A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Explores a future society where lawlessness has taken over, which readers can compare to many other books and movies with a similar premise. It's also a quest filled with trials, monsters, allies, and enemies, another very popular literary idea dating back to Homer's Odyssey. This book breaks all kinds of grammar and spelling rules -- reading and schooling are no longer available to people like Saba. So readers will have to do things like fill in their own quote marks as they go and decide for themselves whether this gives a stronger sense of Saba's character.
"Never give up" is repeated often, as the main character searches for her brother. Trusting in friends and knowing when to accept their help are also big themes.
Positive Role Models
Saba doesn't start out terribly likeable -- she's mean to her younger sister and really stubborn about doing things her way. But ultimately, she helps her sister and learns to accept help from others and open up to them, even apologizing when she's in the wrong. She makes a big transformation, using her stubbornness, bravery, and resourcefulness to stay alive, though she must kill others to do so.
Violence & Scariness
Saba watches her father and neighbor get killed and sees her brother kidnapped at the very beginning of the book. It's also mentioned that her mother died in childbirth years ago. Other characters are killed by being shot with arrows and falling, and some are seen after a hanging. Cage fighting is brutal but not described in full detail -- characters die by "running the gauntlet," where they're taken apart by drug-addled spectators. A 9-year-old girl is enslaved and hit, and a wife beats her husband. A city is set on fire. Giant worms with claws attack and almost kill, as does a raging river where piles of human bones float.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A few kisses and some flirting and innuendo. A man sees two women naked. A mention that another man was left without his clothes in the company of women.
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"Damn" and versions of "gawddamn" are frequent. Also, "helluva," "bastard," "sonofabitch," and "hellhole."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Many in the lawless Dustland are addicted to a drug called chaal or grow it as slaves. Cage fighting spectators get so hopped up on it that they tear up the losing contestants. A prison guard takes chaal and routinely beats the women prisoners. A bartender homebrews vodka and serves it to Saba and friends.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this post-apocalyptic fantasy starts off with the murder of the main character's father and the kidnapping of her twin brother. Saba is then kidnapped and forced to cage fight, causing the death of many opponents (though the fights aren't described in detail). There are additional deaths with arrows, near-misses in a raging river, and a scary nighttime ambush by giant worm creatures. It seems that everyone except the main characters and their enemies is addicted to a drug called chaal or grows it as a slave. Stubborn Saba is hard to like at first, but she's brave and resourceful, and after a while she learns to accept the help of friends.
Is It Any Good?
Saba, like the book's intentionally messy grammar, takes some warming up to. She's mean to her sister, doesn't seem upset enough over her father's death, and is determined not to accept help from anyone. Oddly enough, it's her cage fighting that starts to make her real and likeable. Suddenly she's cunning, confident, and just plain awesome. As she hatches a daring escape plan, the book hits its stride. The action scenes are great all around; they keep readers on the edge of their seats without gratuitous gore. Saba's love interest has just enough secrets and swagger to keep things interesting, and the minor characters who join the quest all bring out more good in Saba.
There's still a bit that's unexplored here, including the what and why of Dustland. Even so, this is a great effort for a first-time author, and readers will be eager to see the next two installments.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.