Chapter 1: Day
Many years in the future, America is divided into two countries: the Republic and the Colonies. Legend takes place in the Republic stronghold of Los Angeles, most of which has been flooded by a hurricane and replaced with a large lake.
Authorities are hunting for a fifteen-year-old criminal named Day. Day and his friend Tess live in an abandoned warehouse and forage to survive. Each week, they spy on Day’s family to make sure they haven’t caught the plague that is wreaking havoc in the poor sectors of the city. Republic soldiers inspect households every few months to make sure no one is infected; if someone has the plague, the front door of their home is spray-painted with a red ‘X’ and quarantined.
Today, Day plans to surprise his family with some food and presents he has stolen. These include a pair of goggles as a birthday present for Day’s older brother, John, the only member of the family who knows that Day is still alive. Day worries about his Mom and his younger brother, Eden, who is about to turn 10. When a child turns 10, he or she takes the Trial, a test that determines whether they will continue in school or be sent to work in the factories. If a child scores below 1000 on the Trial, he or she is sent “to the labs to be examined for imperfections” (8) and then killed. Day failed his Trial five years ago but escaped death.
As Day and Tess watch from outside, the soldiers enter Day’s house to test for plague. Usually the test only takes ten minutes, but the soldiers are in the house for over an hour. When they emerge, they paint an "X" on the door, and then a vertical line that chops the "X" in half. Day has never seen this symbol before and wonders what it means.
Chapter 2: June
June Iparis is a fifteen-year-old prodigy. She is the only person ever to get a perfect score of 1500 on her Trial, and despite her young age, she is already a senior at the best school in the Republic, Drake University. She gets perfect grades, but she also gets in trouble constantly. Her latest stunt is scaling the side of a skyscraper a few blocks off campus, which infuriates the dean secretary, Arisna Whitaker. June wanted to practice scaling buildings because that’s what Day, the Republic’s most wanted criminal, is famous for. She’s determined to catch him once she graduates and joins the military, where the Republic sends all of its best minds.
Ms. Whitaker calls June’s brother, Metias Iparis, to pick her up. Metias is a military captain and he takes care of June since their parents died in a car crash several years ago. Metias and his driver, Thomas, also a soldier, are annoyed that June has gotten in trouble again, but they quickly get over it. They drop her off at home, and then Metias hurries to Los Angeles Central Hospital, where he’s overseeing the delivery of a mutated virus. June wants to go with him, but Metias refuses. The one time he let her shadow him on an assignment, she was wounded; since then, he doesn’t let her go with him into the field.
Chapter 3: Day
Day remembers his first crime. When he was seven, the police broke both of his father’s arms while interrogating him for reasons Day doesn’t know. Day was so angry that he burned down the police station, using a ball of ice covered in oil. The police never caught him because the evidence melted.
Back in the present, Day breaks into the hospital to steal plague medicine for his family. He smears himself with dirt and pig’s blood, and enters the hospital, pretending to have been stabbed in a fight. On his way in, he sees Metias talking to some deliverymen. Once Day is admitted to the waiting room, he steals a soldier’s ID badge and climbs through the air ducts to the third floor, where the medicine is kept. He uses the knives he keeps hidden in his boots to take a doctor hostage, and he demands the plague cure. Unfortunately, the hospital has run out of the cure, and only the weaker plague suppressant is left. Day sees the symbol from his family’s door and realizes it means that a member of his family has come down with a new, mutated strain of the plague.
Day takes the suppressant and narrowly escapes. He gets trapped in a stairwell then jumps out of a window, injuring his ankle. Metias almost catches him, but Day throws a knife into his shoulder and disappears into the sewer. He resurfaces in the Lake sector and collapses a block away from the warehouse. As he passes out, he notices that the special pendant he always wears around his neck is gone.
Chapter 4: June
June remembers being raised by Metias after their parents died. He was fiercely dedicated to her, and even skipped his military induction ceremony to take care of June when she had a fever. In the present day, June prepares to go for a run. As she heads out the door, she runs into Thomas, who tells her that Metias has been killed. He brings June and her dog Ollie to the place Metias died - the hospital that Day raided.
