I like YA dystopias, I like robots, and I like dragons. Unfortunately, this YA dystopia about a robot dragon had very little of anything I liked, and mostly frustrated me.
While illegally selling censored books and escaping from police, Prudence Wu is rescued by the titular Rebelwing, whom we learn is a sentient dragon mech who was supposed to imprint on someone else: Prudence’s crush, gorgeous prep school god and political heir Alexandre Santiago Lamarque. Soon, Prudence is pulled into a scheme to defend the city from wicked wyvern mechs used by the other side, even though she really, really sucks at being a mech pilot.
Nobody knows why Rebelwing imprinted on Pru, and by the end, we… don’t know, either. She’s not smart, not brave, not a natural pilot, not empathetic, not canny. The only thing she is is superficially obsessed with university acceptance, which she describes all the time (as in, piloting the dragon mech will look good to colleges, overthrowing the bad guys will look good to colleges, etc. If she means it, it’s ridiculous; if it’s a joke, it’s done to death.) Prudence goes through training with the condition that if she doesn’t improve, they’ll break the imprint with Rebelwing and transfer it to Alex. Pru doesn’t improve, and stakes grow ever higher, but they don’t break the imprint, or even seriously discuss it. People end up dead at the end of the book because Prudence isn’t able to do her task, even though Alex keeps telling her throughout not to sell herself short. I think if anything, she sells herself too tall.
One issue with YA dystopias is that we have to assume that teens are going to save or change the world. Rebelwing has the least effective combination of real-world adult power and dystopian youth power in a thoroughly unsatisfactory finale that makes us wonder why the book even starred the kids. I was also extremely disappointed in the dragon aspect. Apparently, not only can Pru and Rebelwing somehow merge (the physics of this is not addressed), and communicate at distance, but she can also put Alex in the pilot seat of Rebelwing and let him fly while she communicates with him and Rebelwing telepathically – in which case what even does it mean for Pru to be imprinted? Plus, while Rebelwing is supposedly sentient, she has no personality, and nobody cares about her experience or existence, or about putting her physically at risk.
The prose is stilted: the kids speak unnaturally, and Pru’s mother – supposedly a brilliant literary luminary – gives Pru a text that is so self-consciously and poorly written that it’s painful. Alex’s chemistry with Pru is forced, in the ‘all girls fall at his feet so clearly his match is the one who’s a jerk to him’ vein. Pru’s relationship with her best friend is superficial, and so is the worldbuilding. I never understood how you could have the entirety of North America dominated by some sort of villainous corporation with “Barricader Cities” surviving as islands of independence. Like, where do these cities get their food? How are the walls so porous that Pru can traipes back and forth to sell books illegally? What the heck is the deal with a rich people schmooze-fest on a beach resort called No Man’s Land?
I mostly finished this book for closure. So why isn’t it a D? Well, I’m not the target audience, and I’m giving it points because I don’t think the parts that drove me bonkers will bother teens. Also, while it was annoying, there was nothing about it that was offensive or problematic, which is what generally pushes a book into the D range for me. But while there are plenty of YA books good enough to recommend to adult readers, this is categorically not one of them.