Book: “Legend,” by Marie Lu

“Legend” rocks. Plain and simple. Couldn’t stop reading, and didn’t want it to end.

The setting is a dystopian society in the western United States, called the Republic. Something happened–war? plague? natural disaster? simple economic collapse?–to turn Los Angeles into a wasteland of sorts. There’s a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Much of the population lives in poverty, is besieged by an ever-mutating plague, and is subject to an authoritarian government whose leader is now in his 44th year in power. The Republic is at war with the Colonies (the eastern US), and a rebel group called the Patriots battles the Republic from within.

“Legend,” published in November 2011, is told first-person, in alternating chapters, by two 15-year-olds, June and Day. Their lot in life is totally different. June aced the Trials, which every 10-year-old must endure, a way the Republic weeds out the weak. She’s a prodigy from a well-off family who fully believes in the righteousness of the Republic, and intends to be its premier soldier.

Day, on the other hand, was born in poverty. But he’s a different kind of prodigy, a master criminal, Number One on the Republic’s Most Wanted list. He navigates the devastated world with Tess, a 13-year-old girl he rescued, always keeping a low profile and doing what he can to survive. His main priority is watching out for the remnants of his family–mother, and two brothers, one of whom is very sick. The Republic doesn’t know Day’s identity, so they aren’t aware of his family, and Day wants to keep it that way.

Day is nearly captured while trying to steal medicine from a hospital. In the process, a soldier named Metias–the brother of June–is killed. June is unleashed to find Day, and she launches into the mission with vengeance front and center.

In many dystopian novels, the central character believes in the rightness of the society, but doubts arise and eventually, the protagonist turns against the society. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a famous example. “Matched,” by Ally Condie, is a more recent example. “Legend” is another.

The reader knows, from the beginning (and from the promotional blurbs) that June and Day will run into each other, and that by the end of the book, enlightenment will come to June. That all happens. But how it all happens, and what happens in between–well, it’s a fabulous ride.

Marie Lu, before going fulltime as a writer, was art director for a video game company. She lives in Los Angeles. Lu got the idea for “Legend” after watching “Les Miserables” and imagining how that basic story–a master detective pursuing a notorious but good criminal–would play out in a contemporary setting.

“Legend,” though definitely juvenile fiction, is best suited for older teens. Bad things happen to people, cold-blooded things. It’s not graphic, but still.

“Legend” provides an interesting and believable world, a superb plot, an engaging structure (the alternating chapters), and well-drawn protagonists with plenty of depth. I eagerly await Book Two.

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