Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dust City

Series: Stand-Alone
Genre: Mystery
Author: Robert Paul Weston
Publisher: Razorbill


Secrets and Shadows was supposed to be this week's review, but some rival fan got to the library's new books shelf before me, so you have to wait another week. A fellow blogger recommended Dust City as a substitute, and I'm very glad for that. The book had been on my radar, but low on the priority list, because I wasn't in the mood for Yet Another Reinterpretation Of Red Riding Hood. Well, that's not what we've got here. What we've got is a story that picks up where that old folktale ends off, and casts the fairy tales of our youth into a dark, noirish setting which is grimy, dirty, and -- yes, you saw it coming -- grim.

The eponymous city gets it's name from the booming synthetic fairy dust industry that sprung up years ago after the real fairies vanished. Our hero is Henry Whelp, bipedal wolf and teenage miscreant. His mom died when he was very young, and his dad is in prison for killing some girl and her grandma back when Henry was a kid. At the outset, Henry resides in St. Remus Home For Wayward Youths, a juvenile detention center. He has exactly two friends in the place: his bunkmate Jack, and the psychologist Doc. For all Henry knows, his father wants nothing to do with him, so it comes as a great surprise when Jack burglarizes Doc's office and finds a file folder full of letters dad had sent to Henry. Jack breaks out of St. Remus with the folder, and Henry makes his own escape soon after, when Doc is found dead in an apparent suicide. After failing to track down Jack, Henry visits dad in prison, where dad claims that the fairies are still around. The mobster Skinner, whom dad used to work for, does a thriving business in potent and illegal blends of fairy dust, and dad is convinced that it's the real deal, produced by captive fairies. Henry doesn't really believe it, but blood being thicker than water, he infiltrates Skinner's operation hoping to learn the truth.

One of the signs of a good writer is the ability to break rules and get away with it. Dust City begins with Weston doing something writers are routinely advised never to do: Spend several pages on a scene-setting introductory monologue. And it works, because it's really just exposition. It's the core of what drives Henry throughout the novel -- how the world used to be a great place, and now it isn't. Which, when you think about it, is exactly the trouble we have with fairy tales today.

Fairy tales occupy a curious place in the public consciousness. As children, we love them. They teach us that life is ultimately fair, that things will work out for decent people, that happiness is always within reach somehow. They represent a mindset that is always hopeful and always convinced that things will be alright in the end. For this same reason, as we grow older, these stories begin to disgust us with their simplistic worldview and naive morals. And so we reinterpret them as not the magical tales of our youth, but stories about the real world all around us, full of injustice and suffering. Bleak stories for people who have learned that the world isn't as simple or perfect as we'd like.

Dust City is, in effect, a journey through harsh reality, seeking the magic that we dreamed of in our youth. Along his path, Henry meets a collection of characters both new and drawn from the old stories. The characters are a mixed bag. Some are memorable, others are mired in cliche. For example, Snow White shows up as a badass cop with perhaps a few screws loose. She's a pretty good as that kind of character, but the fact that she's Snow White rarely comes up and isn't relevant to much of anything. The original characters fare a bit better. Henry makes a decent, rootable protagonist. Roy, a fellow lupine miscreant, is probably the most complex figure in the book. A bully who aspires to organized crime, Roy nevertheless has a kind of nobility about him. He's a bad guy, but he's not morally bankrupt, as most of the villains are. He talks about how wolves have to stick together and do what it takes to survive, and you don't get the sense that it's just a cheap excuse. The city forces him to be a bad guy.

Indeed, the city itself is the major antagonist in this book. Heartless and malevolent, it breaks dreams, destroys lives, and leaves us to pick through the leftovers. The detritus is all around: in the dust-junkies seeking a moment's solace in oblivion, in the flophouse thugs who will kill you for any reason or none. Even Eden, the good part of town, is materialistic and commercialized -- a pale imitation of the old days where real magic reigned.

It's a great stage for the story to play out on. But I must say, all things considered, the story isn't so hot. Mind you, its not-hotness is very well finessed. It's kind of like Wolfbreed in that it's well-executed enough that you don't realize the problems until you're done. A large part of the beginning is just the tour of St. Remus, and an even bigger chunk of the middle is the tour of the city's underworld. In fact, more or less the entire book is a tour. It's a travelogue of the grim urban landscape, with Henry as our intrepid guide. He encounters one horror after another, in roughly ascending order of vileness, until we've hit them all. The landscapes are so vivid, and the sense of despair so real, that we don't really notice how little is really happening in terms of Henry's goals. Unfortunately, when it does come time for the book to pay the metaphorical piper, it's not pretty. When we hit the end of the ride and the author has nothing left to show us, he resorts to an incredibly blatant deus ex machina that wraps everything up neatly. It's not quite happily ever after, but it's a new, hopeful world after 300 or so pages of despair and decay. At which point, the spell is broken and we see how thin the book was.

So, a mixed report. Dust City is compelling yet shallow, alternately inventive and cliche, and a wild roller coaster ride that sputters at the end. All in all, though, it's still a pretty good ride. I feel my time was well spent.

10 comments:

  1. Even with the bad things you mentioned, that book sounds kind of awesome. I love the concept, and the bleak-sounding world, the themes you mentioned. Do want.

    Thanks for the review!

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  2. Hi, I'm a new follower. Please stop by my blog and follow me in return. :c)
    http://temperanceblack.blogspot.com/

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  3. Hey Luplun, just stopping by on the follow. I think I might want to read this...sounds like a great read. Wonderful review!
    Have a terrific weekend reading !!!
    See ya!
    Dana
    Readaholics Anonymous

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  4. New follower here. I do love the blog!
    Just stopping by for the blog hop
    Hope you have a great weekend.

    Come check out my blog if you have time :)
    www.tyrasbookaddiction.blogspot.com/

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  5. Just hopping through from FF. You can follow back at Coffee Table Reviews

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  6. New follower here! Would love for you to follow me. Nice to meet you.

    For me, it is the cover and the title that tempt me to read the blurb. If the blurb reads great, I'll grab the book. I remember the first time I saw Harry Potter's book covers, I was like, O_o...not sure if I liked them. Love the inside but the covers weren't really to my taste.
    Happy Follow Friday!!!
    You can check out my website http://www.judithleger.weebly.com and http://www.judithleger.blogspot.com to see what kind of books I write.
    I have two other pen names,
    L.J.Leger - http://www.ljleger.weebly.com
    Jadette Paige - http://www.jadettepaige.weebly.com and http://www.jadettepaige.blogspot.com

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  7. Nice review. I read this book when it first came out because I absolutely adored Weston's children's book, Zorgamazoo, and I had to see how he did YA. I was SO impressed! The cover rocks as well. I would have probably picked it up anyhow, just because of that.

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  8. Hi, hopping by :) This book sounds interesting, I'm a fan of books of the lupine variety. Loved the review, I'll have to add it to my reading list.

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed Dust City, and it sounds like you did, too, for the most part. :) There's a part of me that wishes there was a sequel, but at the same time, I'm glad that the outlook does have a bit more of positive vibe.

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  10. I just wanted to say how much I loved this review. I just did a giveaway with this book and so many people didn't know about it! They hadn't even heard of it. Just tweeted this post;) Happy Saturday!

    ~Loren

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