Wednesday, April 14, 2021

#Review - Dustborn by Erin Bowman #YA #SYFY #Apocalyptic

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Release Date: April 20, 2021
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult Fiction / Science Fiction / Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic

Delta of Dead River sets out to rescue her family from a ruthless dictator rising to power in the Wastes and discovers a secret that will reshape her world in this post-apocalyptic Western mashup for fans of Mad Max and Gunslinger Girl.

Delta of Dead River has always been told to hide her back, where a map is branded on her skin to a rumored paradise called the Verdant. In a wasteland plagued by dust squalls, geomagnetic storms, and solar flares, many would kill for it—even if no one can read it. So when raiders sent by a man known as the General attack her village, Delta suspects he is searching for her.

Delta sets out to rescue her family but quickly learns that in the Wastes no one can be trusted—perhaps not even her childhood friend, Asher, who has been missing for nearly a decade. If Delta can trust Asher, she just might decode the map and trade evidence of the Verdant to the General for her family. What Delta doesn’t count on is what waits at the Verdant: a long-forgotten secret that will shake the foundation of her entire world.

Author Erin Bowman's Dustborn is a bleak yet hopeful tale that follows 17-year-old Delta of Dead River as she attempts to change the world and save her pack from the machinations of the General. The story begins with Delta and her pack of mostly females struggling to survive in a world reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road. A band of raiders has everyone on edge. Whenever they appear, bad things happen. What makes Delta interesting you ask? She has a map branded to her back. What is the map to you ask? Read the book!
After her sister Indie dies in childbirth, Delta and the baby who she names Bay, discover that her pack was attacked, and part of the pack was taken away. To make matters worse, Delta is taken by traders including a very familiar face. Asher, who was Delta's childhood friend, was supposed to be dead but now it appears he's in league with the General. I mentioned the General above, and now we shall get into the meat and potatoes of the story. You see, the General has been looking for a specific map that leads to a place called Verdant. A map that Delta and Asher both have branded to their backs. 

Life is harsh in this world, but it's even harder for those visited by raiders, or sold to work for the General. He controls Bedrock, a cache of weapons, and a source of water used to grow crops. To consolidate his power, he rules with fear, guns and drugged water, turning laborers into mindless drones. Children aren't taught anything but how to fight or harvest; if they spontaneously know how to read or any other skill, they're "gods touched" and given a place of respect.
There are plenty of interesting characters in this book as well a curious places like Powder Town where the women create their own explosives. The author hits on a bit of the Old World, and what apparently happened. The tale of Verdant haunts everyone, the hope for a life with water, greenery, and relative ease compared to the desert and dried up ocean beds. Delta transforms from a disgruntled older teenager who hates having been stuck with a baby that isn't hers, into a determined, fierce heroine who would do anything to save Bay.  
The worldbuilding comes about so organically. We're treated to descriptions of the landscape, sure, but then pieces of the history are woven into the prose and dialogue as naturally as could be. There's no shortage of action in any of the four parts in which the book was split up. Wind-wagons, falcons, hybrid “Old World” guns and new, this book had a wide variety of tools to pull you in. It is fair to say that I have read almost everything the author has written. From the Taken trilogy, to the Vengeance Road duology, to the Contagion duology. It's apparent that the author has a curious mind that can create strange and interesting new worlds. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Chapter One

