12 April 2012
Blood Red Road
It’s easy to see the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction. Narratives set in ravaged versions of our future can lay claim to some of the moral seriousness of the best SF, whilst indulging in the imaginative play and extravagant colouring of fantasy. So, we can have works conveying both a stark warning about what will happen to the planet if we fail to recycle our bottles or look after the whales, combined with a tale of quests, horses and crossbows. If we throw a little radiation into the mix, we can even have a monster or two.
The genre has been graced by some of the finest works of speculative fiction, from Richard Jefferies’ haunting After London to Cormac McCarthy’s dark masterpiece, The Road. Many writers for children and teenagers have, in turn, been drawn to the dystopian future, with Julie Bertagna’s excellent Exodus trilogy being one highlight. However the field was transformed (commercially, at least) by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which dispensed with the traditional philosophical musings, and pumped in cheap gore and trashy spectacle.
Moira Young’s rollicking Blood Red Road, is much more Hunger Games than Oryx and Crake. Like The Hunger Games, it comes with a block-busting movie deal, but also with a – to me rather baffling – Costa Book Award.
At its best the novel mashes together McCarthy’s intensity with a laconic narrative style taken from the literature of the American West. There are echoes of Willa Cather’s great novels of struggle on the Frontier, as well as film classics such as The Searchers and True Grit.
At it’s worst it is a risible collection of cliché’s, strung together by a barely coherent plot.
From the outset we are solidly in quest mode, as 18 year old Saba and her kid sister go in search of her brother, kidnapped and destined to be sacrificed to help rejuvenate the local warlord, who somewhat bizarrely models himself on King Louis XIV.
Along the way, Saba is herself captured by a couple of improbably Dickensian characters, who sell her on to the local cage-fighting operation. She escapes with the help of an all-girl gang of outlaws, and, accompanied by a handsome hunk, called almost inevitably, Jack, she goes on to a final epic confrontation with the bad guys.
Although undoubtedly packed with incident, too much happens purely for narrative convenience, without any thought to logic or probability. Escapes are achieved with a leap and a bound, sapping any real sense of danger. Your boyfriend’s about to be eaten by a giant hellwurm? No sweat – jog up its back and stab it in the eye. Job done. Nothing exciting occurred for a while? Well, let’s have a flood in this hitherto parched world, leading to a rescue on the lip of a crashing waterfall.
Throughout, there is a disabling loss of nerve. In the cage fighting section, Young had the opportunity to make Saba an interestingly morally compromised figure – rather than simply a rather grumpy one. The fights are to the death, but the killing is done by the crowds. So, Saba is made to fight for her life, but not made to actually kill for it. The romance is as sexless as Twilight, and the much-praised phonetic rendering of the language is limited to little more than the dropping of g at the end of words and the substitution of ‘ezzackly’ for ‘exactly’ – not quite the brilliant creation of post-apocalyptic diction we find in Riddley Walker or Cloud Atlas.
But perhaps that’s all for the best. My 9 year old daughter got hold of my review copy and was so entranced that I had to machete it into sections, so we could both carry on reading it. Yes, this is the perfect apocalypse for pre-teens.