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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

29 January, 2012

Book Review: "Legend" by Marie Lu

Book Review: Legend by Marie Lu
In books and films, it is often a bad thing if the reader or viewer can guess what’s going to happen next or where the story is going to end. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to tell a fresh story from a seemingly hackneyed theme; in this case, dystopia.  Sucker Punch, Terra Nova and, of course, The Hunger Games series come to mind. Picking Legend up at my nearby Barnes and Noble, knowing that it’s the first book in a series, I did turn to the first page with certain expectations for when I got to the last one. So, in that regard, there are certain things the reader can predict but it’s how Marie Lu gets there that is the brilliance of her novel – and her writing talents.
I was first attracted to Legend by its cover. The gold insignia, the sign of The Republic, caught my eye. It made me think of the Chinese character for ‘double happiness’ on boxes of matches that used to come with the cigarettes my father used to send me to pick up for him, when I was a kid in Hong Kong working as the office errand boy. (I’m glad to say that my father stopped smoking cigarettes in 1984.) Then I saw the author’s name and, as an Asian-American myself, there was greater interest in the book. A week or so later, I read a review of Legend in The New York Times’ Book Review. The reviewer stated something to the effect that Legend will fill the void of YA dystopia fans that was created by the conclusion of The Hunger Games series with the last page of Mockingjay. Coincidentally, on the visit to Barnes and Noble, I did buy a paperback of The Hunger Games. I didn’t buy Legend.
My wife read The Hunger Games in three days and went on to buy Catching Fire and Mockingjay and finished both books within the following five days. A couple of weeks later, we were Christmas shopping and ended up back at the Barnes and Noble. I handed my wife a copy of Legend, telling her what the New York Times Book Review said, and she started to read some of its pages. While playing with our son at the Lego table, she came back from the New Releases shelf grinning widely and said, “We have to get this.” And we did.
If you’ve read my blog on reading habits, you’ll know that I read four or five books at a time, devoting 15-20 minutes a day for each book. I like doing that because it keeps me reading and I get to experience a variety of books that fit in with my various tastes and moods. It also means I take longer than most to finish any one particular book. Well, just before the New Year, I started Legend and, a month later, I’ve finished it. I don’t mean that to say the other books I’m reading are badly written or aren’t holding my interest. They are all very good. I’m reading Lisa See, after all. Legend is just that good. It’s been a while since a book kept me turning its pages in such a way that Legend did; a way that makes me want to put everything else aside and just keep reading. The last books to do that for me were The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) and The Road (Cormac McCarthy). Legend is in good – no, great – company.
Lu’s interpretation of Les Miserables, with Los Angeles as its backdrop and Day and June, the two protagonists, taking over for Gavroche and Eponine (Day) and Cosette and Marius (June) in combination and sometimes gender-reversing roles, is fast-paced brilliance. Each character is expertly fleshed out and complex. It’s an old story – the rich power machine versus the poor and struggling – but Lu makes it fresh by creating characters with which the reader can sympathise and emphathise. There is nothing gratuitous in Legend and Lu sets up every twist and turn with meaningful and exciting – sometimes jaw-dropping – payoffs. Whether you enjoy YA books or not, Legend is a must read. It’s entertaining, exciting, well-paced and visual. To say the least, it’s simply a page-turner. It’s excellent, excellent stuff. (That’s two superlatives, folks.) She also tells the story from both protagonists’ points of view, switching between each character in alternating chapters, without repetition of thought or action. She moves the story forward deftly and seamlessly. Reading Legend is like hanging out with Day and June, listening to them tell the same story without skipping a beat or missing a detail.
As I mentioned earlier, The New York Times reviewer said that Legend will fill the void, for fans of YA dystopia, created by the end of The Hunger Games series. Generally, I don’t like to compare books and authors. I believe they all need and deserve to stand on their own and be liked or disliked on their own merits. However, with the Times’ juxtaposition of Legend with the successfully popular series and all the excitement and praise The Hunger Games has received, I can’t help from making my own comparison of sorts. I haven’t read The Hunger Games yet but it’s next on my list of reads for 2012. Lu informed me, in a quick Twitter exchange, that the follow up book to Legend will be coming out this fall. I wish I didn’t have to wait. I wish I could get hold of an advance copy or galley. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources at my disposable to do that. In the meantime, I hope The Hunger Games can fill the void left by my finishing Legend.

Postscript: Legend has been picked up by CBS Films for a slated 2013 movie release. Naturally, I’m very excited to see the film version and, with Marie Lu on board as an executive producer, I’m sure it’s going to be a great success that maintains her tone and vision. I’m also a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and I was equally excited for the movie to come out. Sadly, in so many ways, I was disappointed. The casting, in particular, left much to be desired.  Please, Ms. Lu, make sure the casting stays true to your vision and doesn’t fall prey to Hollywood’s whims and/or its deep pockets.

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