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REVIEW:  In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis

REVIEW: In a Handful of Dust by Mindy McGinnis

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Dear Ms. McGinnis,

Despite my weariness with the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre, I liked your previous novel, Not a Drop to Drink. Even more refreshing was the fact that it appeared to be a standalone. It turns out I was wrong — In a Handful of Dust is the companion novel but I think both novels stand alone well on their own.

While Not a Drop to Drink focused on tough-as-nails Lynn, In a Handful of Dust tells the story of her sweeter, more hopeful charge, Lucy. Things have gone as well as can be expected considering the post-apocalyptic premise, and a little town has formed. The world will never return to what it once was, but things are good.

Alas, nothing lasts forever. A disease sweeps through their little civilization, striking down both young and old. The likely carrier for the disease is Lucy’s would-be suitor, Carter. Unfortunately, this means he has to leave or face the survivors’ wrath. Even more unfortunately, so does Lucy — she’s been in Carter’s company, so even though it’s unlikely that she’s the carrier, the chance is not 0%. And where Lucy goes, so does Lynn.

Together, the two women strike out west, to what once was California. There are rumors of desalination plants there. In a world where water is the most precious commodity, this seems miraculous. But the journey is rife with danger, and soon Lucy will have to face the truth — can she survive in a world without Lynn to protect her?

Like its predecessor, I enjoyed In a Handful of Dust because it takes the path of post-apocalyptic survival combined with a frontier sensibility. There are no nonsensical dystopian governments to overthrow. There is no angsty star-crossed romance, although it may seem like it at first glance. This is the coming-of-age story of a young woman in a world that will never return to what it once was.

Where the book falters for me is that I find Lynn to be a more interesting character than Lucy. I’m just fond of tough-as-nails women who get things done.

“I been trying to do better about killing people,” Lynn said. “Then fate puts you in my path.”

That said, I liked the fact that the narrative doesn’t elevate Lucy over Lynn or vice versa. Both women are seen as valid and worthwhile. Lucy regrets that she’ll never be as strong as Lynn, but Lynn tells her that she should never feel that way. Lynn is the way she is because she had to be. (Not a Drop to Drink details this.) Lucy represents a gentler (as can be expected) life, so she’s allowed to hope and dream for a better life.

Lucy and Lynn’s journey is an interesting one. It’s full of betrayal and risking to trust others when they should know better. Most of the time this doesn’t work out, but sometimes it does. I also like that as the journey continues, Lynn’s infallibility comes to an end and soon Lucy has to do a little growing up herself.

I know most readers are probably tired of post-apocalyptic books these days but if anyone is still up for it, I do recommend they give these books a try. They’re more about the female characters’ journey and the frontier adventure sensibility lends a surprising freshness. I do wish there’d been more survival adventure novels like this when the subgenre had been at its peak, but that’s the way things fall sometimes. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

REVIEW: Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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Dear Ms. White,

Your latest novel, Illusions of Fate, is a departure from Mind Games and Perfect Lies, a duology about a pair of sisters gifted with special powers that make them ideal for espionage. Instead, we go to an alternate world reminscent of Victorian England. Except filled with magic.

Born on the island of Melei, Jessamin has gone to the country of Albion to get an education. Of course, it’s not so easy. Melei is under the colonial control of Albion, and Jessamin herself is the result of a union between a Melei woman and a visiting scholar from Albion. To no one’s surprise, the scholar couldn’t care less about them but Jessamin’s mother still hopes the man remembers them. Jessamin is more practical than her mother. She doesn’t want any sort of relationship with the man — except she has no problems blackmailing him into helping her gain admission into the university. The professor has a wife, you see, who has no knowledge that her husband has an illegitimate daughter with a foreigner. This fact right here was more than enough to cement my affection for Jessamin as a heroine.

Being biracial — and visibly so; no passing here — Jessamin is the target of racism and bigotry from her peers. This is why she causes a sensation when she attracts the attention of Finn, a young noble of Albion who has recently come to the city. Even more startling is when he “shadows” her — his shadow leaves his body and attaches to hers, granting Jessamin two shadows. This is the equivalent of a soulbond. Some people are scandalized. Some people are entertained. Finn sets out to win Jessamin. And Jessamin just can’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

But it’s not all fun and games. Finn has enemies among the Albion peerage. Albion, you see, is torn between minding its own business or expanding its imperialistic designs even more. Finn has managed to prevent the latter from happening but when he shadows Jessamin, a rival on the opposing side finally sees a chance to leverage the young lord to change his mind. Jessamin has no magic so you’d think this would leave her out of her depth. Thankfully, she’s very clever and doesn’t see why Albion social boundaries should restrict her as she isn’t from Albion at all.

This was a really charming book. I really liked Jessamin as a heroine. It was refreshing that despite the fact she found Finn very hot, she was dubious about his intentions. This was in line with her background — her mother got taken in by an Albion gentleman who used her and left her, and she had no intention of suffering the same fate. It was nice to see a YA novel touch on the effects of colonialism and imperialism, both on a larger level and a personal level.

I adored Eleanor. She was a great supporting character and ally for Jessamin, who gets catapulted into Albion’s upper society thanks to Finn’s shadowing her. I thought she was hilarious and brave despite the pressures put upon her by everyone else.

Overall, I thought Finn was all right. Not an asshole in the slightest. That said, I admit that I thought less of him when he made it all about himself about Jessamin’s reticence about reciprocating. So what if he’s not racist and doesn’t care about the color of her skin? I’m happy for him. But he has to think about what it means that his non-racist views are extraordinary in this society, on top of realizing that sure, maybe he’s not racist but Jessamin will have to live her entire life dealing with bigoted perspectives. No amount of his love is going to cancel that out. Sorry, it’s not enough. It’s believable that he doesn’t realize the structural racism inherent in society — he’s only 19, after all. But I would have liked to see more pushback against his defensiveness, and less Jessamin capitulating to his side. She has a reason to be defensive. Her mother’s story is far more common than Jessamin’s, after all.

I really enjoyed Illusions of Fate. Your writing style is so comfortable, that it’s easy to sink into the story. I loved Jessamin as a heroine, and I loved that even though she was ostracized by the color of her skin, this didn’t mean she had no female friends or allies. The romance was sweet, and I admit I was charmed by Jessamin’s crow friend. Add in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism, and I’m all yours. Can’t wait until your next book. B+

My regards,
Jia

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