Metias’s boss, Commander Jameson, explains to June that she has graduated from university early so she can help hunt Metias’s killer. Jameson asks June to look over the crime scene, and June quickly figures out several facts about the murderer: he is ambidextrous, he used two matching knives, he escaped into the sewer, and he will be hard to track from there. She swears to get revenge on the killer.
For the next two days, June studies the evidence from the crime scene. Two objects link Day to the murder: his pendant and the stolen ID tag, both of which have his fingerprints on them. However, June is confused by the fact that Metias was killed so deliberately. Day has never killed anyone before. In fact, he has even gone out of his way to avoid unnecessary violence in his previous heists, which only involved theft and vandalism. Because the hospital raid was so poorly planned, June concludes that Day was trying to steal the medicine to help someone he cares about.
Chapter 5: Day
Day wakes up in a stranger’s house with Tess by his side. Tess explains that he’s been unconscious for two days, but she’s delivered the plague suppressant to his family. It turns out that young Eden is the one who’s sick. The man hosting Day and Tess lost a son to the plague, and he seems to sympathize with Day’s crimes against the Republic. Day remembers how he took Tess, a starving street urchin, under his wing a few years ago.
As Day and Tess talk, the man comes in and warns them that someone is going door to door offering plague cures. The man believes it’s a trap for Day. Although Day and Tess suspect he’s right, they decide to meet the mysterious person anyway, just in case he really does have the medicine.
Legend takes place in the Republic, a world very different from our own. However, there are some similarities between the Republic and today’s society. Though the geography has been distorted by natural disasters and other apocalyptic events, the Republic exists in California. This helps root the story in some sort of realism that young readers could identify with and understand. Another example is the Trial. Obviously, killing students who fail an exam is very extreme and would never occur today. That said, there are some parallels between the Trial and the SAT, which American high-school students must take before applying to college.
The Trial is scored on a scale of 1500 points. Although the SAT is now scored out of 2400 points, it would have been scored out of 1600 when Marie Lu was growing up and took the test. The similarity between the numbers suggest that the Trial might have been inspired by Lu’s own experiences as a teenager.
The Trial and the SAT are also similar in the way they affect students. Some people have argued that the SAT has too much of an impact on students’ future success, and the Trial takes this to an extreme. A child’s score on the Trial determines what his or her job will be for the rest of his or her life. Also, children from the slums tend to score worse on the Trial; in real life, standardized tests have come under criticism for bias against poorer students. Late in the book, there’s even a mention of private companies that help children study for the Trial, just like the SAT-preparation companies that exist today (277).
Another important feature of the Republic is the huge gap between rich and poor. In Legend, the government actually tries to widen this gap, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. For example, poor people have to pay to be admitted to the hospital, whereas the rich get free home visits, even though they are the least likely to need them. These policies help the Republic ensure its survival by maintaining the oppression against those they consider undesirable. Many people, like the man who shelters Tess and Day, seem to hate the government, but as long as the rich and powerful people are happy, the Republic can keep hold of power.
These opening chapters also introduce the novel’s two main characters: June and Day. As the chapters alternate between the perspectives of the two main characters, readers are given insight into two very different worlds: the privilege and safety of June's life, and the dangers and squalor of Day's existence. June and Day may challenge some people’s assumptions about what it means to be a good person. Day is the Republic’s most wanted criminal, but he cares about the people around him and tries not to do unnecessary harm, even when he is committing a crime. For example, he goes out of his way to avoid hurting the doctor he takes hostage during the hospital raid. Through Day, Lu suggests that in a society where the laws are wrong, good people must break the laws to maintain their integrity. June, on the other hand, is a more mysterious character. She is a hard-working, intelligent student, but she is also deeply loyal to the Republic - a government that, as we know, does some truly horrible things. However, June herself hasn’t actually hurt anyone. As the novel progresses, June will be forced to choose between staying loyal to the Republic and doing what’s right.