Since that show I review is on hiatus, I’ve decided to make my life interesting by doing a series of reviews of YA dystopian trilogies. Boredom or self-hate? I’m not sure, probably both. I’m also going to make it more fun for myself by allowing you all to choose the series of books I read from now on. So if you’ve been dying to have a review written of your favorite trilogy (or just want to see me suffer), you will have your chance.
(All of these will be spoilery, so be aware. If you haven’t read a particular series and don’t want to be spoiled, bookmark my review for later.)
I’m starting out with the Legend series, by Marie Lu, because a friend of mine wanted me to read them and discuss them with her. I figured I might as well get a review out of it right? Of course right.
Legend is in a dark future Los Angeles, 15-year-old June, a highly skilled military trained female working for the government, chasing down 15-year-old Day, a rebel, street-smart male and proponent of non-violent resistance. The dystopian government of the western US is called the Republic and their sworn enemies are the Colonies, the remnants of the former eastern US. The Republic rules by martial law and children are selected for military service based on their performance in a grueling series of mental and physical tests given at ten years old called the Trial. June got a perfect score on her Trial, and is called the Republic’s policy. Day was failed and delivered over for experimentation before being left for dead. He survived, and has dedicated his life to pissing off the Republic and keeping his family safe from afar because he’s a wanted criminal.
Day’s brother has come down with a mysterious plague (due to government experimentation in chemical weaponry, as he later discovers), so Day breaks into a hospital to get a cure. June’s brother Metias, a highly ranked officer in the military, is killed in the process and June is then tapped to track down Day. Thus begins Legend.
This series gives us both a male and female POV (Day and June), rather than merely the female POV as is common in 1st person POV YA trilogies. When I started Legend, I was expecting something along the lines of “Aladdin” meets “The Smiths”, and I wasn’t disappointed…until it started to devolve into a romance novel rather than a dystopian action thriller.
The same criticism applies to Prodigy and Champion, the next two books in the series. Prodigy starts out promisingly, with the Patriots recruiting Day and June to assassinate the new Elector Anden, a young man only a few years older than them both. Annoyingly (to me), this political drama is tinged with not one, but two love triangles, one for each of the protagonists. It ends with Day declaring support for the hope and change fueled Elector Anden, June promoted to be Anden’s Princeps-Elect (one of three potential leaders for the Senate), and Day finding out that he has a terminal brain tumor. Other than Day’s immanent death, all seems well in the Republic now that Anden has renounced his father’s tyrannical ways and has June to help him stay in touch with the heart of the people.
Champion moves the drama from inner-Republic tensions to the global stage, with the war between the Colonies and the Republic (and their allies) providing the background for Day dealing with his brain tumor and June learning how much she hates being in politics. The Colonies try to take over the Republic, but are rebuffed by Day and June leading to eventual peace, but not the re-establishment of the United States. As with the first two novels, the romantic relationship overshadows the rest of the narrative.
The two most important questions to ask about YA dystopian novels written in the first person are : 1) What purpose does 1st person narrative serve in this context? Does that choice enhance or detract from the narrative? and 2) What purpose does the dystopian setting serve? Does it enhance or detract from the narrative or, is it merely a setting like any other?
When done well, first person POV provides an intimate exploration of the psychology of a particular character as they react to the events around them. It generates intimacy between reader and audience because you are entirely within that person’s head space. When done poorly, it can engender everything from boredom to contempt for the protagonist (depending on how annoying their head is to be in), and coming up with a unique voice can be difficult.
YA fiction with this POV typically falls into self-insert, the point of the first person female perspective being to allow teenage girls to perceive themselves as the heroes of the stories. Self-insert narration is generally vague and formulaic in the way it presents the female protagonist, the better for the teenager to perceive herself as being the hero romanced by the handsome male protagonist.
By providing two 1st person narrative POVs, the Legend series avoids the pitfall of boredom as well as providing multiple perspectives on the same events, which is a refreshing change. Neither Day nor June are annoying heads to be in, though they are very similar.
