Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
27 February 2012
Saba and Lugh live in a dustbowl in the middle of nowhere with their pa and sister. They are twins and unusually close. Perhaps too close. Saba seems utterly smitten with her unfortunately named older (by one hour) brother. She trails after him like a puppy: "Lugh goes first, always first, an I follow on behind," we are told on the first page and this is repeated as a mantra.
Lugh the leader thinks it is time to leave their dying farmstead. Their mother is dead (the mother is always dead), their father is addled by loss and isolation, they need to find their own life. It is hard to know what kept them there so long since Saba and Lugh are supposedly eighteen years old. What have they done with their lives? I initially assumed that this was Young's way of tipping us off to the fact that the world of Blood Red Road was not our world. Years must be shorter, I thought, since the pair act more like fourteen-year-olds. The same is true of their younger sister, Emmi, who is notionally nine but acts like a five-year-old.
Unfortunately the text provides strong evidence that this is Earth. Saba's pet crow is called Nero and later she comes across horses called Ajax and Hermes. Characters count seconds in corrupted Mississippis. Some books of our history seem to have survived and the Wreckers who have littered the landscape with technology that cannot be recreated are surely intended to be you and I. But perhaps those are just historical memories, perhaps it is a colony that has regressed such as in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (the first person semi-illiterate learning-the-world narration of this book recalls The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008) in ways that are not at all flattering). Or perhaps—perhaps—Young has no interest in treating her readers with respect by attempting to imagine a coherent setting for her story and instead subordinates the former to the latter; that, as is so depressingly common in a genre that prides itself on its imagination, this world is both thin and narrow. The more you read, the more and more evidence is provided that this is indeed the case.
As it turns out, Lugh and Saba don't get to make the decision to leave themselves. One day a group of riders appear and kidnap Lugh, killing pa in the process. This is an opportunity for an even greater outpouring of affection for her brother from Saba: "My golden heart is gone" (p. 29). Lugh is the only person her age that Saba has ever met and she seems to have poured all her desires, platonic or otherwise, into him: "My missin him makes my whole body ache. It's like . . . emptiness. Emptiness that's beside me, inside me and around me, all the places where Lugh used to be" (p. 47). Suggesting Lugh has been inside her is a rather unfortunate turn of phrase but, even without this, they read like the words of a lover. Anyway, where Lugh goes, Saba follows on behind; she will hunt down her love and she will bring him back.
It is on the basis of this broad character arc—young woman transformed into a warrior to save her sibling—that so many critics seem to have reached for The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins as a comparison. Scholastic are obviously delighted for Blood Red Road to be compared to this publishing juggernaut and, perhaps scenting another cash cow, have placed one such quote prominently on the cover with another six inside. Blood Red Road is a very different type of novel, however; a post-apocalyptic western rather than a dystopian version of "The Most Dangerous Game." It is for this reason that several critics quoted inside the covers have also alighted on what is presumably the only other post-apocalyptic novel they can think of: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). If you are going to invoke McCarthy then surely Blood Meridian (1985) is the book to recall but then why the hell would you want to invoke McCarthy for a children's action novel? An anonymous Publishers Weekly hack has gone so far as to suggest that the "intriguing prose style . . shows a distinct Cormac McCarthy vibe." Um, no (and please don’t use the words "Cormac McCarthy" and "vibe" in the same sentence). Perhaps the only meaningful reference anyone manages to dredge up from their threadbare bag of iconic works is Mad Max (1979). There is a lot of sand and blood in this novel.
Having burnt her father's corpse, Saba deposits Emmi with a neighbor and sets off across the desert to the nearest town with only her pet crow, Nero, for company. In what will become a recurring theme, Emmi soon catches up with her. Just as the pair are running out of water, they are fortuitously rescued by the Pinches, a husband and wife plying the sand sea on their land yacht. But wouldn't you know it, appearances can be deceptive, and the two find themselves drugged and enslaved. (This scene mirrors very closely a scene in Mortal Engines (2001) by Philip Reeve and, again, you would think it was a comparison that Young would be seeking to avoid at all costs.)
On arriving at Hopetown, Saba is pressed into service as a gladiator in the Thunderdome, sorry, the Cage but before unpicking the problems inherent in this premise, let's take stock of the issues already raised. The most interesting of these—and, with the brother-sister relationship, perhaps the only interesting aspect of Blood Red Road—is Saba's relationship with her sister: where she loves Lugh, she hates Emmi. Clearly Saba at least partially holds her responsible for causing the death of their mother during childbirth but, more than that, there is a sense that she only has enough love for one person. The fire of her love for Lugh sucks the air out of any other relationships and leaves them lifeless. There is a large amount of potential here: grief and attraction, responsibility and independence. Consider, for example, The Cement Garden (1978) by Ian McEwan, about the incestuous relationship between two orphaned teenage siblings, or Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006), about a teenage girl raising two children in the absence of parental support. Of course, Young's intended audience are children rather than adults so allowances have to be made but that doesn't mean infantilizing the issues. As I've said neither Saba or Emmi act their age and they certainly don't act like two real people in such a situation. Instead their narrative arc is one of bratty pantomime giving way to emotionally nourishing mutual respect.
