If you’re rummaging through the seemingly-endless heap of YA dystopian science-fiction novels, keep your eyes peeled for the silver-and-golden dust jacket of Legend by Marie Lu (Warcross, The Young Elites).
In the future the United States has split into two warring factions, the militarized Republic and the impoverished Colonies. The Republic requires everyone at twelve to take the Trial; the ones with the highest scores get sent to the best military schools, while the ones with the lowest scores are supposedly sent to labor camps. Day Altan Wing, a roguish sixteen-year-old from the Colonies, hates the Republic and has turned himself into the eponymous legend by ticking them off with rebellious crimes. June Iparis, also sixteen, is a military prodigy who is proud of the Republic, despising Day when it appears that her brother Metias died at his hands. Neither of them are prepared for the consequences that unfold after their worlds collide.
The first chapter draws us in with Day as he witnesses soldiers mark the door of his family’s house with a big red X and a vertical line down the middle (to signify that his brother Eden is infected with this year’s plague). The second chapter focuses on June, who has been sent to the dean secretary’s office of Drake University for her most recent high jinks. The rest of the chapters alternate between the first-person viewpoints of Day and June, a common narration technique that’s suitable for this novel.
In spite of Day and June being born in such disparate upbringings, there are many similarities in their characters. They are mischief-prone, hardy, and quite mature for their age; they come from troubled homes; and they have no doubt about whether they’re the best of the best in what they do, whether it be hindering the Republic or rising through the military ranks. The many ways in which they’re alike can be narratively confusing at times, but it also adds to the chemistry that quickly grows between them, and you root for them to ship in the end.
It never feels as if June sinks into her vengefulness too much. The reader can still empathize with her as she hunts down Day, focuses her analytical eye on Metias’s murder, and slowly piece together unsettling info about the Republic. Day is the one who sets things off with his antagonism toward the Republic, although he does fall into more of a passive role in the second half of the story. However, this is where he goes into a couple flashbacks in the narration, which shed more light on his tumultuous childhood.
The atmosphere is completely fleshed-out. You feel the grittiness of the Colonies as the poor and the homeless scrape by on anything they can gain, some banding into rebel groups like the Patriots. You feel the austerity of the Republic as the governing elite and their soldiers exercise their rule with an iron fist, determined to abolish their adversaries. The Jumbotrons that display news, the Republic pledge of allegiance, and most-wanted criminal ads — Day is up there often — are pleasantly 1984-esque. And there’s a minor twist in the plot linking back to the nation that stood before this period, layering just a little more intrigue upon the world.
The last fifteen pages or so that lead up to the heartbreaking climax compel you to read them without stopping. The resolution ties up nicely, if not predictably, and makes you keen to find out what unfolds in the sequel.
With likable dual characters who manage to bond together from conflicting sides of the world, Legend is a novel that belongs on the bookshelf of any self-respecting YA reader.
Windup score: 92/100