Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, Blood Red Road. You can read my review of this novel [here].
Rebel Heart was written by Moira Young and first published in 2012. It forms the middle part of the Dustlands Trilogy, following the critically acclaimed Blood Red Road (2011) and preceding Raging Star (2014). The novel follows on from precisely where Blood Red Road left off and, although it explains what happened in its prequel pretty well, I think it would be difficult to fully appreciate unless you have read this story.
Ever since the destruction of Freedom Falls, Saba has been unable to sleep. Shades of all those that she has killed – particularly Epona – have begun to haunt her, preventing her from hunting and causing her to gradually lose the ability to distinguish between dreams and reality. The only thing that spurs her on is the belief that her family will soon be able to settle down to a peaceful life at the Big Water and that her lover, Jack, will meet with them there.
But everything is not how she imagined. Over the time that he has been held prisoner, Lugh has changed. He is bitter towards Saba for not rescuing him faster and treats her as though she belongs to him, voicing his extreme jealousy towards Jack. To make matters worse still, Saba soon learns that Jack has abandoned them, joining the cruel Tonton and leading them in a vicious attack that virtually wiped out the surviving Free Hawks.
Unable to accept that Jack has joined with their enemies, Saba sets off to discover the truth for herself. However, her quest takes her deep into New Eden – the Tonton’s new utopia. She soon discovers that these lands hold terrible new dangers for her. The leader of the Tonton, DeMalo, is offering a huge reward to the person who can bring Saba to him. With no one to trust, Saba is forced to head into the lion’s den once more to be reunited with the man she loves.
Words cannot describe how excited I was to read this book. Blood Red Road remains one of the best novels that I have reviewed for this site. It was dark, gripping and possessed one of the strongest female leads I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, Rebel Heart failed to be a satisfying sequel on many levels.
It is a common problem with trilogies that the middle novel serves as nothing more than a bridge between two halves. The author may succeed in creating a powerful first novel but then they lose steam down during the second instalment, using it as an extended build-up to their final novel rather than as a story in its own right. Although I can’t comment on whether this is the case here (Raging Star will be a subject for a future review), it is true that Rebel Heart is incredibly slow burning.
Although it never becomes boring, I realised as I reached the climax that very little had happened overall. It took a good 150 pages for Saba to begin her quest to find Jack and she does not succeed until about 30 pages from the end of the story. Even though she does have some little adventures on the way, it lacks the pacing and tension of Blood Red Road. In that novel, there was a constant feeling of peril. Saba was never safe or certain of whom she could trust. Even in the slower moments, there was always the nagging feeling that the people that she spoke to could turn around and stab her in the back. Rebel Heart completely failed to insight the same excitement in me.
However, the setting of the story is still fantastic. I love the dystopian western aesthetic as it really sets it apart from other recent novels in this genre. I also like the subtle way that Young hints at how this world came to being. Although this was merely light subtext in Blood Red Road, it plays a lot more important role in this novel.
DeMalo’s entire plan centres around a desire to return the world to the state that it was in before the Wreckers destroyed it. Although the steps that he takes to ensure this are utterly disgusting, it is a plan that makes coherent sense and is fully understandable from the perspective of the Tonton. I do enjoy a good villain – one who can be viewed as a hero from his own viewpoint – and DeMalo more that fills this role.
However, this alone was not enough to save Rebel Heart. Part of the problem was that the story was just a little too mean spirited. Nothing nice happened to anyone in the novel at all. Although there was a little light relief in the short section where they were joined by a cross-dressing quack doctor (note: this does actually happen and this guy is comedy gold), the rest was just so grim and unpleasant. Nothing that Saba does ends happily and everyone remains as miserable as they were at the start of the story. Except for Emmi, but that is possibly because she seems to be made entirely out of sun-beams and rainbows.
While I do generally prefer gritty novels, it just felt as though Rebel Heart went a little too far. Everyone seems to be perpetually furious with Saba and explode at her for the smallest reasons. The worst offender for this by far is Lugh. I will freely say that I hate Lugh with every fibre of my being. He is chronically unable to say a nice word to anyone. Everything that Saba says to him is shot down with fire. He can’t even speak nicely to Maev (the survivor of a massacre) and Molly (who has recently been raped). It seems that he enjoys being right about what a despicable human being Jack is so much that he will gladly rub salt in their wounds if it means that he can gloat about his intelligence.
The secondary characters in this novel also suffer from an incredible lack of depth. I think part of the problem is the fact that Saba is just so preoccupied with Jack that she takes no interest in those around her (a frequent problem with first person narration). For the large part, Blood Red Road focused purely on the relationship between Saba and Emmi. In the beginning, Saba hated her sister so fiercely that she did not care if she lived or died but gradually she came to love and understand her. Although Rebel Heart has a larger central cast, no one changes over the course of the novel. Emmi remains childlike and care-free. Jack remains mysterious and brooding. Lugh remains an utter douchebag. The only one who receives any kind of development is Tommo, and that’s because Saba manages to successfully break him as a human being over the course of the story’s final act.
Yet the primary thing that I disliked about Rebel Heart – the one thing that stood out over everything else – was what the author has done to Saba. The powerful, driven Angel of Death of Blood Red Road is now a distant memory. At first I kind of liked the remorseful Saba of Rebel Heart as I felt that it was a realistic direction for her character arc to take. She killed so many people in over the course of the previous novel that it made sense for the guilt to catch up with her. However, all this is neatly swept away over the course of the first third of Rebel Heart and is never mentioned again.
The Saba that replaces her for the rest of the novel can only be described as weak. She has little by the way of personality – having lost her fighter’s spirit and determination – and seems to be wholly defined by her love for Jack. A love that causes her to breakdown regularly as she comes to believe that he has gone over to the dark side. A love which causes her to use her womanly ways to charm Tommo (who is completely smitten with her) and then utterly shatter his heart. A love which causes her to sleep with DeMalo immediately as soon as the two of them are alone for more than twenty seconds. I can’t understand this Saba at all, or really condone her actions in any way. Everything that made me love the character in Blood Red Road has gone and she has just become a girl who exists as an object of male affection. This is a terrible fate for a strong female lead and I really hope that she returns to form in the final instalment.
So, what did I think over all? Well, the novel is still readable – possessing a memorable setting, distinctive written style and intriguing villain – but it is definitely disappointing when compared to its prequel. Rebel Heart on the whole was a mean spirited novel, possessing a lackluster story-line and undeveloped secondary cast. It also drastically changed the character of Saba, removing many of her strong character traits and instead placing her at the heart of a love trapezium, and in doing so made her a lot less memorable and interesting as a heroine.
While the novel could not hold a candle to Blood Red Road, I still do have some optimism for its sequel. I really hope that this novel was just suffering from middle novel syndrome and that Raging Star will be a return to form, allowing for the series to have a satisfying ending and giving Saba the hero’s send-off that she deserves.