Dustborn by Erin Bowman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book has a very Mad Max: Fury Road vibe to it (with the protagonist, Delta, standing in as a young Furiosa) even though it's not set on Earth. We don't find this out till about three-fourths of the way through the story, but the hints have been well seeded. At first the reader thinks this is a far future dystopia, on the other side of climate change when the environmental catastrophe has turned much of the planet to desert and shrunk the oceans, and water is more valuable than gold. But I gradually realized something was off-kilter: the landscape, the existence of Old World tech, and other subtle tipoffs told me my assumptions weren't lining up with the story the author was telling.
And sure enough, this isn't Earth at all, but an alien planet being mined for fuel by "the Federation," using prisoners as slaves. Until a magnetic storm hits and fries the GPS and other tech, including control chips in the prisoners' heads. This sparks an uprising where the guards are killed. The bosses of the mining operation were having a meeting in one of the Federation ships in orbit around the planet when this happened, and they bombed the planet (not nuking it, thankfully) and abandoned the operation. But there were a few thousand survivors, hunkering down in an onplanet bunker called Eden. After the bombing, they emerge from Eden and spread out across the planet, trying to survive. The lone surviving Federation official invents a religion in an attempt to give them hope (the prisoners' chip malfunctions erased most of their memories and they don't remember who he was or why they were really there): the stars seen in the planet's sky (Federation ships also left behind) are their gods, who are testing them and will someday return.
Several hundred years later--about 360, per my calculations from the number of days recorded on Eden since this happened--our protagonist, Delta of Dead River, is trying to survive with her family group, called "pack," in a harsh, ruthless environment. This constant fight for survival breeds a harsh, ruthless protagonist, which Delta certainly is. Her character arc is learning to trust, to depend on other people, especially when the foundations of her world are shaken and everything she thought was true turns out to be a lie. The story opens with one of the planet's many dust storms, and Delta's pregnant sister Indie's water breaking early and Indie getting infected. Delta drags her away from Dead River on a sled to the Old Coast and the dry ocean bed, to an ancient oil tanker sitting on the sand. But even the healers there can't save Indie, and Delta has to return to Dead River with her sister's newborn. When she does, she discovers there was a raid while she was gone. Some of her pack was killed, and the survivors taken into the Waste.
This story is Delta's quest to find and save her pack, and along the way she discovers the truth about their world. She thought there were gods that would return, and there was a green place called the Verdant, and the generations-old map branded on her back, copied from a paper her ancestors found in an Old World rover, would lead her and her pack to Verdant and safety. But all of that was a lie--there is no Verdant except the one she and her people will make for themselves, and she and her allies must fight the dictator of the Waste, called the General, to secure their future.
This is a really interesting story with good worldbuilding, and Delta is a character worthy of the setting. There are a few plot holes. For instance, why would there be Earth animals, including frogs, fish, jackrabbits, goats, horses, mules, falcons and so forth, set loose on this alien planet? I can see the Federation growing crops for their workers--the mining operation was evidently meant to take years or maybe decades, since they were there for fifteen months before the geomagnetic storm struck. (And I don't know how they pollinated said crops without bees, unless they were genetically engineered crops.) I suppose they brought the animals along--or more likely, genetic samples they could clone--since the planet seems to have little or no native life; and after the uprising the abandoned animals would have bred and spread out, just like the humans did. That part definitely has to be handwaved away by the reader, but aside from that, this is a solid adventure story. Delta is determined to save her pack, and since she is something of a budding engineer, she helps to invent and build some of the things that will save them. She also has to face down the General and kill him.
Along the way she discovers her true pack, her family, and her love: a boy named Asher she thought was lost years ago. At the book's ending, she has pride and purpose. The author sticks the landing, and the closing paragraphs leave a warm glow in the reader's heart. This is a self-contained story, and while there are enough remaining questions about the world and the characters' future to support a sequel, a sequel isn't really necessary. I really liked this story, and I recommend you pick it up.
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