***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: the minimalist dialect is not enough to make this derivative, trope-heavy, overly-cinematic hero's journey into something original or complex.
Back up a second. My summary sounds harsh--too harsh for a debut that holds its own in a saturated post-apocalyptic market. There are many things to admire here: a repressed, unenlightened main character with a driving loyalty to her brother; a nice depiction of a world that has lost most of its memories of civilization; Saba's crow, Nero (even though his Lassie skills are too much to be believed: "Get help, Lassie. Get help, girl!"); Saba's little sister's (Emmi's) believable blend of immaturity and maturity; the beginning of an exploration of fate versus agency (although I can't find this thread discussed in reviews of subsequent installments); and finally, there's a nice character change from the beginning of the novel, when Saba idolizes Lugh as "the sun," "beautiful," the strong and smart one, while describing herself as "always following after," to her acceptance of her own skill, courage, and strength as a leader.
I won't be reading on in this series. As I've mentioned before, I often don't read beyond the first book in a series. I like to get a taste of what the author's writing style is, the world they're establishing, and the complexity of their plot, themes, and characterization. It's rare for me to be so invested in the story and characters that I can't resist the subsequent books. Blood Red Road does not entice me to read on in the Dustlands trilogy because of its lack of complexity--especially in the last third of the book, when Ms. Young seems to pull out all the "movie" stops and forget that this is literature.
Hero's journey. This book includes so many of Joseph Campbell's seventeen stages of the monomyth, you wonder whether Ms. Young followed the Wikipedia entry, right down to the old crone who gives Saba an amulet. In this case, the trinket is not quite essential to the quest, not protection against dragons, but more like a mood ring leading our heroine to "her heart's desire." (Yes, it's written as a cliche. And yes, it turns out to be a boy.) The plot is so damned linear, you can check your brain at the door. Don't get me wrong: the hero's journey is a legitimate art form. For example, it's about all you can fit into two hours of an action-adventure film, so we're okay with it. And in many cases, the journey is deliberately simple because something else about the delivery is complex or ground-breaking. Star Wars is a blatant hero's journey, but we have so much visual complexity and world-building to digest--zipping space scenes! Hyper-drive! Droids! Sand People! Storm Troopers!--it's actually helpful to have a familiar story structure.
Cinematic...to a fault. Speaking of movies, it's no wonder this book got optioned for film. There are so many movie tropes I began to roll my eyes. Bad guys who seem dead but miraculously come to life in the climax (in fact, Saba double-taps Miz Pinch "for Emmi," but fails to do it to the ultimate enemy, Vicar Pinch); Saba throws three matches in "The Cage" in order to escape, only to have the king change the escape route; characters inexplicably fail to tell each other important details (Jack detours to pick up Ike without informing Saba); giant sand worms (Dune, anybody? Beetlejuice?); a bad guy who dresses like Louis XIV and acts cartoonishly insane; our heroine mercifully shoots a comrade through the heart, with an arrow, from a distance, while the friend is in mid air after giving a sacrificial nod of permission and then launching herself like a bird from the roof (a similar scene ruined Code Name Verity for me); our band of misfits cuts a man down from an execution post on a stage in front of the king and a crowd of thousands and several Tonton guards (but don't worry, the crowd is hopped up on chaal), simply by holding a cloak open in front of the person with the knife; after the battle, a Tonton who was incompletely killed comes to and kills an important character before being summarily put down; Saba and Ike knock two Tontons out cold to steal their outfits to get on the execution stage (yes, as in The Wizard of Oz; "O-ee-yah! Eoh-ah!") with none of the guards ahead of them noticing; I could go on and on, but someone has to make it stop.
The dialect. Interestingly, I listened to this in audiobook form, and I think that took away a lot of the potential "magic" of the written dialect. The narrator was able to "act" the dialect and accent quite fluently, which made Saba's voice country-ish and uneducated, rather than Cormac-McCarthy spare and beautiful. I think taking away the only unusual aspect of the writing--the unconventional spelling and lack of punctuation--allowed me to hear the ordinariness of the plot without being distracted. When I finished the audiobook, I downloaded the free Kindle sample of the first few chapters so that I could get a feel for Ms. Young's written word, and I realized that the phonetic spelling and short sentences might have entranced me a bit, had I read it on the page. (I do think Ms. Young was quite consistent in her use of the dialect, but I don't think this is a pathbreaking literary device.)