There’s a storm coming.
I can see it out across the plains, a cloud of haze along the horizon that’s bearing down on Dead River like a blanket of shadow. It’s a good four clicks off, maybe more, but dust storms move fast. Already the threadbare flags on the huts flap wildly.
I hurry on to the lake. “Big storm to the west,” I call out to Old Fang. The wrinkled trapper is kneeling on the dock beside the dam, checking my traps for frogs or fish, not that we get many of either anymore. Dead River’s been slowly dying for years, the lake drying up and the banks growing wider. I’ve had to extend the dock several times just so the traps can still sit in water.
Old Fang searches out the storm. The churning clouds crackle and glint with lightning. “That’s the second one in ten days. We can’t get a break.”
It’s not untrue. “Any catch?”
He shakes his head. We should have moved in the winter, but now the endless stink of summer is ahead of us. There’s no chance of a pilgrimage for at least four moons, not unless we want to die in the heat, and even the damn frogs have had the sense to move on. Of course, frogs can’t read the stars, and I know we need to have faith. The night skies warn of dangers ahead, of dry land and dust-caked tongues, but if we just sit tight, they also promise a bounty. Flowing rivers. Green land. There’s to be a rebirth. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and even before I could see it, there was Indie pointing it out to me in her sisterly way, and before she could read the stars, there was Ma, pointing it out to both of us. Still, it’s hard to keep believing the sky when every sign here, on the land, shows nothing but death and decay.
Old Fang squints at the empty buckets I’m carrying, secured to the piece of driftwood I’ve got propped on my shoulders. “You grab the haul,” he grunts. “I’ll rally the pack.”
From back near camp, Ma’s voice is audible on the wind. She’s already shouting orders to our people. I also catch the twinkle of my bone chimes, and once those start singing, it means a hell of a storm. Ma’ll need all the help she can get.
I give Old Fang a quick nod, and he hobbles off. I pull my scarf over my mouth and nose, looping the loose end over my head to protect some of my hair. Then I scamper down the bank and sprint across the cracked, parched lakebed, the buckets clipping my hips as I run. Used to be I could grab a haul right from the bank. The river might have always been “dead,” flowing only in the spring or after a rare rain, but the lake was a beauty when we first arrived. Now I have to go out a ways to reach water. Not even the dam helps much anymore.
The hard earth becomes damp dirt underfoot, then sticky mud, then shallows. I trudge out to my shins and throw down the buckets, listening to the glorious sound of water gurgling into their depths before I heave them back out. The flags along the dam are whipping like mad now, and the hazy cloud to the west is looking more like a wall of dust.
“Rot,” I mutter. I can’t run with the buckets full, but I’ve perfected a straight-legged scuttle over the years, and I start back as fast as I can.
Once I’m up the bank, I can see the huts clearly. Our pack is scrambling—pulling scrub-woven blankets over the struggling crop, yanking clean clothes from the lines, ushering our four goats and lone mule into the stable, and tying down sheets of scrap metal to shield the animals from the worst of the dust. Flint was supposed to bring fresh meat soon—jackrabbit, he’d promised—but the trader’s not going to make it in this storm.
The wind picks up, pushing at my back. Instinctively I angle my head down, wishing for my goggles. They go everywhere with me and are a prime good pair. Real Old World tech, nothing like the cheap, slapdash ones the traders carry that are made of glass and fraying binds. Mine fit true, practically adhering to my face and blocking out all debris, and though the eyepiece can fog like glass, it won’t crack or break like the ones the traders peddle. I’m not sure what sort of magic they’re carved from. The leather head strap’s failing for the first time in all the years I’ve owned my pair, and I started patching it this morning. Should have waited until sundown and repaired them from my bed mat. It’s not worth going anywhere without them during the day. You never know when a storm might hit, and here I am without them, having dropped them on the table, half mended, as I raced for the buckets when the wind kicked up.
Squinting through the dust, I can tell most of our pack has retreated to the safety of their huts. Old Fang is barking orders at his granddaughter, Pewter. “Just leave it,” he shouts from the mouth of his home. At barely thirteen, Pewter’s no match for the heavy sheet of scrap metal she’s trying to use to smother the central bonfire. “The dust’ll see to it.”
True, but there’s always a chance the wind will knock embers into a hut first, and then the scrub and straw-packed roof would be ablaze in minutes.
Pewter’s eyes cut across the camp to me, my buckets. Water would kill the flames instantly, but it’s too precious to waste. I give her a curt nod, telling her I agree with Old Fang. She leaves the scrap metal flopped over the bonfire and runs for her grandfather. I watch her long braid duck past him, and then he’s inside too, lowering the blanket across the hut’s doorway and cinching it tight.
