Not Just for Kids: A taut, dystopian 'Legend'


A Novel

Marie Lu

Putnam: 336 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and up

In Marie Lu's young adult debut, "Legend," the Pacific Ocean laps at the edges of downtown L.A. and Walt Disney Hall is on the verge of collapse. Dodger Stadium has been repurposed in a manner befitting ancient Rome, and jumbotrons broadcast propaganda above even the most rundown of neighborhoods.

Los Angeles, as we know it, has ceased to exist.

In the ever-expanding canon of dystopian YA, the action often unfolds in environmentally compromised landscapes that were at one point recognizable U.S. landmarks. New York, Miami and Chicago are among the well-traveled backdrops in today's post-apocalyptic bestsellers—locales that are revealed a la "Planet of the Apes," with the gasp-worthy discovery of a broken tourist attraction or the experience of highly unusual weather.

Now it's L.A.'s turn. In the kickoff to her new "Legend" trilogy, Lu embellishes upon some of the genre's tried-and-true story lines with enough inventive details to keep things from becoming cliché. It's an action-packed love story that hits the ground running and rarely stops for breath.

Prone to hurricanes and flooding, Los Angeles is no longer part of the United States but instead the Republic of America, which is warring with a group of rebels called Patriots for land. Plague has decimated the population, reducing its ranks to a mere 20 million. Soldiers patrol the city, wearing capes and gas masks as they go door to door drawing blood samples and checking for plague in its cowering residents. Each positive test ends with a red X painted on the home's entrance.

It's a chilling scene, especially when described by a boy who's just witnessed his own family being so branded. Day is his name, so called because he lives for the moment as if every breath could be his last. Day is just 15, but he's long been on the lam — wanted for assault, arson, theft, destruction of property and hindering the war effort, according to his criminal report broadcast to the city via jumbotron.

Day isn't the most dangerous criminal in the country, he notes early, but he is the most wanted. He's also poor, but what Day lacks in money he makes up for in swoon-worthy good looks and death-defying feats of derring-do — including the time he breaks into a hospital to steal plague meds.

June, meanwhile, is a wealthy child prodigy. Also 15, she received a perfect score on the republic's version of the SATs, allowing her to enter the country's top university four years early and to emerge as military brass. Her first assignment: Catch Day.

"Legend" volleys back and forth between Day and June, who grew up on opposite sides of the tracks but are nevertheless united by their good looks and rebellious natures. Bright as she is, June often landed in the dean's office at school, including her unsanctioned self-assignment "to scale the side of a nineteen-story building with a XM-621 gun strapped to my back" — an act she described as "self-improvement, for the sake of my country."

Chapters are penned from each character's point of view, with Day's words presented in gold type — to match, perhaps, his blond hair. June's are written in black, also color-coordinated with her signature slick ponytail.

As the two move among the city's crumbling high rises, its ballrooms and foul-smelling sewers, changes of scene are indicated with datelines for the time, temperature and place. "Legend" is a taut and exciting romp for all readers, but it will be especially so for L.A. readers, who'll delight in the geographic gamesmanship of matching neighborhood descriptions with their real-world counterparts as June and Day realize that all is not as it seems with their government.

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