On the one hand, the similarity in their personalities and voices provides cohesion and smooth storytelling. On the other, it is harder to perceive them as being separate beings. They don’t provide enough contrast to each other’s perspective, so we’re left wondering if the choice to provide both POVs is merely an aesthetic choice rather than an attempt to explore how different psychologies react to the same events.
With respect to the first person narration itself, it seems to be mere genre convention for YA literature rather than an intentional choice to explore human psychology. Lu falling prey to many of the narrative style’s most common pitfalls. There is an overabundance of telling rather than showing. We know Day is beautiful because June tells us so (and vice versa) rather than because June describes him intimately. Literally the only things I can tell you about his physical appearance are: he’s thin/athletic, has white blond hair and bright blue eyes, and is Mongolian.
The best part of her stylistic choice to use first person is the peppering of June’s analytical observations of her environment. The Sherlock Holmesian style observations, placed in brackets in the text, work best in the first person. I only wish they were more consistently used throughout the novels.
The dystopian setting leaves the same impression as the first person narration: it is a stylistic choice that serves merely as the setting rather than being an intimate exploration of the themes specific to the dystopian genre. It has promise at the beginning of the series. She establishes the foreignness of the setting quite well: a fractured United States, martial law, highly stratified society, scientific experimentation on citizens to create chemical weapons, a tyrannical male authority figure who rules by charisma and fear, perpetual warfare with the neighboring country, and the shining beacon of a better life symbolized by the United States of America quarter Day wears as a pendant around his neck.
As the plot evolves, however, the world-building starts to fracture. Marie Lu never delivers on the dystopian backdrop she created in Legend in a consistent way. We learn that the Colonies are just as dystopian as the Republic, in their own way. We learn that Antarctica is just as dystopian as the Republic, in its own way. It sounds compelling, but both of these revelations undermine the initial impression of the Republic. Rather than enhance the dystopian experience, it undermines it. There’s too much going on, and all of it only shallowly investigated. The Republic, it turns out, isn’t that bad after all, really. Martial law just needed the right ruler in charge to make it work and the people aren’t really suffering all that much compared to the rest of the world, they just needed a better man at the helm.
She never fully explains her world-building either. Bits and pieces of what could be compelling narrative are never drawn together into something consistent and whole. June gets sick with an unknown plague in Prodigy that turns out to be the missing piece for a plague cure in Champion, yet how June got sick, why, when, and where are never fully explained.
If martial law was instituted because of rioting, immigration, and massive flooding due to global warming, one would expect these events to be mentioned by the government, not hidden. In a dystopian society, part of the staying power of the oppressive system is that it consistently reinforces the idea that things are better the way they are. Status quo works, don’t change it. Life is worse elsewhere.
Rather than isolationism and never mentioning the past, rhetoric of how bad things used to be and are elsewhere in the world ought to be the norm. June should know a version of how the Republic came to be, one that is partially but not entirely true, not nothing at all. Same with the Colonies. She should know some of what their society is like—tinged with the self-importance and superiority of the Republic—not nothing at all. Twisted and warped knowledge is more compelling (and harder to break free from) than no knowledge at all. It’s as if Marie Lu is missing half of the puzzle pieces for her world-building, and the ones she does have are slapdash and inconsistently integrated into the narrative.
Because they’re geared toward teens who are not regular readers, YA novels are designed to be fast paced and action packed, like action movies in written form. For the most part, the Legend series fits that expectation. Legend is rapid-fire, but keeps up the pacing at the expense of world-building. We get a decent outline of the dystopian society in which Day and June exist, but the details of how it came about and what the world is like outside of the Republic are left to the second and third novels to flesh out.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with not fully explaining details until later in the series. Too much exposition slows the pace down. The problem is that leaving the bulk of the world-building to the second and third novels means they suffer from the need to backtrack and provide details neglected in the first novel.
Prodigy overall has better pacing and world-building than Legend, despite the occasional backtracking and information dumping. The world-building feels more integrated into the narrative than in Champion, where we get such information dumping gems as June learning about the history of the Republic and Anden’s father from what is basically Virtual Reality Google.
World-building ought to be organically worked into the narrative, not abrupt, static, or absent. Both blatant information dumping and sacrificing world-building for pacing are usually the sign of a young writer. I can forgive either in Legend, which was written when Marie Lu was a young writer both literally (she was 25) and figuratively (it was her first novel). When they occur in the third novel, after having done better in the second novel, it’s sloppy.
