Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am a great fan of the author's alternate-history Civil War-era zombie series (although the second book, Deathless Divide, is not as good as the first, Dread Nation). The themes of that book are also on prominent display in this one: racism, colonialism, white supremacy. This book is more of a fantasy, with a rather complicated world and magic system. Sometimes overly so--it's pretty fat at 439 pages, but it could have easily gone all the way up to 500 and beyond to better flesh out its alternate history and world.
This story is set in 1937, and our protagonist, Laura Ann Langston, is a young mage who has come to New York to escape her stifling small town in Pennsylvania, with dreams of doing magical baking for Hollywood stars. She is a Floramancer, a magic wielder who can sense and use the magical "potential" in plants and seeds. (Although she does have other Mancer-talents as well, the full list of which she discovers along the way.) She gets dragged into a secret mission of the Bureau of the Arcane's Conservation Corps, and she and her team have to go into the Ohio Deep Blight and try to right the magical wrongness there.
All of which is a vast oversimplification of the plot. I'm not describing it any more than that not so much from a desire to avoid spoilers but because there is a lot going on here. This is actually handled fairly well as the story unfolds, with minimal infodumping. Because Laura has never been fully trained in the use of her various gifts, she finds out these things about herself along with the reader. This is part of her character arc, as she has to let go of her dream of being a baker and accept the destiny that is revealed for her, and take up responsibilities she never dreamed of.
Generally I adore deep and layered worldbuilding....but this almost feels too overstuffed. That it's an alternate history adds a bit of clumsiness to the whole thing, as one would think the existence of all the different types of magic described here would have turned Earth's and America's timelines inside out. But aside from some tweaks around the edges, this history progressed pretty close to what actually happened, particularly as regards the Transatlantic slave trade. Now I realize the author is using her fantastical world to make a comment on the real history, and the systems of oppression and generational trauma, that still exist today. But the whole thing just seems a bit bloated and not as sharply focused as, for instance, Dread Nation.
It's still worth reading, and the magic system is quite interesting. Laura ends up in a very different place than when she started, and although there could be a sequel, this feels more like a standalone. I just wish the worldbuilding could have been a bit leaner and sharper.
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