“Delta!” Ma is waiting in the mouth of the place we call home, waving her arms feverishly.
Water sloshes down my side as the strengthening wind batters my frame and rubble pelts my back. I’m nearly to the hut when a crack of lightning strikes the scrap metal Pewter had been struggling with. Sparks fly. I flinch with shock, lose my footing. My knees hit earth, and I reach out instinctively to stop my fall. That’s all it takes. With the weight of the buckets off kilter, one of them plummets and hits the ground. I lose the other trying to save the first.
The greedy soil soaks up the water.
“No.” My hands fly over the damp dirt, patting, slapping, as if I can will the water back into the bucket.
“Delta!” my mother yells again.
I scramble to my feet, grab the empty buckets, and stagger the last few strides to our hut. Ma grabs my arm and hauls me inside.
“Right foolish of you,” she scolds. “What good would water do when we can’t even boil it under the hold?”
“The lake’s cleanish. Some water sounded better than none.”
“We’ve got plenty of purified water stored.”
“Last I checked, we had four jars.”
“It’s enough.”
“Not if the storm lasts more than a day, and with Indie being pregnant, I fig—”
“Delta!” There’s a crease in her brow, an edge of fire in her tone. I suck my bottom lip to keep myself from saying any more, and I taste dirt. “Just get under with your sister.”
I leave her to securing the door and head into the cellar, which isn’t much more than a crawlspace. We’ll spend the next few hours—maybe even days—hunched to half-height beneath the hut, old sheets pinned overhead to keep rubble and dust from falling on us. Only thing this cellar is good for is storage and sleeping. It’s cool, this far into the earth. I especially don’t mind it on summer evenings. But being stuck down here when you’re not sure when you can go back up is a kind of torture.
At the bottom of the wooden steps, I find Indie reclining on her mat, the curve of her belly heaving as she breathes. “Thanks for trying with the water,” she says. “It was kind of you.”
“It was foolish,” Ma repeats, coming down the steps behind me and yanking the door shut. The cellar is swallowed in darkness until Indie gets a candle going with the flint.
Overhead, the storm front crashes into the hut with a howl. Dust filters through the door, and pebbles gather in the hanging ceiling sheets with soft pfffits. Someday, one of these storms is going to cause the hut to collapse on us, or maybe just last so long that we suffocate in the cramped, clouded air.
Rotten place. Rotten weather. Rotten land.
We need to move.
We can’t move.
Like always, there’s no good answer.
Ma pulls our jars of water from the shelves—bottled just yesterday after boiling—and passes them out. One for me, one for her, and two for Indie. Skies damn her for getting pregnant. It’s one thing to want a romp and another to do it when the window’s not right. And with Clay, of all people. That trader couldn’t keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it, and half of what he says is a farce. I bet he jawed her ear off even during the act.
Curse him and Indie. The pack doesn’t need another mouth to feed. A fresh set of hands, sure, but the babe won’t be any real help for at least five years, probably more.
I take a tiny swig of water—just enough to clean the dust from my lips—then screw the lid on, marveling at how it fits perfectly, even after all these years. I spend a bit of time hobbling together inventions for our pack—like the lake trap or bone chimes—and I can’t even guess at how you’d make these jars and their locking lids. I could say that about all Old World tech, though.
“Did you talk to Astra yet?” I ask as Ma settles onto her mat.
She breathes out a tired sigh. “It won’t help.”
“If anyone can change Old Fang’s mind, it’s her. She’s his niece.”
Our pack is mostly female, but Old Fang still has the final say on all decisions because he’s the oldest.
Indie raises a brow, then says, “Old Fang won’t move us unless the Gods’ Star fell into his hands and instructed him where to travel, and even then, he’d probably be suspicious.” I snort, and Ma shoots us a look. Indie smoothes her skirt. “Besides, nothing good comes of leaving.”
“Yes,” Ma agrees. “Think of Alkali Lake.”
I don’t need to think about it. It haunts my dreams, and my back prickles at its mention even now, the brand on my skin seeming to burn. But nothing good comes of staying, either.
I was a kid when we left to settle at Dead River—just nine years old—and the half of the pack that stayed behind didn’t live longer than another week. According to a trader, it was a raid. He trudged into our camp with his rickshaw and the gruesome news, and Old Fang’s been spooked ever since.
I used to think it was cowardly, giving in to fear like that. But lately, every time traders come through, they bring stories of grisly deaths and broken homes. There are bands of raiders roaming the wastes. The only safe place is one you can defend. We can barely do that, but no one wants our dying chunk of land. There’s no future here.
“We won’t have enough water to make it through another summer,” I argue. “This one, maybe, but not next. The well’s practically dry, and the lake will follow. Maybe if we knew how to read the map . . .”