Champion is the weakest of the three when it comes to pacing. Unlike the first two, the action does not really begin until a third of the way through the novel. By the end, the rapid-fire pacing of the first two is back, but it suffers from an overabundance of thinly veiled tropes: June’s gun runs out of bullets right when she has the climactic confrontation with the villain; the new gun she picks up has one bullet left; she misses her shot, and they end up having to fight hand to hand. Picture the climactic scene in almost any of the Die Hard movies and you’re not far off. Again, tropes are not inherently bad; they exist for a reason. But it does make it more difficult to emotionally invest in a narrative so heavily laden with tropes. It’s too predictable.
The transitions between each of the novels are one of the weakest parts of the series. Because of trilogies like the original Star Wars series or Lord of the Rings, we expect trilogies to have a certain structure: the first is mostly self-contained, the middle one ends with a cliffhanger and requires the third to provide closure. The Legend series, by contrast, reads more like three individual novels, or even a two parter (Legend-Prodigy) with Champion tacked on the end to make it a trilogy.
Legend ends with Day and June having escaped Los Angeles and been abandoned by the Patriots to fend for themselves. With the Patriots trying to recruit Day (and his repeated refusal to join them because they’re more violent than he’s willing to be) being such an important part of his arc in Legend, the Patriots abandoning them merely serves to provide a set up for Prodigy. (Or, she wrote Legend with a partial closure, and only when Prodigy was commissioned did she have to explain the transition and did so weakly).
While the transition between the first two books is poorly handled, it’s better than that between Prodigy and Champion, which provides no indication about what the next novel holds. The ending of Prodigy provides so much closure to the story that when I finished it, I had no idea what the conflict in the third novel would be. I actually prefer the ending of Prodigy to the ending of Champion, but that’s another story.
The commitment to a fast paced plot means that plot points within the novels are not always very well connected or followed through on. Climactic events and problematic elements of the dystopian government are brought up, resolved easily, and then forgotten: the trials, the plague, Day being in prison, the assassination plot, the Colonies attacking. While I like the quick pace overall and it’s very true to genre, too much resolution creates a disjointed narrative. We skip from plot point to plot point like a rock across a pond with no one underlying tension driving everything other than the romance. If, like me, you’re not fully invested in the romance, you’ll have a hard time feeling propelled forward in the narrative.
So who are these two POV characters that we’re supposed to be invested in? June Iparis is the female protagonist, and I like that she’s the voice of reason in the narrative. She’s logical, analytical, and very Sherlockian. A highly trained soldier in the militaristic Republic, she is what the government calls a “prodigy”, meaning that she got a perfect score on her Trial. She was born into an aristocratic family and has a lot of privilege and wealth in the highly stratified society of the Republic.
Daniel Alton Wing, or “Day” as he’s called by everyone other than his family, is the street-smart non-violent revolutionary June is slated to hunt down in Legend but ends up falling in love with. He’s driven by instinct and his gut and wears his heart on his sleeve. Like June, he also got a perfect score on his Trial, but since he was from a poor sector and displayed signs of non-conformity to the system, he was failed, medically experimented on, and left for dead. He survived, but was damaged by the testing procedures. He’s also a “Runner”, which basically means he’s fast and good at parkour.
In many ways, they serve as mirrors for each other. June is the mind to Day’s heart; Day is the emotion to June’s cold logic; June is the soldier, Day the ruffian street urchin; Day is the poor boy to June’s rich girl. At the same time, they have similar mindsets and make similar choices despite the emotion/logic dichotomy. At several points in the narrative, their ability to understand the other flows from one or the other admitting that they would make the same choice in that situation.
They share many of the same emotional struggles throughout the story. June struggles with guilt over her relationship with Thomas, a junior soldier to her brother Metias, and in her relationship with Day, feeling that she is constantly hurting the people she cares about. Day struggles this way as well, feeling that he repeatedly hurts his best friend Tess.
