Legend is the latest addition to the slew of dystopian series that has pillaged the young adult fiction community ever since The Hunger Games became a thing. I don’t pretend to be an expert on dystopian novels. In fact, I can’t claim to be, because the only dystopian series I’ve read straight through since The Hunger Games was, well, The Hunger Games. I liked Divergent, but not enough to read the sequel. The other ones didn’t even interest me.
I may not be an expert, but I do know how these books are generally supposed to work. You’ve got your futuristic society, which is usually split up into sections and controlled by a tryannical government – usually some sort of post-apocalyptic or post-disaster situation. You’ve got your main character, usually a girl, who shakes things up by refusing to cooperate with the rules this tyrannical government has laid down for her and/or is different from other people in some fashion. You’ve got your series emblem which will look really good on the movie trailers and which will soon become emblazoned on tons of merchandise, if Hollywood snatches up the rights to the book. You’ve got your brooding male sidekick that you’re inevitably going to have the main character hook up with (unless you’re Katniss Everdeen, in which case you don’t pick the brooding male sidekick the one time it’s okay to – but that’s for another review). Does Legend fulfill these requirements?
Well, it certainly fulfills some of them. I give Marie Lu points for having two main characters and having one of them be on the side of the enemy. Although unless the reader is just getting into modern young adult fiction they’re probably going to guess right from the beginning that the character on the side of the enemy is going to switch over to the other character’s side. In this case it’s especially obvious since the character on the rebelling side is the boy and the character on the enemy side is the girl. And if you have a book with two interchanging main characters that are of the opposite sexes and nobody’s gay, they are definitely going to hook up at some point, or at least talk of romance at some point.
I’m not even going to consider Legend a romance because the supposed “love story” (between two fifteen-year-olds, mind you) has about as much development and emotional depth as Twilight, and yeah, I hate making that comparison but honestly it’s the only commonly known flat love story that I’m familiar with. In any case, the comparison is not inaccurate whatsoever. Legend, for all intents and purposes, has no love story. The characters barely spend enough time together to really get to know one another and most of the observations they make about each other have to do with how they look rather than what they do or say, and even when they do comment about what the other does or says it’s mostly just an acknowledgment rather than any sort of analysis.
Yeah, I know they’re only fifteen. Fifteen-year-olds in romantic relationships are probably going to focus more on looks. And that argument might be worth something if it wasn’t already clear what Marie Lu is trying to do with these characters. They’re the leads – she’s not going to split them up indefinitely. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked.
The basic story of Legend is as follows: The rebellious boy character, Day (yeah, the name annoyed me too) is the evil government’s number one criminal-on-the-loose. He is so good at hiding from them that they don’t even know what he looks like. Most of his family thinks he’s dead. He lives on the streets with a thirteen-year-old girl named…darn, I forgot already. Basically she’s his Primrose Everdeen-equivalent, except she isn’t his sister. Day spends his time basically doing a series of small ambushes on government property, like banks and hospitals, and despite the government’s efforts to catch him, manages to escape every time. His major goal is to find medicine for his family, as a plague is slowly killing off the population.
The second character, June, is the government’s golden girl, the only person to ever get a perfect score on the evil futuristic version of the SAT (it’s not actually the SAT, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the test in this book is what the SAT eventually ends up developing into). She is so good at what she does – which strangely is actually never made clear; it’s mainly just generic military spy-stuff – that she becomes the only person capable of catching Day. She in fact is the only person with a legitimate motivation to catch Day, as he apparently kills her much-older brother, Metias. So she goes after Day, and the rest of the book is basically how the two meet and what they find out about their situation, and the government, and blah blah blah.
Okay, so how’s the premise? Fine. For what it is, it works – it has all the elements of a futuristic novel and manages to create a fairly distinguishable story without straying too far from the formula. The choice of putting June on the enemy’s side was a nice change, although like I said before it’s pretty clear from the get-go that she’s going to eventually change sides. And believe me, Marie Lu makes no attempts to hide it, either. But we’ll get to that later.
The setting is pretty generic. There isn’t really anything that sets it apart from other dystopian novels except that this time it’s in L.A. instead of Chicago. However, unlike The Hunger Games, Legend doesn’t rely too much on its setting, so I’ll give that a pass.
The characters are, unfortunately, pretty generic as well. I could have swapped them both for just about anyone. In fact, the characters, or lack thereof, are probably Legend’s greatest downfall. June, especially, turned out to be very disappointing. Because of her interesting position at the start of the novel I was hoping that Marie Lu might break the formula a little more and do something really different with her. We already know she and Day are going to get together and we already know that she’s going to switch sides, so why not make how she gets there interesting? Unfortunately, what we get is a pile of relentless blandness. In fact, June’s story suffers from just plain lazy storytelling. Here’s why. Towards the end of the book, June switches sides because of a message her brother Metias left for her, explaining all of the evil things he’d discovered about his government and the truth about their parents’ death, etc. She finds this out in a chapter or so. Essentially, her dead brother does all the character growth for her. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting if June had come to this conclusion on her own? Wouldn’t it have been a much more developed character story if her brother hadn’t left her anything, and she’d formed her own opinions about the evil government based on her own observations? Sure, it would have required making the book a little longer…ah, well. There’s the problem.
In addition, we also find out that Day didn’t really kill Metias. Of course. There’s absolutely no way June could ever fall for the guy who murdered her brother, even if he didn’t mean to do it. That’s just impossible.
But – WHY?!!!
I might be making too big a deal out of this, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if Day actually had killed Metias by accident, and had to come to terms with it as he realized his feelings for June? And wouldn’t June have to decide between hating Day for murdering her brother and her romantic feelings for him? But again, that would have required a few more chapters and that pesky thing called character development.
Because here’s the thing: going against the formula, like making June a member of the evil government, isn’t actually going against the formula if you don’t go against the formula. It sounds obvious, but it must not be, because if it was, I think more people would do it. Changing something a little isn’t enough – you have to give it life, you have to make the readers really engaged, really believe in your story and your characters and your setting. Say what you want about The Hunger Games, by God it had its problems but it was damn original, and its popularity has stemmed largely from the support of its idea and how that idea is portrayed as much as anything else. Come to think of it, its biggest problem is its main character, but it’s not the same because Katniss’s problem is that she’s a character who makes really, really stupid, awful decisions – but she’s still a character. She struggles, she has fairly intense inner conflicts, and she’s put into situations which challenge her and the story instead of push the plot along. I’m not saying The Hunger Games is perfect; far from it. But it did manage to do something Legend just didn’t seem to be able to do.
So, in conclusion: Legend isn’t awful. It’s not even that bad. But it isn’t that great, either. And if this dystopian novel fad continues, I don’t see it sticking around that long.