Monday, May 19, 2014

Golden Girl

I love serendipitous book discovery.  It's even better when it's at the library and I don't have to pay for the book I so impulsively decided to read.  A little over a year ago, I picked up Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel.  I didn't know what to expect, but it sounded interesting and ... okay, fine, I liked the cover.

My, my.  Dust Girl was so much more than I'd expected.  It's a familiar story: girl finds out she is half (insert something magical/fantastical/imaginary here), girl goes on quest, girl is "chosen one," girl meets boy.  Yet Zettel never lets the story go dull or fall into the well-worn paths of its predecessors.

Callie LeRoux lives with her mother in an old hotel in Slow Run, Kansas.  The hotel business sure isn't what it used to be.  The dust storms of the 1930s have rolled in.  Dust clogs everything and chokes everything--including Callie, who catches "dust pneumonia."  If that's not bad enough, Callie's mama disappears in a dust storm.  Callie discovers that she's half-human and half-fey--her daddy was a fey prince who left the human world to get permission to marry her mama but he never made it back.  

Callie is also half black.  Her skin is light if kept out of the sun, and her eyes are light, and her hair, when straightened and wrestled with and put under a cap, looks simply dark.  She's generally able to "pass" as a white person, but there is always the fear she'll get "caught."  Callie's not ashamed of her mixed-race heritage, which is awesome, but the narrative never lets you forget what could possible happen to her if she's found out by the wrong people.  Her friend Jack, rail-rider, former chain-gang member, and grifter, is also half-Jewish.  Zettel explores identity and parentage and destiny in a very subtle way, but I really appreciated it.

As Callie's journey progresses, she learns more about the world of the fae.  Usually, when there are faery books, the Seelie Court is the "good" fae and the Unseelie Court is the "bad" fae.  Here, they're both pretty bad.  Fae enjoy using humans, toying with them as a cat would with a mouse.  However, Callie's something special.  She can see "doors"--portals between the fae world and the human world"--and open and close them.  She can even create them.  This fulfills a prophecy (I know, I know), so all the fae want Callie under their (collective) thumb.  They treat her as an object, a prize to be won, and not as a person.

While the story and its tropes may be familiar, the dialect, authentic period touches, and cameos by famous jazz musicians (Count Basie!) make this something special.  At the end of the book, Callie and Jack ride the rails west to Hollywood to find her parents, who have both been taken captive by the Seelie Court.

So here we are in Golden Girl.  Callie's struggling to pass as white and as older than she really is.  Jack's got a job at the MGM sets, and he's trying to get her in, too.  They figure that the fae are attracted to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and when they stumble upon two fae attempting to kidnap Ivy Bright (think Shirley Temple), they're not wrong!  Thankfully, a giant of a man steps in and stops the fae from taking Ivy--it's Paul Robeson!  Holy cow, I love how she brings in real people and doesn't turn them into caricatures.

Callie's not-to-be-trusted uncle Shake shows up as well, and between keeping Shake out of the way, minding Ivy Bright, being conflicted about Jack, and hiding from the fae, she's still got to find her parents.  Callie's musings about her feelings for Jack were pretty authentic sounding, and they didn't take up too much of the book, which pleased me.  But Callie's got the go-get-em attitude born of surviving the Dust Bowl (and various other fates!).  She rarely whines about her problems, and even if she makes mistakes, she acknowledges them and learns from them.  I like Callie very much indeed.

However, this book does suffer from SBS (Second Book Syndrome).  There's not a lot of plot movement like there was in the first book, and you can tell that Zettel is building up to the Final Confrontation in the third book.  Jack's role in Golden Girl was extremely diminished, and I missed his snarky attitude.  .  The main villain of Golden Girl was a bit of a letdown, too.  The motivations of the villain and the final-ish battle felt a bit flat.  However, I still was rather sad when it ended.  Thankfully, I have a copy of the third book at home. 

Zettel has a way with the words of this time period, and she even includes a playlist of songs that inspired here while writing the book and that could serve as a sort of soundtrack to the action.

A recommended series!

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