With his debut novel Zorgamazoo, Robert Paul Weston accomplished something rarely done in children’s fiction: he broke all the rules and in doing so managed to create something truly unique, fresh, and enjoyable. Sometimes when an author tries to do something unique or avant-garde in children’s fiction the result can feel a little like an academic experiment and less like a book intended for children. Not so with Zorgamazoo. This book is the perfect read aloud and a delicious combination of dark and whimsical. I hope some forward-thinking person at Razorbill sent a copy of Zorgamazoo to Tim Burton-this book cries out for claymation and a Danny Elfman score.
So how does one follow up such a sparking debut? By going in the opposite direction. Weston’s new book Dust City is intended for a much older, much more sophisticated audience. Teen wolf (no, not THAT kind of teen wolf) Henry Whelp has been living in the St. Remus Home for Wayward Youth for some time now. His father is living out his prison sentence for the murder of a helpless duo the reader will recognise as Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. When his psychologist dies, Henry is given an opportunity to escape. He takes the chance and finds himself working as a runner, dropping off Dust, a synthetic form of magic with obvious parallels to street drugs, to the less savoury citizens of the city in the hopes that he will get closer to Skinner, a hideous dwarf who seems to be the key a number of mysteries involving dust, magic, the whereabouts of the fairies, and just what happened to Henry’s father the night of the infamous murder.
The urban fantasy genre owes much to the pioneering work of Holly Black, who was the first to hit the mainstream YA market with her loose trilogy of books Tithe, Valiant and Ironside, which explore the gritty and violent lives of the faery living in contemporary NYC. The success of her novels opened the door for other urban fantasy writers, such as Cassandra Clare, Melissa Marr, and Lesley Livingston. Robert Paul Weston joins their ranks with his own unique spin on the genre, which focuses less on the lives of the faeries, and more on the lives of the so-called Animalia (wolves, foxes, ravens and cats who wear clothing, speak English and walk around like people) and Hominid fairytale folk (humans, elves, dwarves, ogres) who are left to create their own synthetic kinds of magic after being abandoned by the fairies.
Weston is also drawing on a long tradition of mining fairytales for novel-worthy fodder. For the younger folk, there are Shannon Hale’s The Books of Bayern, Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, Edith Pattou’s East, Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, and many others. Older readers may have enjoyed the fairytale-inspired work of Janet Yolen, Robin McKinley, or Elizabeth Bunce. While Dust City also fits into this category, it is a testament to Weston’s writing ability that he is able to world build and blend genres in a way that is fresh and engaging.
Weston’s prose is as successful as his poetry. His writing is streamlined and full of potent, memorable description. Readers will enjoy Weston’s nod to popular fairytale characters, although it isn’t necessary to know the references to enjoy the story. Henry’s friend Jack is a kleptomaniac with a handy bag of magic beans, Inspector White is a hard-nosed detective who wears kick-ass army boots and just so happens to have cherry-red lips and skin -you guessed it- as white as snow, and my favourite fairytale nod, Cindy, a low-class administrator in sky-high glass stilettos who ‘married up’. Ha!
Dust City will be embraced by urban fantasy fans, male and female alike. I would pass this book along to readers 12+ looking for a fast-paced fantasy adventure with less Tinkerbell and far more blood.
Dust City is available in hard cover from Razorbill in the US and Penguin Canada in Canada.