Like A.C. Gaughen’s Scarlet (one of my favorite 2012 debut novels), Blood Red Road is narrated by the protagonist using vernacular—a rough, uneducated style of speech that goes far in showing who Saba is and how her life has been lived. At eighteen, Saba is illiterate, has never left the wastelands where she was born, and has only seen three or four other people besides her immediate family. After the parade of special snowflake protagonists who populate young adult fiction, I found Saba to be a welcome change. She is very flawed, especially in regards to her relationship with her younger sister, Emmi, but she’s fierce, often violent, knows how to win a fight, doesn’t let romance dictate her actions, and, in the end, admits to her mistakes. Maybe I didn’t connect with Saba too much, and maybe she could have used a bit more oomph. But I thought she was just about perfect for this story, and I loved her narration.
Saba aside, I was also extremely impressed with the way the entirety Blood Red Road was motivated by family and the characters’ willingness to make sacrifices and put themselves in danger to preserve family ties. That was a huge thing for me. Toward the beginning of the novel, Saba’s twin brother Lugh is taken captive by a bunch of horsemen. So she’s stuck with their nine-year-old sister, Emmi, who she doesn’t like and has a terrible relationship with. Saba knows she needs to take care of her sister, but since Lugh is her reason for living, she can’t just write him off. So she leaves Emmi behind and goes after him…but Emmi won’t be left behind.
From there, it was wonderful to watch the developing relationship between the two sisters. Saba has resented Emmi all her life, really for reasons that Emmi couldn’t control. And Emmi, who’s never been treated kindly by her older sister, has gotten to be rather bitter. As they journey out of the wasteland into the corrupted and disgusting remnants of human civilization, they form a bond. And as Saba ventures further and further out of her comfort zone, she meets new people—some less trustworthy than others—and learns finally to value herself not as her brother Lugh’s lesser shadow, but as a strong and capable woman in her own right.
I do have to say a quick thing on the romance advertised in the blurb. Jack the character doesn’t come in until later on in the book, and not once, ever, does Moira Young give the developing relationship between him a Saba center-stage. That aspect was just not important in the grand scheme of things, and I think the whole situation shows the blurb-writer’s capitulation to the idea that teens only want to read about kissing. Yes, Jack was a likable love interest, well-matched to Saba. But that wasn’t even for an instant the most important thing going on in Blood Red Road.
As far as plot construction goes, I liked this quite a bit. Young is a good writer, she keeps reader engagement high, and she did manage to surprise me at a few points, simply because she was good at distracting me, just as Saba was distracted. I must confess that I’m surprised that there’s a sequel in the works, since I don’t think it’s necessary that the characters or the story continue in future installments. But that’s just me.
I think that readers who claim that Tris Prior and her buddies are “kickass” protagonists ought to make the acquaintance of Saba. Readers who are looking for well-rounded characters, gripping and action-intensive plot, and a unique setting should read Blood Red Road. For a book that I didn’t expect much out of, I definitely got my money’s worth.