Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland

Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland. HarperCollins, 2022. 9780063038240

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Historical fantasy (fantasy in a historical setting) 

What did you like about the book? In 1937, Laura Ann Langston just wants to be a baker, using the mystic arts to make great pastries. But America is not set up for her success: Society is divided between mages and non-mages, and the mages themselves are divided into those who use traditional mystical arts (mostly African Americans) and those who use Mechomancy (mostly white people): industrial and technology-based magic. Mechomancy is deemed the future of society, powering electricity and supplying the citizens with the necessary technology, while traditional mystic arts are dismissed. On top of that, a disastrous event called the Great Rust further divided America because it created the dreaded Blights – corruptions of the mystic powers that destroy all Mechomancy machines it touches. To Laura’s great frustration, most people blamed the traditional mystic arts for the Blights, and the government made them illegal to use without a license.

So Laura, sick of being a rootworker on a farm, traveled to New York to get a license. But being a black mage in 1930s America is nearly impossible, and after four months, Laura is broke, jobless, and nearly out of hope. In a desperate move, she applies to the Colored Auxiliary of the Bureau of Arcane, where she meets Skylark, a powerful mage with her own secrets. She reluctantly takes on Laura as an apprentice, and the two set off to control the biggest Blight in America once and for all. But something is amiss with the Blight: Those who have entered have never returned, and the old art of Necromancy – using Black souls to power machines – defiles the entire area. If Laura and the Skylark are to survive, they must stop one of the darkest times in American history from repeating itself. 

Rust in the Root perfectly combines fantasy, 1930s historical fiction, and racism in America into one fascinating saga. Ireland is a master of historical fantasy, and her seamless integration of the above topics feels natural, as if that version of our world could exist, complete with the same social and political issues. The book discusses topics of race between the different mystical abilities, specifically how some magic is coded as “bad” versus “good”, and America’s unhealthy obsession with industrialization. The narrative switches between Laura’s and Skylark’s perspectives, both of whom are interesting and well-written characters who readers will keep rooting for. Most characters are African American. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? No!

To whom would you recommend this book? High schoolers who like fantasy mixed with historical fiction, and/or those who like fantasy grounded in rules or in a realistic setting. Ireland’s other series Dread Nation and Death Divided are also fantastic books to read, as well as Foul Lady Fortune by Chloe Gong, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, and Jackaby by William Ritter. 

Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Teen fiction/teen fantasy/teen historical fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Laila Carter, Cheltenham Libraries, Elkins Park, PA

Date of review: December 13, 2022

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