Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road (Dust Lands, #1)Blood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave this book four stars. It does not deserve four stars, but I still gave it four stars. That might be confusing to you because I am going to spend most of this review bitching about it.

Blood Red Road is yet another dystopian fiction that popped up in the wake of Hunger Games, with yet another female protagonist wielding ranged weapons and going head to head with others to survive. Saba’s tiny little family is torn apart when a group of men show up, murder her father, and kidnap her twin brother. She sets out on an action-packed quest to brave harsh elements and rescue him, all while saddled with her 9 year old little sister.
I actually really enjoyed it and didn’t feel like it was trying too hard to cash in on “genre of the week”, although there was one kind of “plunked” section that felt an awful lot like it was trying to force Saba to mimic Katniss’s PTSD character arc (especially since it conveniently never really seems to crop up again for the rest of the book, where it ends up being a huge part of Katniss’s character development throughout the entire trilogy. Hrmmm…)

The first thing you will notice, even if all you do is read reviews about the book, is that it’s written in a “dialect” to reflect the idea that the characters are uneducated (ie: they say things like “ezzackly” instead of “exactly”).
I hated it. Hate hate hate hate.
I actually had no problem with the dialect itself – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sort of grammar-less drawl be the ‘voice’ of your character if that’s how you want it. Why are the god damn descriptions written in it too? It’s a description of the character’s actions from the author of the book not a written description by the uneducated characters, so it makes no sense to mangle it. It just adds difficulty to reading without adding any depth to the book.

There are no quotation marks throughout the entire book. They don’t know what quotation marks are, because they are uneducated and don’t know how to write, you see. Which makes no sense because they are speaking to each other. This is not someone’s uneducatedly-written account of who was speaking. What’s more, every single character has the exact same ‘dialect’ which just made them all sound like they had the same voice, to me. Even characters who seemed to be quite well educated would speak in exactly the same grammatical patterns, and it was just bizarre. I had to keep stopping and going to back to weed out who said something vs who thought something vs who described something, and it was tedious and stupid. I actually think I would recommend waiting for the inevitable movie to be made, just to avoid wading through this bullshit.

I felt like the story was simultaneously strong and unique, and also shallow and cliche. Figure that one out. I don’t even know if I can adequately describe it… it felt unique enough that I really enjoyed it, but there were a lot of really obvious cliches at work and I rolled my eyes at each and every one.

One of the biggest flaws that kept jumping out at me was the complete lack of a grasp of scale. Time jumps were very hard to get a hold on. Things would progress at a rate that seemed like it must have been a year, and yet it’s like “one month later”. And then at other times it would be all “she got a tiny scratch that was nowhere near as bad as some of the other shit she’s gone through, but despite that she was knocked out and unconscious for two days, but despite it being two whole days we’re just going to get around to stitching it up now…”. It felt like “seat of the pants” convenience writing which probably reflects a lack of experience more than anything.

The most glaring example is the whole sequence with the cage fighting. She’s captured, they spend a few days travelling (though the way it’s described certainly seems like longer), she’s sold to the fighting ring, and in less than a month she’s got her own private cell and special treatment and has never lost a match, and is even asked by one of the other characters to lead the way because “You know this place better than anyone.” This needed so much more setup. Did she do a lot of fighting in her tiny isolated farm that had no livestock to wrestle or anything? Was she secretly a blacksmith to build up all this strength? If the story had spent a little more time developing her at the rink it would have been best, but you couldn’t do that because of the three-losses rule. And of course, the whole pressing overall time limit for the rescue of Lugh. It’s quite a dilemma – too long and it’s unrealistic for her to still be alive, but too short and it’s unrealistic for her to be the champion, so instead it has to skip out into Mary Sue territory to get through it. A bit more planning (and maybe a bit more hanging on by the skin of her teeth instead of winning everything effortlessly) and it would have been much smoother.

Not to mention how, later, miss “undefeated angel of death” screams at the sight of a skeleton. /facepalm.
Oh I’m sorry. It was a “skelenton”. Ugh.

Having said that and done all this bitching, I’ve seen a lot of bitching about the character and how she does not develop and she’s all mean to her little sister all the time so she’s unsympathetic and people hate her. You know what, the flaws of the character are the part I actually enjoyed the most, and I think those people completely missed the awesome character development that did happen with regards to her relationship with Emmi. No, the book does not end with everything being all rainbows and butterflies between them, and thank god because they’re on an actually believable arc that I’m hoping will continue to develop with the series. Yes, you want to smack her at times. That’s who her character is, and it makes sense.

I enjoy dystopias for the worldbuilding, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding in Blood Red Road… which, again, might be pretty confusing because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of worldbuilding. What was there was very subtle, and (this is the important part) it made SENSE for it to be subtle, because this is Saba’s world. She does not need things explained. That’s just how things are for her. She takes note of things, and occasionally wonders about things, and in that way the world is revealed to the reader. I enjoyed it, but I also hope the series goes on to meet a literate historian and reveal a bit more backstory about how things got to be this way.

