When I sat down to read the first chapter of Marie Lu’s Legend on the train, the thirty-something man sitting next to me on the train felt compelled to tell me that what I was reading was “a fantastic book.” I felt vaguely skeptical of him because I picked up Legend for one reason: I wanted some easy book-candy.
Everyone has a genre like this, right? Maybe for some people it’s superhero comic books, or romance novels, or Twilight. I don’t judge, because for me, it’s YA dystopian. When the weather gets warm I just have this feeling like I don’t want to read anything unless it’s about some teenage girl with a funny name who lives in a futuristic society where the government, is like, totally mean.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of gleaming brilliance in the YA dystopian genre. The most brilliant thing about it is how excited it makes teenagers to read and to discuss totalitarian governments in conjunction with love triangles. You also can’t beat the genre as far as the recurring theme of the strong female main character. That being said, I’ve read very little that even can hold a candle to The Hunger Games trilogy, which may still be book candy but it’s book candy that still makes me super excited, even a year after finishing the series. (TEAM KATNISS FYI). I am also a conflicted fan of the book Divergent–conflicted because while I was excited about the first novel, the series itself was a disappointment to me. Last summer I tried to read the Matched series and couldn’t even finish the second novel because of the poor writing and one-dimensional characters. Then there are a slew of novels with premises that seem a little too flowery, and classics like the Uglies books and The Giver, which were actually published when I was a child/teenager and thus I’ve read a long time ago. Now that I am an adult just looking for some anti-government light entertainment, I find myself constantly poking my head into the Teen section incognito, scanning the books and wishing that one day I will meet a series that will live up to The Hunger Games.
But, The Hunger Games had something that Divergent, et al, does not have: mainly, a skilled, experienced author. And although there is a love triangle in The Hunger Games that many readers feel passionate about, it’s not the main focus of the novels, and it certainly doesn’t sacrifice world building to spend long paragraphs on how the bad the characters want to kiss each other’s faces.
So, my plea to current and future writers of YA dystopian: don’t just copy Suzanne Collins. LEARN from her. Don’t let the excitement about romance make you forget what is most quietly successful about books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the thing that makes them last on our shelves: it’s the world-building.
I have high hopes for YA literature. I don’t want it to just be a graveyard for lesser writers to make careers from. YA dystopian in particular is an interesting genre to me because it has the ability to start conversations about politics, power, and humanity–and! you guys! That’s totally the JOB of good literature!
I say this in my review of Legend because although I liked it, it didn’t live up to the standards set by my train companion, bless his heart. It was exactly the book candy I was looking for, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, it just didn’t surpass my expectations of sheer, fluffy entertainment–and this is what I am always hoping for when I read a YA book. I’m hoping that something will surpass my expectations of it, because I know that when I read a YA book that does that, it will be a book that will have a longer shelve life than the average YA book. (See: John Green’s Paper Towns, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)
As mentioned above, Legend unfortunately suffers from some sort of kissing disease. I flew through the novel, but I ended up with some nagging questions about the world that Lu has written. I found the concept of government-created plagues and class warfare interesting, but there was so much that went unexamined about the world. For instance–what, exactly, happened in the United States to make “The Republic” and “The Colonies” two different states? (I’m still hoping that the next books in the trilogy will go into this more.) I couldn’t actually get a clear image of my head of how the rich sections of the Republic looked different from the poor sections–it’s not at all like how I can clearly see the difference between the Capital and the districts in The Hunger Games, for instance.
What disappoints me so much about this is that I really felt that the world building in Legend was clearly sacrificed for the relationship building between the two characters, June and Day, who, surprise surprise, really spend a lot of time pondering and agonizing over their own sexual tension.
Maybe my adultness is clouding my thinking, but guys, come on! You’re fifteen, and the world is way messed up. There will be time enough for kissing when the government is overthrown.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve read the Legend series, please comment below and tell me what you thought (no spoilers!!!). And I’d love any suggestions for good YA reads, dystopian or otherwise. Follow me on Goodreads for more reviews and to see what I’m reading now.