The romance with Jack. Hmm. Well, there's not much suspense for the audience when a stone magically heats up whenever "your heart's desire" is nearby. So Young invented suspense by having Saba willfully ignore Mercy's explanation of the stone, and wonder to herself too many times why it burned her skin when Jack was around. I could see why Saba might become infatuated with Jack: the message of the stone for one, and his relative worldliness for another. But all Jack has to go on when he first shows attraction to Saba is her fighting ability. (Later, she returns to the burning prison cell to save him, and for me that's a more believable reason that his interest might be piqued.) In general their relationship was somewhat lacking in chemistry, and when you put that together with the fact that Saba's growth in the novel is not primarily romantic (that is, learning to love and accept love from a man) but learning to love herself, the romance feels tacked on for YA purposes, and labeling Jack as Saba's "heart's desire" becomes a red herring, distracting us from Saba's real growth. Not to mention, there was altogether too much YA-novel-ish focus on Jack without his shirt.
The romance with Lugh. I don't think I imagined it: there are incestuous undertones, and I believe they're deliberate. I quite liked them, actually. I think it makes sense, given Saba's sheltered life, and her lack of self-worth, and deference to Lugh in every way. It also drives her single-minded quest for him. Part of her growth is meeting another man who is not her brother, and recognizing and accepting her desire for him.
The plot, so I don't forget. As I mentioned, this is a highly linear story. Told in first person present (with ubiquitous "he says" and "I says"), we first get a peek at Saba's home life, including the fact that she idolizes Lugh, and that her mother died giving birth to Emmi. (P.S. another annoying book-and-movie trope: blaming the sibling who "caused" the death of the mother. Why don't these characters ever blame the father who got mom pregnant?!)
Next, we see her twin brother, Lugh, kidnapped and her father killed. It's clear that someone has been waiting for Lugh's eighteenth birthday, and watching him via their neighbor, Proctor John. (Why Proctor John never told the bad guys over all those years that Saba was Lugh's twin is not explained.) I found the mother's death during childbirth to be a nice way of showing us how far this society has fallen. Anyway, Saba sets out to rescue Lugh, and tries to leave Emmi with Mercy, who gives Saba the heartstone.
After entering the Sandsea, Saba discovers that Emmi has (resourcefully) been following her. They bump into a very 2-dimensional, cartoonish couple by the name Pinch, with a domineering (and, according to predictable movie trope #44, fat, ugly, and hairy) wife and obsequious husband. Saba trusts them despite Emmi's warnings not to, and the girls are abducted by the couple. Miz Pinch keeps Emmi as her personal slave, and sells Saba as a girl fighter in the cages of Hopetown.
Saba turns out to be good at fighting, and is dubbed "The Angel of Death." A cellmate named Helen reveals that she was the son of Trask, the man who reported Lugh's birth to the king (but left before seeing Saba's birth two hours later). Helen tells Saba that the king plans to kill Lugh on Midsummer's Eve, to gain the power of his youthful spirit. Never forgetting that her goal is to rescue Lugh, Saba arranges with a Free Hawk named Maev to throw three matches to a fierce fighter named Epona--the deal is that the Free Hawks will protect Saba as she runs the gauntlet if Saba will help burn down Hopetown. Saba almost reneges, but is compelled to honor her promise to help destroy Hopetown, and ends up saving Jack from lockdown while the male prison is in flames. After burning down Hopetown, they move to the Free Hawk camp in DarkTree.
Saba tries to leave Emmi with the Free Hawks, but Jack talks Saba into taking her. They head for the Black Mountains. Lots of trouble ensues, including Saba almost dying over a waterfall and having Jack save her. (I had The Emperor's New Groove in my head: "Sharp rocks at the bottom?" "Most likely." "Bring it on.")They struggle to get to the palace by Midsummer's Eve, just in time to rescue Lugh. Epona and Jack create a diversion (flooding the chaal fields) while Saba and Ike steal Tonton uniforms to get onstage and Maev secures horses. Tommo and Emmi are supposed to get to a safe waiting place. Emmi disobeys, and the king (who has been horribly burned by Saba but is somehow still functional: movie trope #52) captures her. He now wants Saba, not Lugh. DeMalo, the king's second in command, and a character who shared a long look with Saba (and meaningfully called her by her name) earlier in the book, turns against his boss and gives Saba her bow back saying, "Till we meet again." To be honest, I can't remember how the fight happens, but Saba chases the king to a rock formation that looks like teeth, he tries to shoot her, but the bullet (or was it a bolt-shooter?) ricochets and hits him in the neck. Bleeding, and clearly dying, he falls to his death, impaled on one of the rock formations. Cue cinematic moment #68.
In sum. Really, not a bad novel, not a bad debut, and a nice exploration of a girl learning to trust her strength. But like Shatter Me, I think people got caught up in the slightly unusual language and didn't notice the heavy use of film cliches and YA tropes. There's just not much new here.