Day and June both face losing most of their family. June’s parents are dead before the story starts, but her brother’s murder is the initial action that compels her to hunt down Day, whom she believes responsible. Day’s father is dead before the story starts; his mother is murdered by June’s commanding officer when she hands him over, and his older brother dies in his place at the end of Legend. Their grief over the loss of their family at the hands of the oppressive government is a major motivating factor for each of them as well as a source of miscommunication angst, as Day partially blames June for his family’s death.
One would imagine that the tension between similarity and difference would create a compelling dynamic between them and it does at times. However, the narrative doesn’t always follow through on this tension. The differences are more superficial than actual; the similarity in voice and action collapses the two characters more than the differences pull them apart. They’re two faces for the same person.
Nevertheless, I still like them as characters, June a bit more than Day because she is more distinctive as a female character than he is as a male character. They both undergo emotional growth in the story based on their experiences, so they’re at least round characters even if they’re strikingly similar. June sometimes borders on “not like other girls” (not that you’d really know because we get so few other characters to compare her too), but not enough to distract.
Thomas, on the other hand, is all over the map. In Legend, he’s the perfect soldier, put together, and immensely proper. He has an obvious crush on June (he forcefully kisses her) and becomes extremely protective—borderline stalker-like—after her brother’s death. In Prodigy, we learn that he’s actually gay and Metias was in love with him but they were unable to have a relationship due to laws about fraternizing. In Champion, he’s back to being the perfect soldier willing to accept his execution for being involved in Anden’s assassination attempt without flinching.
He dies by sacrificing himself to protect Day and Tess when the Colonies attack Denver after having forced June to sit through his recollection of the night he murdered her brother in gory detail. It includes a gay Judas kiss moment; it’s gross. Speaking of, his being gay comes out of left field, a poor execution of a retcon that I’d rather Marie Lu hadn’t included. His kissing and stalking June is handwaved away as him trying to protect her after Metias’ death.
Like poor Sansa Stark the past several seasons, his personality fits the needs of the plot and changes to further the protagonist’s (June’s) emotional development. As a result, his ‘redemption’ via self-sacrifice is hollow. One cannot invest in his so-called ‘love’ for Metias when Legend paints him as June’s borderline stalker. As the only living gay male character, the fact that he killed his would-be lover and then forcefully kissed and stalked the lover’s younger sister has problematic implications. Randomly throwing in LGBT representation does not win you brownie points, especially when it is inconsistently characterized and ends with both of the LGBT persons dead.
Anden, the son of the former Elector, has promise as a character. He’s introduced as a political revolutionary within the system, different from his tyrannical dad. He promises change, hope, and an overhaul of the dystopian system of the Republic. Basically he’s a young, white Obama. Champion attempts to complicate him by having him turning into his father in the face of pressure from the looming war, but is not only rushed but unconvincing. We’re told he’s acting or responding like his dad, but we’ve seen little of the previous Elector’s actions and emotions up close, so the audience has no basis for comparison. He’d be even more interesting if he weren’t so much a part of June’s love triangle with Day.
Day’s love triangle partner with June is Tess, a former orphan that he took under his wing when she was quite young. In Legend, she’s a sweet, gentle girl with a healing touch. She’s Day’s rock and behaves much like a younger sister. In Prodigy, she’s suddenly grown up (in 3 months) and acts more like a jealous lover than a sister. She’s catty with June, brusque with Day, and tries to kiss him. In Champion, she’s reverted to her Legend characterization, denying that she felt more than familial love with Day for longer than a brief bout with jealousy. Like Thomas and Anden, her characterization serves Day and June’s plot and the romantic tension between them.
The rest of the characters are poorly fleshed out, little more than cardboard props to move the story forward. The Patriot characters Kaede, a hotshot fighter pilot, and Pascao, a hotshot runner, could have been interesting, but they’re little more than their skills and their sass. When Kaede and Frankie, another Patriot, die, it has little emotional resonance because of how flat they are. At the end of the day (HA), one is left with the impression that every character merely services the romance between Day and June.
