Book review: Blood Red Road, Moira Young

I know, I know, dystopian YA is so over that it even has its own mocking Twitter account. Nothing could be more hackneyed and outdated than girl against the world must find herself by journeying far from home blah blah blah etc. However, in Young’s defense, Blood Red Road isn’t a new release, and also, the Dust Lands series is extremely good. Yes, it’s true! Books can exist within a subgenre that’s getting a lot of play and still be great reads! I know, it’s a surprise and shock to us all, especially we sophisticated readers who know how important it is to sneer at books once their genre goes trendy.

Saba has grown up in Silverlake, a miserable and remote area savaged by dust storms that make it nearly impossible to live, eking out an existence with her father, brother, and sister. Everything starts to fall apart when her brother is abducted and her father is killed, setting her off on an adventure to free him from his captors. So far, so stereotypical apocalypse novel.

Something people seem to forget about this, and any, genre is this: It’s not the story, but how it’s told. Readers have seen what feels like a score of variants on this theme, so it’s nothing new, but writers are still exploring it and we’re still reading it for a reason. That reason is complicated, and may have something to do with a large number of factors. We’re living in an era when now, more than ever before, the apocalypse feels very real — the doomsday clock is ticking down to midnight, we can see evidence all around us of the dangers facing society, and our personal lives feel rather apocalyptic as we face down an economy that’s still absolute shite, poor employment rates, rising college costs, and so forth. We live in a terrible time, which breeds not just literary escapism — the thing blamed for the rise of the YA apocalypse — but, more specifically, a desire to imagine would would happen if the worst happened, and books create a safe environment for doing that.

So in Blood Red Road, the point isn’t the story. We’ve read the story before. We can more or less map out which characters will appear and which roles they will play. We can see where the story is going and broadly project its most important points; think of this kind of novel as a constellation, where we know the stars and the shape they will form, and we know their characteristics, but we still don’t know what, precisely, happens on the lines between points. It is along these lines that novels make and break themselves, why one series thrives when another does not, why some books become cult favourites and others quietly trickle away into the background, never to be spoken of again.

The Dust Lands series may not garner the flashy attention of some other series — in part because it doesn’t have a heavy and relentless focus on romance — but it’s a good series. One of the reasons I particularly love Blood Red Road is because it’s told in the first person, with dialect. It’s extremely difficult to do either of these things, let alone both, well. First person narratives can be frustrating, as they force us into the point of view of one character and it can be difficult to learn about what’s going on elsewhere without painful and clunky exposition, but it’s managed adroitly here, keeping us firmly in the narrative and sweeping the reader along, allowing the story to explain itself rather than stopping repeatedly for Very Special Moments so everyone can get caught up.

The dialect is also well done and well thought out here. Blood Red Road imagines a world where a previous society, known as the Wreckers, has died off and left the planet more or less in a state of utter desolation. Large portions of the planet have been rendered useless through poor environmental policy, people live in decrepit shantytowns, a handful of powerful figures rule over much of society and often do so through means like drugs, not just violence. What happens to English, and other languages, as society evolves and shifts? Obviously we need new terms for new concepts, while old terms fade away because their concepts are gone, but what else happens?

That’s what Blood Red Road explores, in a world where accessing education is difficult if not impossible for most people, where the world has changed so radically that the language to describe it has too, and where the survivors of a harsh environment are forced to carve out their lives and future. Along the way, language has changed radically — it may be tempting to write off the accent as a simple ‘uneducated hillbilly,’ but it’s not that simple, and Young’s take on how English evolves isn’t that obvious. Instead, she explores what really happens to languages when they shift over time and people struggle to describe the world they live in. They don’t speak in the crisp, clear terms of the people who have come before them, but in the wild, less tame language of a scrappy people who have been forced to extreme means to survive. That doesn’t make it ‘uncivilised,’ though, or ‘wrong.’

Young has captured dialect in a way that’s both respectful, and canny. It can be hard to master that skill — sometimes dialect feels clunky or insulting, or is so thick as to be incomprehensible, but she takes readers into a world where English has changed, and she challenges them to reconsider the way they think about English and who ‘speaks proper.’