Dustborn – Book Review

Erin Bowman, author of the highly acclaimed Taken Trilogy, is back with Dustborn, a post-apocalyptic Western perfect for fans of the Mad Max films and Gunslinger Girl. This  violent YA dystopian novel will leaving you feeling gritty and exposed as 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.

Here’s the summary…

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.

Something I’ve come across more than once recently, are standalone novels that feel too big for their britches, story ideas that stretch beyond the scope of one chapter, but are nevertheless confined to one physical book. Dustborn by Erin Bowman definitely feels like one of those stories.

The world building and character work, while good, implies an immensity that makes you feel like you’re being peppered for a series, not a standalone, so in that respect, Dustborn feels like a disappointment only because there’s clearly aspects of this book that deserved more exploration. Ideas that would most certainly have gotten ironed out over the course of two or three books but instead are crammed into one. We know from interviews that Erin intended this to be a series originally and had to restructure it down to one book. The cause and effect of that decision is apparent, because there’s leaving you wanting more, then there’s leaving more to be wanted, Dustborn falls into the latter unfortunately.

That being said, the content in-between these gorgeous covers is mostly good, occasionally very good, Fury Road/Waterworld/100 comparisons notwithstanding. Perhaps the most effective aspect of Dustborn is actually given away in the book’s title, with Erin’s ability to make you feel the inhospitable environment, unforgiving conditions her characters experience that will have you dusting your hair for sand. You feel the heat, the cold, the sweat, the sunburns, the wind, and most especially the thirst…you feel every bit of it as strongly as Delta and the rest do. And there’s little to no respite from the heat and dryness of this mostly moisture starved landscape so drink your tall glass of filtered water with a sense of appreciation. This of course makes water a valuable resource in Dustborn and the source of much of, but not all, the book’s conflict.

Despite the barren and complex nature of this world however, Erin doesn’t explore enough of it for my liking, with geography taking a bit of backseat to convenience as all the landmarks feel way too close to have them not factor more into the narrative. Obviously this is something that fell victim to the editing process. And the passage of time is mostly a blur as they measure it in moon cycles, something I’m sure most folks have no idea about, although is an easy fix with a quick google search. (Hint: the Synodic month is around 30 days) Like I said, aspects that would have been given room to breathe had a follow-up or two been green lit. For instance, we are constantly told how dangerous it is to travel out in the wasteland, which I’m sure is true, but don’t really encounter any until they reach their destinations, harsh conditions aside.

The aesthetic is familiar yet pleasing but ultimately falls a little flat, with it being too much of been there, done that, and too few surprises. It’s a confusing mix of the above mentioned properties that is so on the nose at times it’s distracting. The recycled nature of ghost monuments and steampunk technology are described well enough but too often play second fiddle to brisk nature of the pacing. Yes, just when you get comfortable with a setting, you are unceremoniously whisked away to another. The “map” concept and all that it entails, along with Verdant, are well worn shoes so I’m curious as to where her specific creative spark came from.

No need to fret however as there are plenty of redeeming qualities about Dustborn, that make it a worthy read. Perhaps most importantly is that the character work is strong and creative as she populates the wasteland with an intriguing populace. I found myself rooting for them, especially Delta, even if the romantic angle felt too easy, something more than forgivable in a story where almost nothing else is. But make no mistake about it, Delta is a badass heroine perfectly suited for the wasteland, and Erin puts her through about as much pain and suffering as one can, and yet, she perseveres through sheer will and determination. It’s impressive really.

As for the other key characters, Asher, Kara the Prime, and the General all play their part opposite Delta as either friend, foe, or other. Delta has trust issues to say the least but in this world, you either trust someone or you die, which for some might seem like a viable option, for Delta, she still has something to live for. The characters, their motivations, and what role they come to play in Delta’s journey is mostly predictable but still enjoyable thanks to Erin’s snappy dialogue. There’s a twist towards the end of the book involving a character I haven’t mentioned that is certainly effective and plotted well enough, but would be saying too much so we’ll let that be.

Overall, I’d recommend Dustborn if you enjoy the wasteland/western motif and strong take no bullshit female characters, two things this book most definitely delivers on. In fact, if Mad Max: Furiosa ever gets made, get ready for the comparisons. And if that gorgeous cover by Matt Griffin is giving off some strong Dune vibes, click HERE and you’ll see why. Some of his art hangs on my wall actually and this cover is beautiful and looks great on the shelf, it alone is worth the price.

Dustborn is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!

For more information on Erin Bowman, click HERE!