Marie Lu says she was inspired by Les Miserables and claims to have been trying to recreate the tension between Valjean and Javert with June and Day, but doesn’t deliver. June’s loyalty (and affection) shifts to Day almost immediately after they meet, shifting the tone from action thriller to romance. Only a third of Legend is concerned with June tracking down Day, if that. You blink and the chase is over. It might be personal preference, but I would have loved an entire novel of intelligent, rational military officer June tracking down the worldly and clever criminal Day.
Shifting loyalty is actually a running theme in each of the novels: loyalty to family, loyalty to government, loyalty to romantic partner, loyalty to nation/people. Day and June each grapple with how to sort out their divided loyalties in the face of crisis. I appreciate that there’s no clear hierarchical structure for choosing which one ought to be loyal to. But, given how the story evolves, I get the impression that loyalty to one’s romantic partner probably ranks slightly above the others.
Loss is another theme: loss of family, friends, lovers, and belief in the system. Both Day and June lose family members and must deal with the aftermath in their personal and romantic lives. It’s a common trope in YA literature, and one that I’m over, to be honest. I’m done with broken, fractured, or dead families because grief and loss are rarely explored with any depth and sensitivity. It’s not bad, it’s just not good. In lieu of that, I’d like some happy families please.
There are undertones of the exploration of privilege and poverty in a stratified society. Day confronts June about her privileged attitude toward money and food in Prodigy. There is also an exploration of leadership style, with Day representing the people and June the best of what the aristocracy can offer when it listens to the people. The interplay between Day and June’s different approaches to life brings up the relationship between desire and reason, emotion and logic. This is particularly interesting to me, as it subverts gender expectation by giving us a logical female and emotional male. There are also the political themes of the corruption of absolute power, the oppression of the poor and working classes in every tyrannical society, the reformation of government, and the illusion of utopia because every government has it’s problems.
In theory, there’s a lot to explore. Sadly, most of the thematic elements are subservient to the romantic tension between the protagonists. Privilege and poverty are only explored in the context of miscommunication between Day and June. Emotion and logic are explored primarily in how Day and June relate to one another rather than their approach to their environment and the political struggles. The political drama provides something for them to do, but is not explored for its own sake.
It is possible to both explore a fucked up political system and have romance, but Lu is clearly committed to the romance rather than the politics. The series is a conglomeration of interesting ideas with weak execution due to a failure to commit to the implications of her choices. She creates a compelling dystopian government in Legend, but by the end of Champion the Republic has been redeemed and the horrific actions of the first novel almost completely swept under the rug. It wasn’t the government itself that was bad, just some of the people in it.
It is fair to want to depict reformation rather than revolution, but dystopia by its nature is concerned with extremes in governmental policies. Ignoring or redeeming the dystopian government’s policies in later novels feels less like nuance and more like a violation of the dystopian genre. She basically retcons the dystopia in the course of the last two novels as Day and June realize that their lives really weren’t all that bad compared to the Colonies and Antarctica.
Day’s survival despite being shot and dying from his brain tumor is the worst kind of plot armor and lack of commitment. She’s willing to endanger her characters to the point of death, but not commit to the implications. And don’t tell me that YA novels can’t have a main character die. Teens deal with death (including suicide) all the time, so it’s possible to kill off a main character so long as it is both meaningful and well handled. I would have liked the story better if Day had died for the cause, as it would have depicted tangible consequences for the tyrannical government and it’s disgusting policies.
So, given my overall criticism, what would I have preferred? I would have liked a longer sequence of the Day/June hunter and hunted tension, probably even the entire first novel. I would have preferred that the dystopian, sociopolitical element receive equal treatment as the romance rather than have the romance drive everything around it. I would have liked it to pass the Bechdel test more strongly. As it stands, June rarely has interactions with female characters that do not eventually become about Day. I would prefer that it avoided the insta-love and love triangle tropes so common in YA literature.
A deeper exploration of loyalty and betrayal, especially for June, would have been more compelling to me as well. As it stands, June initially rejects the Republic primarily because Day is pretty and nice, and only secondarily because she feels betrayed by her government. I would have liked there to be tangible consequences for the dystopian government and choosing to rebel against it. I’m not particularly interested in a story where there are not lasting consequences because everything works out and nothing bad happens to our protagonists that isn’t easily overcome. You can have a happy ending while still grappling with the aftermath of reforming a horrific society. There are too many quick fixes, too much resolution, and not enough tension. I like happy endings, don’t get me wrong, I just like them to feel earned because of how much toll the fight has taken on the protagonists in a mental and emotional way.