I also hope they spend a little time explaining the “magic” that seems to exist in the world. Pa’s seeming divination skills, the strange properties of the “heartstone”, Nero having a unique amount of intelligence (to the degree that it’s even commented on in-book… Chekov’s gun?), the king’s immortality? Are there scientific explanations for some of these things, are there magical explanations for these things, or are we just going to smile and nod? There was a vague attempt at explaining the giant worms (though the hind leg reveal was pretty eye-roll inducing…), so there might be some ideas behind things, but then it becomes a question of whether saying more will help, or if it will just make us go “… well that’s just fucking stupid“.

There were plenty of things that already made me raise an eyebrow. They’re constantly travelling somewhere and going “Oh no we can’t stop we have to make it before dark!!!” while also bitching about the heat and their water supplies. It. is. a. desert. Travel at night, dummies! At least the worm explanation made some sense for the one part, but every single other desert-travel section? And speaking of the worms… they let their horses go because they hope the horses will make it to the other side before dark. Why weren’t you riding the god damn horses to go faster in the first place.

And there were just some weird decisions in the plot, too. Rooster showed some interesting character potential playing the part of the abused husband, and then, well… so much for that I guess? Massive armies using stealth when they quite clearly overwhelm the other side? Except… I guess they didn’t because when the dust clears only two people are injured? … More seat of the pants writing. But I really only noticed these things as oddities, rather than being annoyed by them.

Even the inevitable romance bits were tolerable, primarily because they were part of the story and not constantly tromping all over the plot just to be seen. I am worried about the next books though. Naturally the only not-ugly bad guy is going to turn out to be actually a good guy and spark a love triangle, isn’t he. Ugh. Ugh.

So there it is. That is my review. I enjoyed this book despite its massive flaws and I hope they don’t do a cheap cash-in for the movie, because I think it will make for a decent action adventure where lack of quotation marks won’t make me fly into a rage.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. That’s the only reason. I don’t even really like detective mysteries, and I sought out and read this book solely because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. And I feel like that was kind of her point.

The book itself was pretty good. Much like Casual Vacancy, it was a fairly solid 3.5, but since Goodreads doesn’t allow for .5s I was once again stuck with the decision to either round up or down. I rounded Casual Vacancy up because I felt like I wanted to reward the risks taken, because it was experimental and I enjoyed the attempt even if the result fell a little flat. This book was not experimental in the slightest, aside from the whole pseudonym thing maybe. It’s a whodunnit from start to finish, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really strike me as anything special, so I rounded down this time.

Here’s the premise: Robin is assigned to be a secretary at a private eye office through her temp agency, and from there we meet Cormoran Strike and follow along as he solves a murder mystery. That’s pretty much it – the mystery itself is unravelling whether a “suicide” of a famous lady was actually suicide or if it was actually a murder, and Rowling displays much of the same aptitude for laying down hints and false trails as she did in Harry Potter. The writing itself is excellent as always, although I felt it often drifted into overly flowery descriptions, which never bothered me with any of her other writing. Either I am getting grumpier and pickier (entirely plausible), or she tried just a bit too hard in some places.

The book is set up to introduce the characters and set the stage for future sequels, which I feel is probably a good thing, because I feel like Rowling is writing to her strengths and things will only get better once we get out of the whole “this is who this character is” stage. I’m going to make a lot of presumptions here and they may not be correct at all, but I got the sense that these characters were bouncing around in Rowling’s head for a good long while. There is a lot of character exposition and it felt like she was just boiling over with the need to share it all with us, even when it wasn’t necessarily very appropriate or timely. Strike’s amputated leg is practically a character in the story for the amount of time we hear about it, and it could be safely deleted without affecting the actual plot whatsoever. There’s absolutely no purpose to it other than to add a bit of depth to him. The story almost starts to spin its wheels when it gets into establishing the characters, but it’s really the characters that make the story worth reading. An interesting dilemma.

Here’s some more presumptions: This book spends a lot of time making points about the lives of celebrities, and I couldn’t help but feel Rowling was adding in a little bit of side commentary based on personal experiences. There’s a bit of meta-story going on which seems to parallel how the book was relatively ignored until it was connected to Rowling, and then *poof* suddenly it’s a best seller. I have to wonder if that was entirely intentional, much like how Casual Vacancy seemed to attempt to manipulate the readers judgements of the characters behind the scenes.
As a bonus, there are also side commentaries about the lives of those living in poverty. They say you should write what you know, and Rowling is in a position to write from personal experiences with both.

I have a note about the plot too which might be a tiny bit spoilery – I felt like the ending was a bit too contrived. It was one of those plots where you think to yourself “Okay, the most unlikely culprit would be…” and then oh look, it’s them. Rowling is usually so good at laying clues down earlier (in the case of Harry Potter, literal books earlier) and you can look back and go “ohhhhhhh…”, but in this book you look back and go “… so WHY did they do that, again? They gained absolutely nothing from it, and it led to their downfall.” The only semblance of explanation seems to be “They’re kind of a narcissistic psychopath and thought they were invincible, you see”. Unsatisfying.

Not a waste of time, though (how’s that for a glowing recommendation…) and I’m interested in seeing future installments of this series with a bit less character exposition and a bit more intuitiveness in the plot twists, next time.

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