If Young hasn't inhabited her characters, she hasn't inhabited her world either (although sometimes she at least tries). Here is Saba describing a book: "Two bits of brown leather wrapped around lots of thin little pieces of dried old leafs or something" (p. 100). The intent is there but this is a woeful attempt to put yourself into the mind of someone seeing paper for the first time. Cloth is a more obvious comparator than shriveled, brown plant matter. At other times, intent is entirely subsumed to expediency, such as when Saba describes her attempts to escape from captivity: "The first time, I waited till it was night, then I picked the lock of my cell with a rusty nail I found in the corner of the exercise yard" (p. 135). Very resourceful. Can you pick a lock? I can't. Given her upbringing, Saba has probably never even seen a lock but she somehow knows not only what it is and how it functions but how to exploit it.
Sometimes I find it impossible to even guess Young's intention. As well as being twins, Saba and Lugh were also born under a midsummer moon and their father tattoos a representation of this onto each of their cheeks. At first this is an intriguing touch and suggests a society deeply interested in the moon, hinting at the world beyond their farm. No other character is mentioned as having such a tattoo though, and so it appears to be an idea that was never followed through; a pleasing visual image dreamed up for the beginning which had no other place in the story. That would just be lazy but it gets worse. When Saba arrives in Hopetown she discovers that her brother has been taken by the Tonton, the security force of the king (who, in a nicely odd touch, models himself after Louis XIV). The monarch wants Lugh because he believes that ritually sacrificing an eighteen year old born on midsummer is the only way to maintain his power. Several characters describe him as being mad for holding this view and it does not fit into any wider religion or belief system. Again, a lack of thought on Young's part but the king's penchant for setting fire to such men is well known and must surely have been known to Saba and Lugh's father. Given this, their father has essentially painted a bull's eye on Lugh's face. A bull's eye that turns out to have no relevance to anything else in the novel.
So, back to Hopetown, a frontier town "where the scum of the earth wash up. Every robber, every cheat, every lowlife who'd stab you for lookin at him the wrong way" (p. 64). Why shouldn't they delight in gladiatorial games? Well, I am more than a little wary about the propensity of writers of post-apocalyptic fiction to so readily and persistently depict people indulging in the savage glory of the arena over more prosaic pastimes like grubbing for tubers and boiling bark for soup. Nonetheless it is a trope and bread and circuses make a sort of sense in such a situation. But, as is the case throughout Blood Red Road, the particulars never ring true. Even if these battles are remarkably prim—"No bitin or gougin" (p. 153), say the rules—they are still to the death; lose three fights and you are thrown to the crowd to be pulled apart. Think how many slaves they get through. Think about what it says about the crowd. In fact, the crowds that attend these death matches are supposedly whipped into a blood lust by the fact that they are all addicted to a fictional drug called chaal. The king cultivates this (ironically to keep the population pacified) but where did it come from? It isn't worth asking, just as it isn't worth asking how it is distributed or, indeed, where their food comes from. There is no agricultural infrastructure. There is no infrastructure at all. Young's world stops at the edge of the page.
It is for this reason and no other that Saba finds herself in the Cage, even though it seems unlikely that this is the use a primitive patriarchy would find for her in a slave economy. In the real world, young women like Saba are enslaved and trafficked every day and they certainly don't end up as cage fighters. But then fundamental concepts such as an economy seem anathema to Young and she is too squeamish to acknowledge what the role of many women might be in such a society. Pretty much the only reference to more brutal realities comes as a casual aside in the form of a simile: "His mouth's painted red, like one of Hopetown's whores" (p. 164). Even this is coy since the use of the word "whore" conjures up jolly saloon gals rather than the tired, desperate prostitutes who would undoubtedly live in such a town. And where does Young imagine such prostitutes might come from? Orphaned farm girls with dependents and no other means of support seem like they would be high on the list. It doesn't have to be like this; imagination is unbounded. Young could have imagined a world where it made sense for girls to become trained fighters but then she would have had to think about the society in which her story took place and she simply couldn’t be bothered. This is our world with a few different toys.