“No one knows how to read it.”
“Then if we just tried Powder Town, found someone there who can.”
“We show that map to no one, Delta. Not unless—”
“We trust them with our lives,” I finish. “I know.”
I don’t add that it’s been ages since I believed the map led anywhere. If it did, our pack would have found it long before the markings were branded onto my skin. But at this point I’m willing to say anything—propose anything—that might spring us to action.
“Besides,” Ma goes on, “Powder Town is a good fifty clicks north, and there’s no guarantee we’d even make it there alive.”
“The traders make it,” I point out.
“The traders are young. Healthy. One lone man, with nothing to defend but himself and his goods, and even then, think of how many times Clay has shown up here telling us that his most valuable wares had been robbed.”
“Because he’s a rusted idiot,” I mutter.
Indie shoots me a wounded glance, and I fall quiet.
“We are fourteen people, mostly women,” Ma continues. “Old Fang is nearing seventy. Brooke’s girl is just four, and Indie will have a newborn in a matter of weeks. That is no herd fit for moving. We’d be easy prey.”
“We’ll be easy prey here, too, once we’re dehydrated and starved. We’ve gotta go someplace better. Anywhere but Dead River. The crops are struggling. Potatoes and turnips smaller than we’ve seen in years. And the corn should be taller by now, right Indie?”
She opens her mouth to answer, but Ma cuts her off. “We’re not leaving, and that’s the end of it. The stars say a bounty is coming. The earth will be fertile again soon.”
“They’ve said soon for years and could say it for decades more.”
“Where is your faith?” Her eyes bore into me, sharp and vicious. “This is why the gods deserted us. This is why we’re stuck on this dying earth. We are being tested, Delta. If we prove we are worthy, they will return, as will the riches of water and crop.”
The wind howls outside, as if to agree. Rubble plinks above, joining what’s already gathered on the blankets.
“I’ll have no more talk of this.” Ma turns to the shelves. “Here. Eat.” She passes a strip of jerky to each of us.
“Delta only wants what’s best for us, Marin.” Ever since Indie got with child she’s been calling Ma by her given name, as if it proves she’s not a kid herself anymore. I don’t think we’ve been kids for a very long time. Certainly not since Alkali Lake.
Ma just humphs and lies down on her mat. I gnaw on my jerky and take another small sip from my jar. Smack dust from my limbs. Unbelt my boots by their leather straps and kick them off so they can dry.
When Ma falls asleep, Indie says, “I grabbed your goggles. Thought you’d want to work on them while we’re stuck down here.” She passes them over, along with the tools.
“Thanks,” I say, and immediately go to work, punching holes through the leather head strap with the awl. Indie watches me in silence.
“Think if we polished a piece of quartz real good, we could convince Old Fang it’s a fallen star?” she says finally. “Argue it’s a sign from the gods that we need to move?”
“He won’t buy that.”
“You’re right. We should polish a turd instead.”
I snort again, and she giggles, one hand on her belly.
“So, are you going to do the honors of gathering patties from the stable, or is it on me?” she asks.
We snicker together until Ma mutters in her sleep. Indie pats the mat beside her, and I scoot nearer.
We sit shoulder to shoulder, our backs against the dirt wall. I set the awl aside and move on to stitching. I can still remember when I was smaller than her, my head only coming up to her shoulder. She’d tell me stories passed down through the pack, or on clear nights, when we weren’t stuck underground from a storm, she’d point at the glinting sky and marvel at its beauty.
It still amazes me, how it can be so beautiful while everything down here dies.
As though she can hear my thoughts, Indie whispers, “In all seriousness, Delta, we shouldn’t talk about the stars that way. The gods might hear.”
“In the cellar? When we’re half buried in dirt?” I raise an eyebrow, and she smiles. It’s not a real smile, just an I’ll-humor-you one. She’s been doing that a lot since she got pregnant, still making jokes but then seeming to regret it, forcing herself to be the parent between us. Her green eyes glimmer, and I’m struck by how unalike we are. We share a mother, but our pas are different, and in the candlelight it’s obvious. Her with green eyes, me with brown. Her nose broad and mine a narrow bridge. Her hair a shade of straw and mine as dark as the night. We’ve never met our fathers, though, and in this way, we’re the same. Tied to Ma. Tied to the pack. Tied to Dead River.
“They’ll come back for us—the gods. You have to believe that.”
“I believe it, Indie.” I tighten a stitch. “At least I’m trying to.”
Her eyes go wide.
“Blasphemous, I know,” I tease, but she’s not laughing. She’s looking only at her lap, her mouth twisted in concern. “It’s just hard to accept that they’ll return before it’s too late. I know what happened last time we lost faith. I’ll never forget what happened to Asher, or all the others we left behind at Alkali Lake, but if we—”
Indie’s hand clasps over my wrist, stopping my work on the goggles.
“Delta?” she says, her voice small against the raging wind. “I think my waters just broke.”

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