The Legend series is a teenage romance series with a vaguely dystopian setting. I grew up reading dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, and A Handmaid’s Tale, so when I hear ‘dystopia’ I expect an exploration of society and politics. To me dystopian novels deal thematically with power, oppression, authority structures, and how good intentions for society can be turned to problematic ends. They explore and provide fresh perspectives on current sociopolitical issues by amplifying them. Not that these aren’t present to some degree in this series, but they’re very heavily backgrounded. Dystopia is an aesthetic choice, a setting, not the thrust of the story, and leaving it thus is a profound lack of commitment to the storytelling power of a dystopian setting.
Two intelligent, talented teenagers fall in love because each of them is physically attractive to the other and together they reform the government that really wasn’t so bad in the first place. It isn’t a bad story, just not one I’m going to be heavily emotionally invested in when the rest of the story is so thin.
Final Grade: C
pretty good ideas with inconsistent execution; world-building, characterization, and themes are subservient to the romance; good pacing, but too much telling and not enough showing
- She really, really likes nightmares and dreams
- Trying to make Anden’s father/the previous Elector sympathetic feels a lot like Pike in T100: too little, too late, borderline retcon (“he’s evil, but…not really, he was a brave person actually”).
- A longer, more intimate exploration of Anden’s devolution due to stress/war would have worked better than just telling us this
- She really likes the word “beautiful” to describe the men in June’s life that she finds attractive/drawn to
- What is the point of June going to Antarctica that couldn’t be accomplished by a video conference?
- She has a continuity error in pgs. 156 and 283, where two separate events are spoken of as being “the event that first got Day on the top of the most wanted lists”. It is not ‘unreliable narrator’ because she does not make use of this writing device. Day might forget things, but it is always called out by the narrative when he does this.
- Three. Different. Endings. End #1: in Day’s final chapter, he’s been shot twice and the tumor in his brain from the experimentation done on him as a child is close to killing him. Instead of him dying, he sees a vision of his mother, who tells him to go back and live. End #2: in June’s final chapter before the epilogue, she goes to visit Day in the hospital after he’s fallen into a coma from almost dying, he wakes up with retrograde amnesia and can remember everything but her. Instead of forcing her way back into his life, she walks away because she believes she’s hurt him too much already and believes he deserves a better life. End #3: the epilogue, which has June and Day reconnect ten years later; he vaguely remembers her and they get a chance to start over, as Day had wished for in Prodigy. Each of these could have provided closure to the series. Just pick one and go with it, not all three in quick succession.
- Lu excels at that middle of the road description level where you get an impression of what is happening, but not a lot of detail. That is both a compliment and a criticism.
- Girls are catty (June/Tess, Kaede/June, Commander Jameson/June). Wait, maybe all girls are just catty to June.
- How do you graft titanium/steel plates to skin? More to the point, why would you do that?
- I hate when “mike” is used as slang for microphone instead of “mic”. Maybe it’s just because I worked in audio/visual tech through college.
- Lu’s use of self-description get’s better as the novels go on.
- June is called a “whore” for kissing Anden in Prodigy. Like, wtf.
- Near the end of Champion, Tess is partially fridged to further Day’s choice to let the government experiment a second time on his brother for a plague cure. It’s made clear that her getting sick is what changes his mind, not all the other people getting sick or the chance to bring peace. At least she doesn’t die.
- I am really tired of glorified “first sex” scenes. I understand their purpose, but sex when both parties are virgins is awkward and kind of painful, not magic rainbow fuzzy camera lens heavenly.
- June “getting religion” and praying to save Day’s life “no matter what the cost” (hint: the cost is his retrograde amnesia) is out of place and hamfisted. The prayer itself is really long and boring, too.
- No offense to Marie Lu, but post Harry Potter, I cannot stand near death scenes.
What should I read next fans? Put it in the comments, or shoot me a message on Tumblr. Once I have enough options, I’ll make a poll and you can decide my fate.