Characters. It's all about the characters, people. You can create the most fascinating fantasy world or the most devastating dystopia. I won't give a rat's eyeball about it if I don't care about the characters.
Marie Lu could give a master class on creating compelling characters. (Sorry, I think I'm coming down with the alliteration virus. I'll try to hold it in check.) Here's how Legend opens:
My mother thinks I'm dead.Well, that catches my attention. Not only that, but "it's safer for her to think so." Why? Day is a notorious wanted criminal, "wanted for assault, arson, theft, destruction of military property, and hindering the war effort." I like him already! Then we find out he's hiding in an abandoned building that overlooks his home, waiting until the soldiers are finished going through the neighborhood so he can sneak down and leave a gift of food and useful items he's stolen, because it's his older brother's birthday. Oh! Wrench my heart and make me completely love the guy!
Then we meet the second main character. June is waiting to see the dean because she's in trouble again: she snuck out of school to "scale the side of a nineteen-story building with a XM-621 gun strapped to [her] back." This puts her in a class above your typical spunky heroine. Why did she do this? "My afternoon drills aren't teaching me enough about how to climb walls while carrying weapons." Yeah, mine neither. "Rumor has it that Day once scaled five stories in less than eight seconds." Oh ho. June is training to be the best possible soldier for the Republic, and she would love nothing better than to be the one to capture Day.
Do we have conflict? Two compelling characters set on a collision course in a pretty scarey world of tromping soldiers, crumbling cityscape, and plague. You're not going to tear this book out of my hands.
You may be getting a little tired of dystopian YA. It can be horribly grim, and a lot of the books out there are less interesting than they think they are. But Legend is an example of why the genre became so popular in the first place. Okay, I'll say it: a worthy successor to The Hunger Games. There's a sequel, but it's not a horrible cliffhanger ending. There's just lots more story to tell.
Legend is a big, juicy burger with all the fixings. Meaty and flavorful. (It's told from alternating points of view; that's what made me think layers, therefore burger. It makes sense, trust me.)