Title: Dust Girl
Author: Sarah Zettel
Publisher: Random House
Series: American Fairy Trilogy #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Throw an interesting fantasy concept my way and I'm on it like butter on toast. Dust Girl was a novel that interested me from the get-go. With blurbs by excellent fantasy writers like Janni Lee Simner and Tamora Pierce, I was eager to pick up the novel and see why these two authors enjoyed it (and they are authors that I specifically look for blurbs by because of how honestly they blurb books). Dust Girl takes a lot of what I like about YA - paranormal/fantasy aspects like faeries - and puts it into an alternative history setting. Specifically, the Dust Bowl-era United States of America. A historical era like that, which is relatively unexplored in current YA fiction, promises a lot of potential for an alternative history/fantasy story like Dust Girl. The book delivers on some aspects and falls short on others, but was a solid book from a fantasy perspective.
Across the United States, areas that were once fertile are now arid wastelands. Dust rises up on the heated winds and forms deadly storms that cover everything with a layer of dirt, aging it faster than time. Buildings are coated in it. Water has all but dried up on the plains. Nothing is growing and people are dying, choked out by the very land that they came to work. Callie LeRoux is experiencing the harshest moments of her life in this time of dust. She lives with her mother in an old hotel. They never have customers because of the unsettling amount of dust storms and the constant drought. Callie's mother refuses to leave, however, even as everyone else is migrating to bigger towns with resources and running water. Even as Callie's lungs are deteriorating from the dust, killing her from the inside out.
Callie's mother is waiting for the man that she met in passing so many years before. The man that was her lover and Callie's father - a musician of stylish jazz. A man of color. Callie's mother may want her one true love to return, but she has done everything in her power to convince the world that Callie's real father was white in order to avoid the backlash that Callie would experience in the world. Amid the dust and the decay of their small town, Callie is literally on her last breath as her mother continues to hope and pray for her dreams to come true. It gets to the point where she uncovers an unused piano that reminds her of Callie's father. This piano has represented all of her hopes about his return. And Callie, unaware of any of her mother's real secrets, begins to play and unleashes far more than she could ever anticipate.
The world that Callie knows goes up in a storm. This dust storm, however, is unlike any of the others she has experienced before. This dust storm is not just a sign of bad farming and drought. Magic is behind the winds that gust into her little town after hitting those piano keys. Mysterious voices call to her. They fly through the winds of the storm, nearly capturing her. Callie escapes fairly unharmed, but her mother is whisked off to somewhere unknown. A male figure cuts through the storm and gives her strange advice about the direction of her life and the location of her mother. Callie is determined to find her mother no matter the cost, and she has to leave everything that she's ever known in order to do it - finding friends like Jack, a hobo/vagabond that comes into her life quite unexpectedly. Callie's journey shows her the underbelly of the west that she's never seen before. It's more than the trains of hobos and the trains choked by dust, but the magical world that seems to lie parallel to it all. A magical world that wants Callie and will do anything it can to get her.
Maybe I am becoming jaded in my old age, but I've come to find that YA fantasy novels have a hard time balancing characterization and plot. I read for plot over characters in every other genre except fantasy, and my favorite fantasy books are the ones that have fabulous characterization alongside the plot (see anything by Tamora Pierce, Laini Taylor, ect). Dust Girl is one of the cases where the plot overrides the characters, and it's very clear by its treatment of Callie and the various side characters presented throughout the story. Readers will enjoy reading about Callie LeRoux - there is little doubt about that. She makes some smart choices, some stupid choices, and tends to balance out as a heroine. Her displays of loyalty to her mother and to Jack in her actions are endearing. There's a lot of material there to enjoy from the surface end of things. Then there are some more complicated aspects of her life, such as how she feels incomplete because she has lived without a father figure in her life. Naturally, this gets addressed throughout the narrative in small instances and leads Callie to making some difficult decisions because of how she wants to connect more to her real father...even if it means taking risks, some of which are not good. Motivation-wise, Callie has some pretty solid reasons that are supported textually. The problem is that her character never gets developed past this point. We get introduced to this basic issue and it's the only one that propels her forward in the narrative. She's a character with a solid base that could be expanded on, built up to the point where her actions in the plot take on a variety of emotional meanings. She just doesn't get to that point. Callie's character simplicity just left me wanting more from Dust Girl. Zettel made her strong enough as a character to keep me interested, yet she didn't make her strong enough to make me feel like the book was completely where it needed to be. Protagonists need to be strong when presented with adventures. They can't simply hop from one to the next without a lot of development along the way, else the journey doesn't have the effects that a true journey is supposed to.
