Book Review: Rust in the Root

Title: Rust in the Root

Author: Justina Ireland

Genres:  Fantasy

Pages: 448 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Review Copy: ARC by publisher

Availability: Available now

Summary: It is 1937, and Laura Ann Langston lives in an America divided—between those who work the mystical arts and those who do not. Ever since the Great Rust, a catastrophic event that blighted the arcane force called the Dynamism and threw America into disarray, the country has been rebuilding for a better future. And everyone knows the future is industry and technology—otherwise known as Mechomancy—not the traditional mystical arts.

Laura disagrees. A talented young mage from Pennsylvania, Laura hopped a portal to New York City on her seventeenth birthday with hopes of earning her mage’s license and becoming something more than a rootworker

But six months later, she’s got little to show for it other than an empty pocket and broken dreams. With nowhere else to turn, Laura applies for a job with the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the US government dedicated to repairing the Dynamism so that Mechomancy can thrive. There she meets the Skylark, a powerful mage with a mysterious past, who reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice.

As they’re sent off on their first mission together into the heart of the country’s oldest and most mysterious Blight, they discover the work of mages not encountered since the darkest period in America’s past, when Black mages were killed for their power—work that could threaten Laura’s and the Skylark’s lives, and everything they’ve worked for. 

Review: As a fan of Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation series, I was excited for another book by her. Ireland is so good at weaving issues of race and marginalization with historical fantasy and horror. She is able to capture fantastical horror such as zombies and monsters while showing that the true horror comes from living in a racist society. Rust in the Root, is a different novel structurally, but does include similar themes and motifs that Ireland is known for. 

While I enjoyed Rust in the Root, it did begin a bit slow and I had a bit of trouble connecting to the story. Ireland is usually excellent with mixing story telling with world building, but for me, this time I struggled. I think it may have been that the book is told in a number of perspectives, mixed with a mission report, news articles, photos, etc. It is a unique way of building the world but it took me out of the story at times as I had to adjust from connecting with one character to suddenly reading a mission report. Laura and Skylark’s time in NYC definitely set the stage for the novel but I feel like the novel’s real pacing began once they were on the mission. The creepiness and fear factor really ramped up and it became a good old fashioned monster fighting/mystery solving novel. 

As well as world building, one of Ireland’s strengths is her characters and Rust in the Root is filled with many great characters. When Laura and Skylark go on the mission, the story truly becomes an ensemble piece with folks that annoy you and folks that you love. Without giving spoilers, let’s just say not all of your favorites make it to the end and I honestly respect a writer who does that. It makes the stakes really high when you don’t think everyone is safe. I found myself rooting for folks to live  then being sad when they didn’t (and secretly hoping for a Deus ex machina to bring them back). I love that all the characters reflected different aspects of Black life as it created a unique tension with how they use their magic, how they try to fight the monster and solving the mystery. This tension adds to the horror of the book because the ensemble really is fighting two “monsters” – an actual monster and a societal one. 

Rust in the Root seems like it has the beginnings of a new series and one that any Justina Ireland fan will enjoy.