Saba’s accent (I’m no expert on American accents, but this gives the impression of her dialect as having some kind of Southern drawl).

I personally found this a little off putting to begin with. Generally, I hate it when an author spells out a character’s accent as I feel it is an unnecessary distraction from the story. My first thought on starting the novel that I would be unable to see beyond this and so it would tarnish my view on the story as a whole. However, I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Forcing myself to stick with the novel for the first fifty pages, I found that I was soon gripped by the story and just couldn’t put the book down. After a while I even found myself growing use to the peculiar style of prose and, by the end, it hardly bothered me at all.

The dystopian setting of the book, while not that original, at least makes coherent sense. Although it implies that this is the future of our world, this is never actually said in the novel. Occasionally, Saba comes across ruined cities which belong to a people that she calls the Wreckers, but what we did to destroy society is left to the reader’s imagination. I rather liked this as it avoided any unnecessary exposition, as well as the perceived need to preach some kind of environmental message.

The Dustlands also manage to avoid the absurd leaps in technology that frequently blight apocalyptic settings. Due to the fact that fuel reserves appear to have dried up, the novel has the feel of a Spaghetti Western. This was a refreshing surprise. From the general tone of the reviewers’ commentary at the beginning of the novel, I was expecting the novel to be another clone of The Hunger Games. Beyond the fact that the novel featured a very strong female protagonist, there was little else in common.

Saba is a wonderfully complicated character – one that I simultaneously loved and hated. And that made her fantastic. Although there is nothing particularly special about her as a human being, she is driven by the lone desire to be united with Lugh once again. This desire, while commendable, leads her to do some pretty terrible things.

Most notable is her treatment of Emmi. It is made clear from the beginning of the novel that Saba’s mother died in childbirth and Saba blames Emmi for this death. While a not particularly nice view to hold, as the reader you can empathise with her feelings and how this would produce such a bad relationship with her sister. Towards the middle of the novel, Saba is asked if she would have made the same effort if Emmi had been the one who was taken. Although we are not given an answer to this question until the end of the story, for the reader it is pretty clear that she would not have done.

Although Saba’s treatment of Emmi does not make for very comfortable reading, it does offer her a great scope for development. As their journey progresses and Emmi is put into some life-threatening situations, the bond between her and Saba gradually does begin to strengthen. Character growth is something that some authors really struggle to portray, but Moira Young does this perfectly with Saba.

Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said for the supporting cast. As the novel is told entirely from Saba’s point of view, there is a limit to how much development can be shown for the other characters. Most of the main characters are introduced half-way through the novel and some are fairly interchangeable. I did not get much of a feel for any of the Free Hawks – a band of female warriors that Saba meets in her travels. Although a couple of these join Saba in her quest, they are rather flat characters who do not have much of interested about them. Even worse than these is the character of Helena – a girl who appeared from nowhere purely to exposit the entire plot to Saba and then was quickly killed off-stage for her troubles.

Jack – the love interest – gets slightly more development, though I was left somewhat confused as to what attracted Saba to him in the first place. Fair enough, there was the explanation of the pull of the heartstone (an object with seemingly mystical powers that seemed already somewhat out of place in a novel which was largely grounded in reality) but this just felt a little weak. It felt strange that someone as strong as Saba would fall in love at first sight. This might just be my personal opinion, but I would have liked for their relationship to have a slower start.

The overall villain of the story was also somewhat nondescript, but this was more than compensated by the dangers of the journey. In a way, the real antagonist of the novel was the setting. Most of the dangers that Saba was forced to overcome in her quest were purely natural – an endless desert, a swollen river, hunger, thirst, a dried out lake bed swarming with giant worms – although there were a couple of instances where she came face to face with human foes, the continual dangers of her environment provided most of the drama. I felt that these sections were the best parts of the novel. The land was genuinely hostile and completely outside of her control, providing a tense atmosphere that gave a real sense of urgency to the novel.

I’ve rambled for a while now so I’ll just conclude by saying that, on the whole, Blood Red Road is a really good book and is well worth purchasing. Although it is difficult to get into, you will find that if you put in the effort you are rewarded by a truly exhilarating science fiction novel that stars one of the strongest female leads that I have seen in a long time.

Blood Red Road can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Hunger Games | Arkham Reviews
  2. Trackback: Rebel Heart | Arkham Reviews
  3. Trackback: Raging Star | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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