Slavery isn't actually very unpleasant for Saba. It is more like being locked up in a modern prison. This is not to toe the Daily Mail line that prison is a picnic but rather to note how Young trivializes the subject. Outside of the arena, Saba is not for one moment at risk of physical, let alone sexual, assault. "Even the watch captain, Mad Dog, keeps his distant from me . . . He don't dare touch me" (p.136). Why is Mad Dog scared of an eighteen-year-old farm girl with no experience of the world? Because she is the Angel of Death. Not only do they force her to fight, she is the best damn gladiatrix the world has ever known: the "star attraction in Hopetown these days" (p. 148) and "the biggest draw they ever had in Hopetown" (p. 151). Like picking a lock, it seems that mortal combat just comes naturally to Saba.
It is around this point that the novel switches from Mad Max western to romance. I'll be honest, until this point I still hoped the incest subtext was going to play out at the conclusion, perhaps with the child friendly revelation that Lugh wasn't really Saba's brother at all. That was before the appearance of Jack, "the handsome thief who saves her life—and steals her heart" as the back cover puts it (this happens on page 159 of 417 for those interested in the ever unpredictable inter-relation between publisher synopsis and spoiler). Of course, Saba denies that she is attracted to Jack. Of course, we know that she's lying to herself. If this wasn't abundantly clear, Young hammers home the point by having her wear a heartstone necklace that glows every time she is near him. Whether it glows with the magic of fantasy or the magic of romance, it is hard to see what place it has in a post-apocalyptic science fiction setting. Regardless, Saba's torch for her brother is extinguished in favor of a more conventional romantic partner and the last guttering flame of my interest also died.
It doesn't help that they are a spectacularly unattractive couple. Jack is a patronizing, controlling prick; Saba is a pompous, self-righteous lunkhead. It is hard to see what one sees in the other beyond being simply an outlet for their post-pubescent horniness but sexual desire is a possibility that Young cannot bring herself to mention. Instead of becoming fuck buddies, they embark on a middle school courtship with some Carry On-style farce around getting dressed and undressed thrown in for laughs. Jack is also lucky that Saba has had such a sheltered upbringing because he can get away with lines like this: "You got no idea, do you? You got no idea how beautiful you are" (p. 301). Vomit.
Saba escapes from Hopetown with the help of the Free Hawks, a sort of Robin Hood sorority. Again, there is no thought given to how such a group might manage to exist. Then the Pinches turn up to try and stop them. Oh, I didn't mention that they are the king's parents, did I? Blood Red Road is one of those sadly common novels where, for all intents and purposes, the characters we see in the novel represents the totality of the world's population. Saba kills the king's mother—murder comes easy to her—and leaves the king himself for dead. Hands up anyone who thinks that's the last we've seen of him.
I was flagging by this point and perhaps Young sensed the reader's potential boredom because she veers off into epic fantasy. A bit of this, a bit of that; constancy is not a virtue for Young. After a bit of mucking about in the woods, Saba and Jack put together a merry band and set off on a quest to save Lugh and topple the Tonton. Young has Saba pay lip service to the implausibility of this: "You cain't possibly think that seven of us an a crow's gonna bring down the Tonton an their operation" (p. 299). Obviously, this is exactly what happens. It doesn't matter how big a lampshade you hang on it, it is irredeemably stupid. To distract us from this stupidity, Young engineers a few contrived death scenes in a naked attempt to tug our heartstrings.
It is during this final section that Young's grasp on her story goes completely out the window. Worried that the quest will be over too quickly, she throws in some monsters to waylay our heroes. These are hellwurms, giant worms which have limbs and which hence do not display the defining quality of worms. Having faced down a horde of these beasts, they then have to defeat an end of level boss in the form of a mega-hellwurm. Oh, and along the way Jack teaches Nero, a crow, to play dice. I have annotated this scene in my copy with an incredulous three letter acronym that Young would presumably believe unsuitable for children. She seems to have completely given up by this point. It is one of those novels that you half suspect was sold on the first chapter and the author has been left wrong-footed by the necessity of actually producing the rest.
In January, Blood Red Road won the 2011 Costa Children's Book Award. The judges have helpfully provided a pithy citation with reveals their thinking: "It's astonishing how, in her first novel, Moira Young has so successfully bound believable characters into a heart-stopping adventure. She kept us reading, and left us hungry for more. A really special book." There is something of Chris Mullan's infamous remark on his experience of judging last year's Booker Prize that the novels "had to zip along" to this statement. Perhaps that is all a novel needs to achieve, perhaps such shoddily amateurish affair as Blood Red Road deserves awards for this. I'm not convinced. Please do give me heart-stopping adventure but to get my heart to actually skip a beat, the stakes need to be real, and that means the characters and the world are real. The novel has been optioned for film by Ridley Scott and it seems entirely possible the series will go on to be as popular as The Hunger Games. If it is does, it will be success that is entirely undeserved.
Jennifer Lawrence, superb in the film adaptation of Winter's Bone, also plays Katniss Everdeen in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Excellent casting.