Legend by first-time novelist Marie Lu treads ground that has been covered by many other YA books in recent years. A young but gifted underclass teen nicknamed Day goes underground to try to save his family and his community from oppression by the elite who rule his repressive post-apocalyptic America. He is opposed, and later joined, by June, a girl who matches him in smarts, athletic ability, and good looks.
It’s one part Hunger Games, one part Little Brother, and a bit of City of Ember and Truancy – with a dash of Les Miz (which she caught on TV while thinking about how to build a story around the character of Day) thrown in for good measure. Yet even though Lu’s book is a variation on a by now well-worn theme, I was surprised at how well-written, fast-paced and enjoyable it was, with characters I came to like almost in spite of myself.
Legend is set in a crumbling Los Angeles, in a landscape reshaped by rising ocean levels. California is the center of the Republic of America, ruled by the glorious Elector and constantly at war with the surrounding Colonies in neighboring states. In the poor sectors of town, yearly plagues keep the population weak and helpless.
But both rich and poor must submit at age 10 to a Trial, in which their academic and athletic scores determine whether they get to go on to high school and college, are doomed to a life as an uneducated worker, or disappear altogether to mysterious work camps from which none have ever returned.
While Lu’s imagined world doesn’t have quite as many layers as Hunger Games, the care she takes to make it believable and consistent pays off. Anyone with the most basic understanding of the issues facing us today will be able to sympathize with the challenges Lu’s characters face. Her competent female characters help buoy the story and turn the damsel-in-distress cliché on its head. Day himself, who is only 15, has a Peter Pan appeal that teen girl readers will love. (I also wonder how much the popularity of these kind of stories is due to the independence of their protagonists, compared to the overprotected lives many teens lead today.) All in all, it is a dystopian tale that is not quite as bleak or scary as many YA novels, which makes it more appealing to me as an adult reader. I enjoyed Legend — in fact, my only disappointment came towards the end, when I realized the series of revelations about the true nature of the book’s world was a just a set-up for future sequels (the first is due next fall).
What is perhaps most exciting is that Lu is still young — she only graduated from the University of Southern California in 2006 — and her skill as a storyteller has many years to grow. She is the art director at Online Alchemy, a video game company; according to her website her plans to expand her fledgling franchise include a movie (CBS owns the rights) and a cartoon show for younger audiences following the earlier adventures of Day.
This book received an advance push so big (mailings to reviewers started last May, and included an entire package of material — and a refrigerator magnet) that it made me and other critics wary. However, as others have already pointed out, this is one “buzzy” book that seems to have been (almost) worth the hype. For lovers of Les Miz and Hunger Games, I highly recommend Legend.