Genre: Dystopian young-adult
What was once the western part of the United States has become the Republic, a world divided between the rich and the poor. June was born into wealth and is a prodigy groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Day was born in the slums and is the world’s most wanted criminal. The two have no reason to cross paths – until June’s brother is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. In a surprising twist, the two meet by chance, neither knowing the other’s past, and they are irresistibly drawn together. But June has sworn to avenge her brother’s death…
Marie Lu is an American author, born 1984 (oh, the irony) in Beijing, China. She moved to Texas at the age of five and later attended the University of Southern California. Before writing Legend she worked as an art designer for the video game industry.
Legend is one of those books that I couldn’t forget for days afterward. Though it is hardly original in its premise (even Lu admits that the story is based on a retelling of Les Misérables), it succeeds in keeping us wondering: ‘What’s going to happen next?’
Already 10 months before publication it was optioned by CBS Films and is rumoured to be produced by the creators of Twilight (and at this mention I will have lost too many readers to count). Critic and author Ridley Pearson wrote in The New York Times: “A fine example of commercial fiction with razor-sharp plotting, depth of character and emotional arc.” I agree that it is a series worth reading. There are, however, also weaknesses and I will be sure to point them out.
It is the classic ‘two worlds collide’ story with a futuristic twist. Let’s face it, most of us love it when opposite ends meet. But – it’s been done to death. What makes Legend different? Well, to be honest, Legend is cliché in places. It is not without faults in either characters, world, or plot, and yet I found it so compelling I couldn’t put it down. I even read it twice.
For all it’s worth (which is quite a lot these days), it is well-written. I’ve read so many books sounding like first drafts lately I’m starting to think the world has secretly murdered all the editors and buried them in an unmarked graveyard in the Arctic.
Granted, Legend’s language isn’t on par with many other greats. It is nothing fancy, but it keeps a fast pace that grips you around the shirt collar and drags you closer to its pages. It’s an action film in book form. The first sentence reads: ‘My mother thinks I’m dead.’ If that’s not a hooking start, I don’t know what is.
Dystopian novels must have a well-thought-out backstory. It has to make sense. If you open a dystopian and it tries to convince you that in an x-amount of years the world will be populated by giant, fire-breathing ants we must be given a pretty darn good reason how we went from here to there.
Now, Legend does have a pretty good backstory story, but we’re not allowed to understand until the sequel. For many people that’s a complete turn-off. Personally, I didn’t mind. I did wonder sometimes (they often mention a war with the Eastern part of the US) but the focus on Day and June kept me too interested to bother about the fine-print. We still learn about things like The Trials (a test which decides your place in society), the labour camps (hiding a sinister secret), the division of wealth, the ‘dictator’, and giant JumboTrons (TV’s) in the sky. I found it easy to join the world.
The characters are the backbone of any story; without people we can identify with it doesn’t matter if it’s the coolest, most original plot we’ve ever heard. We won’t finish it. Legend has quite a small set of people, for better and for worse.
The viewpoints switch between Day and June, which creates an interesting, two-sided story. It also means, however, that we don’t have the time to get to know a lot of other characters. It can be a good thing because we don’t get distracted from their emotional journeys.
On the other hand, less people make the world feel smaller. Focusing on the two makes it feel like they are the only people that matter and that’s not how reality works. Take Harry Potter; the world feels huge because there are so many characters inhabiting it and living their lives outside of the main plot. That’s one of the reasons it comes alive so well.
Day and June are, however, interesting people in their own right. June is the only one with a perfect score on The Trial, which not only gives her responsibility and expectations, but isolates her from her peers. We get a sense of her intellect in the text, for example in this scene where June and Day meet for the first time (without showing their faces):
“Do you have money?” [asks June]
“Twelve hundred Notes.”
(Notes, not Republic gold. He robs from the upper class but doesn’t have the ability to rob the extremely wealthy. He’s probably a one-man operation.) P. 77.
Her ability to gather information from specific words, facial expressions, and even clothing make her entries full of detailed observations, giving her life on the page.
Day is, however, my favourite character. Though it is true that both of them are ridiculously over-kill (they can climb buildings, have perfect aim, hack technology, and have the highest intelligence in the country), I have a soft spot for singled-out characters.
They are both Mary-Sues (characters shaped according to wishful thinking), but I believe they are interesting enough to see past the faults. Day was born in the slums and is, quite frankly, a futuristic version of Robin Hood.
The republic has no idea what I look like. They don’t seem to know much of anything except that I’m young and that when they run my fingerprints they don’t find a match in their databases. That’s why they hate me, why I’m not the most dangerous criminal in the country, but the most wanted. I make them look bad. P. 2.
And I love it.
When June is sent to capture him, without anyone knowing what he looks like, the potential was so great I could barely contain myself. They would meet and develop a friendship, putting everything both of them stood for upside down – but how would Lu go about it?
Well, I was actually a little disappointed, maybe because it had so much potential. I won’t spoil it too much, but they spend three days together. Nothing really happens except they talk a lot and – baboom – they kiss. The rest of the book takes a 180-turn into something much less exciting than the first half.
There was so much potential, and while Lu’s version makes perfect sense (except for the quick romance) I was hoping for so much more. They could have adventures, form a real bond (not the three-day crap), and end up having to deal with an even greater dilemma when it comes to doing what they set out to do in the first place.
I wish she could cut the second half and develop the first.
But hey, I still read it twice.
So why is that? How come these faults don’t make me chuck the book in the bin and set it on fire? It is a good book. The suspense keeps you turning the pages; because the narrative shifts between them, and obviously because of the very telling blurb, we know what is going to happen before the characters do. Yet Lu manages to keep the excitement alive. Anyone who tells you exactly what is going to happen and still manages to keep you wondering ‘What is going to happen?’ is pretty darn skilled!
Day and June have distinct personalities that I enjoyed seeing battling it out, not only against each other but against the world and its prejudices against them. In that regard, they felt real. They had concerns. They had people they loved and people they hated. They had interests, they made mistakes – they felt like real people. I will enjoy seeing them portrayed if the film is ever made.
To sum it up, Legend has a lot going for it. It’s well-plotted in that it gives surprising twists when we need them. It gives us likable characters and an amazing emotional arc. The premise holds a lot of potential, but in a perfect world it could have been executed better. The writing draws you in, like the explosions of an action flick, and if you have six uninterrupted hours to kill I’d be more than happy to recommend it. Amazingly, I couldn’t put it down.