The next worry was over the secondary characters. You know those problems I had with Callie - the ones involving how I liked her, but found her dreadfully two-dimensional? The secondary characters were pretty much the same way. Jack was a refreshing male sidekick/love interest in that A) he was a hobo (who doesn't love a good hobo?) and B) he had a head on his shoulders. Jack's situation is also rather sad, which makes him immediately sympathetic. He doesn't ever act mean or annoying, but he isn't perfect. He's a good travel companion for Callie, and Zettel did show various sides of him and how his situation and ideals made his journey with Callie difficult at times. There was also the traditional dark secret from his past that haunted him as the two teenagers made their way across the west. So, like Callie, he had a strong base for his characterization and I enjoyed reading about him. The problem was that he was also like Callie in not getting enough page time to develop his emotions further or explore the gray areas within them. The romance/friendship between the two is nice in that it really is more of a friendship than anything. They grow to care for each other and develop a level of trust that gets challenged by fairy illusions along the way. Friendship that could become romance is always interesting to me, and it works well for what Dust Girl tries to do book-wise, which I'll get to later on in the review. Other secondary characters range in interest. Some of them are convenient plot devices that, while interesting, have no substance beyond their usage to advance the plot and location of the characters. Others actually have some emotional complexity and interest to them. Shimmy was probably my favorite side character. Shimmy is a servant to one of the fairy courts that attempts to be a type of chaperone for Callie and Jack. She has her own motivations for pushing Callie into a particular direction on her journey, but she also genuinely cares for Callie and Jack. She is written to show some of the traditional mammy stereotypes - which aren't great on their own for obvious reasons - while being in a much stronger role. Shimmy asserts a lot of power over the kids when she needs to, and she becomes a character the reader gets attached to quickly because of her power and cunning. The villain characters are almost polar opposites. Characters such as Bull Morgan (a sheriff) and the varied evil fairies Callie encounters are one dimensional and used mostly for plot movement. Normally I don't mind them, as those types of characters exist in books like The Iron King (which I loved). Dust Girl doesn't use these characters to their full advantage, though, and they often are obviously used as ways to push Callie and Jack from one location to the next. The plus side is that they are all unique and definitely memorable, if not the best antagonistic characters. Who can forget deadly fairy locusts?
Dust Girl is a book that is almost entirely run on how its plot is structured. Beginning, middle, and end. This book has a very specific plot type that either works for me in some cases or...doesn't. In this case, it's a little of both. I enjoyed reading the book for the plot because of Zettel's writing style, but the structure of the book led to the character problems that I stated above for a variety of reasons. Stylistically, Zettel shows her novel-writing experience in how well executed the writing is. It is engaging and has a lot of great turns of phrase. Metaphors and similes just work very well in Zettel's writing. Zettel does struggle with her ability to keep the narrative feeling chronologically accurate, however. Several of the passages and metaphors were anachronistic, referencing technologies or feelings that felt more modern than they were period-appropriate. The writing also has an extremely fast pace to it that helps keep the book in check from a reader standpoint. Zettel doesn't like to let her reader get bored, and it shows. She has an appropriate mix of suspense and action when required - her action scenes are pretty well done and always involve cool, fantastical aspects that bring in new knowledge about the world she's writing about. Her world building isn't too detailed, which helps in some places but doesn't in others. The biggest issue with it is that she takes ideas from different cultures and places but doesn't necessarily connect them to the bigger picture of the fairy world. Dust Girl primarily focuses on the journey of Callie and Jack, and the fairy world and their run-ins with it is more of a secondary aspect in terms of the exposition.
This is really where the character issues come in. The plot of the story revolves around Callie's journey to find her mother. Along the way, she gets confronted with a prophecy and the opportunity to find out more about her father. Her motivations naturally become muddled and her way is often lost or deterred by various fairy antics. Not the worst sounding thing, but the road trip fantasy has its downsides. Callie and Jack spend so much time hopping from one location to the next that they don't get explored. Zettel spends too much time having them run into some new aspect of the world or a new fairy trying to capture them that it never really feels like there's a larger narrative arc going on. Callie losing her way isn't an unbelievable scenario, but it makes this novel particularly hard to judge as the first novel in a series. On one hand, it has more action than most first-in-a-trilogy books. This action keeps the story moving and gives the reader a strong idea of what the following two books will be about in terms of the action sequences and the fairy antagonists that will attempt to stop Callie and Jack. On the other hand, the action doesn't leave room for needed characterization. There is also a notable lack of a focal point for the narrative. Callie gets too sidetracked and it doesn't feel like she's truly going anywhere. Without a destination or character progression, a road trip book has limited strengths. Dust Girl's fantasy aspects allow it to overcome them from a plot perspective, but if this were a contemporary novel it wouldn't hold up nearly as well. Road trips are about showing character development while getting into various unusual situations, and Dust Girl just trips up on providing one. The plus side is that the fantasy shown in Dust Girl is unique. Fairies are pretty common in YA as a supernatural subgenre, yet this is a whole new spin on them. The locations, fairy types, and social events surrounding the story all speak of a great writing mind at work. Normally the plot can't make up for character faults, but I liked the characters enough that I was able to get immersed in the plotting of Dust Girl. Zettel really nails the idea of what fairies are like and how ambiguous they are as characters. She also leaves a lot of room to further develop things in the next two books, which should prove promising for readers who want to get into a new fantasy world.
Despite my misgivings, I really did enjoy reading Dust Girl. The novel has a lot to like about it, but I couldn't help but have hoped for something a bit more - that wonderful combination of fantasy plot and great characters that the authors I adore have. Dust Girl isn't quite there, but it shows promise and was skillfully written from a plot perspective. The characters are readable if two-dimensional. The world is fascinating and shows a lot of aspects of the Dust Bowl era in the USA's history. Zettel's writing is fluid and works wonders for the pacing of the entire thing as well as the world that she builds. Dust Girl is the perfect book for a reader who wants a plot-focused fantasy that doesn't have excessive romance or teen angst in it. It provides a solid reading experience that could quite easily improve with the next book, and it has something different for the teen market now that will surely satisfy fantasy fans.
Cover: I love the background. It's moody, creepy, and totally works with the book. The model is actually darker than the main character, who can pass off as white if she doesn't go out in the sun much. I love that it shows the PoC aspect of her, but the model seems stiff and doesn't add much to the cover.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Random House!)