Thank you to BookSparks for sending me a copy of Rust in the Root for an honest review!

America in 1937 is divided. Ever since the Great Rust, the country has been rebuilding, leaving behind the traditional mystical art of Dynamism in favor of Mechomancy, industry and technology. Laura Ann Langston, however, is a talented rootworker from Pennsylvania who believes magic and Dynamism are the way forward. But without a penny to her name after moving to New York City, she joined the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the government dedicated to repairing Dynamism to improve Mechomancy efforts.

Laura and the team head off on their first mission together into the country’s oldest and most dangerous Blight, a dead land where nothing grows, and monsters roam. There they discover that nothing is as it seems. Forbidden magic is at play, magic that hasn’t been seen since the darkest period in America’s past.

I came into Rust in the Root with love for Justina Ireland‘s Dread Nation duology. I adored the alternate history of the Civil War, pitting young Black women against zombies and white supremacy. That said, I feel like Rust in the Root, while a fun standalone novel, bit off more than it could chew.

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Ireland shines when she combines innovative world-building with racial commentary, which she did well in her new book. I love an alt-history where small changes have monumental impacts. In this case, the collapse of traditional forms of magic led to the Great Depression, and Ku Klux Klan members twist the remaining magic into something sinister.

Ireland did a lot of historical research. She included real photos in Rust in the Root taken from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. This added a ton to her world-building and increased the realism of this magical book.

In the author’s note, Ireland says that during research for Deathless Divide, “I kept finding myself drawn to the pictures of real Black Americans who had once loved and fought and struggled in the same places I have loved and fought and struggled … I wanted to know more about the lives of these Black Americans, their names lost to history but their likeness frozen forever in electrons.” Ireland carefully selected the images included in Rust in the Root, and they enhance the story and world-building.

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In addition to the photographs, Ireland also interspersed letters and reports from Laura’s mentor throughout the novel. Instead of adding something, however, I felt they interrupted the flow of the story. By the end, they even became a strange plot point. Without spoiling anything, I think Ireland easily could have cut them without having too much of an effect.

As for Laura herself, I didn’t get a real sense of who she truly is. Right at the start, readers learn she has moved from rural Pennsylvania to New York City with very little money and without much of a plan. We also know she wants to become a famous baker using her magical abilities, something she appears to give up on early in the story. Beyond that, there isn’t much of her personality aside from the fact she’s plucky, impulsive and more powerful than anyone else.

My opinion aside, Rust in the Root is receiving fantastic reviews from publications, including Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. I think it’s fair to recommend readers go into this one with an open mind. The fact that I didn’t love it doesn’t mean everyone will feel the same way.

Rust in the Root releases on September 20, 2022, and is available now for preorder from your local independent bookstore or Bookshop.org.

TW: blood, body horror, death, gore, murder, racism, suicide, violence

This article was originally published on 9/18/22.

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