I must congratulate myself on my choice of summer reading material. It has been so hot and dry this last week that I find myself desperately wishing for rain to cool down the city. Dust Girl takes place in Kansas which, I admit, may be just a bit dustier and drier than Vienna, but the atmosphere of the book went well with the stifling heat I’m experiencing in real life.
Published by: Random House, 2012
ebook: 304 pages
Series: The American Fairy Trilogy #1
My rating: 6/10
First sentence: Once upon a time, I was a girl called Callie.
Callie LeRoux is choking on dust. It settles on the food in the kitchen. It seeps through the cracks in the hotel that Callie and her mother run in Kansas. It’s slowly filling her lungs. Callie’s begged her mother to leave their town, like their neighbors have already done, but her mother refuses. She’s waiting for Callie’s long-gone father to return.
Just as the biggest dust storm in history sweeps through the Midwest, Callie discovers her mother’s long-kept secret. Callie’s not just mixed race—she’s half fairy, too. Now, Callie’s fairy kin have found where she’s been hidden, and they’re coming for her.
While red dust engulf the prairie, magic unfolds around Callie. Buildings flicker from lush to shabby, and people aren’t what they seem. She catches glimpses of a tail, a wing, dark eyes full of stars. The only person Callie can trust may be Jack, the charming ex-bootlegger she helped break out of jail.
From the despair of the Dust Bowl to the hot jazz of Kansas City, from dance marathons to train yards, to the dangerous beauties of the fairy realm, Sarah Zettel creates a world rooted equally in American history and in magic, where two fairy clans war over a girl marked by prophecy.
Callie LeRoux hast two secrets. The one she knows is that her father is dark-skinned, which is why she isn’t allowed out in the sun too much. Her mother does her best to keep Callie’s skin as pale as possible. The second secret is that Callie is a half-fairy. The story starts out very well with Callie witnessing the biggest sandstorm ever, loses her mother in that storm, and returns to the hotel to find the Hoppers waiting to check into some rooms. That family rivals any thriller writer in creepiness. I guarantee chills down your spines when you read about the Hoppers, especially the children (why is it that children in horror movies are always the scariest things?).
When Callie meets Jack and decides to go and find her mother, he joins her on a journey through Kansas and the dust. They find out about Callie’s heritage as a half-fairy, about fairy politics (and real-world ones) and are on the run from one person or another throughout the rest of the book.
What I loved was how several strands of story are set up throughout the beginning, how side characters were introduced that pushed all of my mythology buttons, and how Callie and Jack are portrayed. I did have a huge problem placing them age-wise. Callie behaved like a 12-year-old but was treated more like a girl of 15 or even 16. Jack being described as “no older than Callie” didn’t help either. Goodreads tells me Callie is supposed to be 13 and that’s what I settled for. But it was not apparent through the writing and my brain wasn’t sure whether to picture a little girl or a young woman.
While I enjoyed the ideas and themes in Dust Girl, I was sad that they were left mostly unexplored. As for world-building, the author kind of wrote herself into corners. The magic is never really explained but it seems to follow no rules at all – a matter of taste, surely, but I like boundaries to my magic. Otherwise, the heroine is all-powerful and where’s the fun in reading about someone like that? Callie being mixed race should have had a much deeper impact on her life. After a few days on the run, being exposed to the hot desert sun, Callie’s skin grows visibly darker and she receives sidelong glances. It is mentioned but not really explored. So yes, racism exists, and it existed in the 1930s. But I was hoping for much more than a few throwaway remarks.
Sarah Zettel writes action really well. Callie and Jack stumble from one problem into the next, a repetition I didn’t mind because every time they were being hunted, I was on the edge of my seat, worrying for them and hoping they would get out of it. I expect that young adults will enjoy this book a lot because it is fast-moving and engaging and keeps things simple.
That simplicity is one of my qualms. I realize that, as an adult, this book was not written for me or my age-group. But all the best children’s fiction can be read by adults and enjoyed on a different level. Take Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett’s YA novels – children will mostly read for pure story, adults may choose to look deeper and find what additional levels the author has hidden in what only seems like a simple story. I was missing that element completely in Dust Girl.
Towards the end, I felt like the plot strings and world-building were a big fat mess. Not only does Callie not know whom to trust and what to do with her powers, the readers are left hanging as well. It is clear that this is the set-up for a trilogy or series because 90% of the story arcs introduced are left unresolved. The ending is rounded enough so you don’t want to throw the book against a wall and scream because you want to know what will happen next. But of all the strange things that happened to Callie, of all the things she has found out about herself, the Seelie and Unseelie people, where her mother and absentee father are, we don’t really get any answers.
This sounds a lot more negative than I actually felt about the story while reading it. It is competently written, was very engaging and fantastically creepy at times. For me, the style was a bit too child-like, the story a bit too messy in terms of structure, and while I did enjoy it and read it quickly, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. I will pick up the second book and see where Callie’s story leads me but I’m in no hurry to do so.
THE GOOD: Great ideas, wonderfully creepy, a page-turner. Nicely atmospheric.
THE BAD: Plot strings get tangled, no clear rules for the magic-system, messy world-building. Unresolved ending.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for younger readers (11+) or as a quick read between meatier books. It’s not a highlight, but it was fun enough to keep reading.
RATING: 6/10 Good.
The American Fairy Trilogy:
- Dust Girl
- Golden Girl