Warning: This is a sequel review, so there might be a few spoilers if you haven't read the first instalment of the Dustlands series (Blood Red Road) - I can't urge you enough to go read it!
To recap, in Blood Red Road, Saba travelled the Dustlands on a mission to rescue her twin brother Lugh from the clutches of the Tonton, with her little sister Emmi, the Free Hawks and the enigmatic and dangerously attractive Jack helping her along the way. In Rebel Heart, the twins have been reunited and they head off west with Emmi and their deaf friend Tommo to make a new life for themselves in the fertile lands of Big Water. But Saba is troubled by ghosts from her past and a deep yearning for her `heart's desire', Jack, who has left them to deliver some sad news to a friend. Saba thought that when she had Lugh back, things could return to normal - but what they each lived through when they were separated has driven a wedge between them. As they travel they see troubling signs of a new, frighteningly organised Tonton force rising. And when a cryptic message arrives from Jack, headstrong Saba determinedly sets off alone to track him down. As usual, whether she likes it or not, her friends aren't far behind. Much to Lugh's frustration, it seems that fate is set to drag them all into the fray once again.
When I read Blood Red Road, I was gripped by Saba's unique narrative voice, spoken in a catching dialect (you'll end up talkin' like her - you cain't help yerself) and without the usual punctuation conventions of direct speech, which was a little unsettling at first, but totally absorbing once you get used to it. The same immediacy pulled me in to Saba's headspace in the sequel, but whereas before her thoughts were focussed on her quest to rescue Lugh, now she seems at a loose end, almost unhinged, and haunted by the people she has lost and killed. This leads to a more introspective tone to the opening chapters and a deeper exploration of her character and of her relationship with Lugh.
That's not to say there's a lack of action, though - there are ostrich-riding headhunters, a highway hijacking, a camel-drawn cart chase and with the Tonton land-grabbing, enslaving and branding right, left and centre, danger is only ever around the corner. The barren, canyon-ridden desert backdrop gives the feel of a western set in some strange post-apocalyptic land abandoned by `The Wreckers', and there are a few nods to the genre - booze-ups on dodgy hooch in The Lost Cause tavern, bawdy songs and even at one point a character declaring `Stand and deliver!'.
Nine-year-old Emmi was one of my favourite characters from the first book and here she really comes into her own, surprising her older siblings with her wisdom beyond her years and powers of perception. She has an instant affinity with Auriel, the waif-like sixteen-year-old shaman who leads Saba on an internal journey of self-discovery, and through this new character the central themes of fate and destiny are brought into focus. We also meet Slim, a one-eyed travelling physician and surgeon (or quack, as Saba succinctly puts it) in a pink dress - but there's more to this eccentric rogue than his unconventional wardrobe.
Things really heat up on the love front in this book, as Saba finds herself confused and at the centre of a complicated love triangle - well, more of a maze really. But will she `burn bright' with Jack or light the fever in another's blood? And will she ever learn to get the `red hot heat' of her rage under control and think about the consequences first before endangering the people she seeks to protect? This crucial flaw and her self-awareness of it is what, for me, makes her an enduring character whose company I missed when the book ended.
One thing's for sure - nothing is quite as it seems for Saba, and as the story moves on, what appear to be separate threads draw together to place the Angel of Death and her friends at the centre of things, with the sense that they will be pivotal to how the changing social order of the Tonton's Dustlands will play out. There were definitely a few surprises in store in this sizzling sequel, and I can't wait to find out how things will be resolved in the next book.