A. V. Mather Reviews: Justin Woolley's - "A Town Called Dust"

wooley_Town-Called-Dust_coverIn this novel, the first of Justin Woolley’s new YA fantasy series, Australia is a very changed place. The cities have been overrun by ghouls and humankind has retreated inward to the Red Centre – the last place most of us would want to have to survive in. The epicentre of this last stand of civilisation is the walled township of Alice, which governs and protects the surrounding farms and smaller townships. Protection comes in the form of a ghoul-busting army – the Diggers – and the care and maintenance of a twelve foot, ghoul-proof fence. Those of you who are grinning already at the twist on some well-known references will enjoy what else is in store.

Dust is one of a few townships that lie on the very edges of this boundary. Like outback towns of old, it functions as a marketplace for the outlying farmers to visit once a month and sell their produce. What sort of produce, apart from livestock, would you be likely to get from a farm in the middle of a desert? Well… dirt, mostly. Enriched dirt, that is and has become a very precious commodity.

Once again proving the tenacity of the human race, the Dirt Farmers of Alice have managed to scrape a viable living from enriching the soil itself with fertiliser and selling it in volume to crop growers. It is on one such farm that we meet Squid Blanchflower, a timid orphan boy who has grown to the age of sixteen under the ‘care’ of his Aunt and Uncle on their dirt farm. Squid has known nothing but hard work and hard treatment since he can first remember. Despite this, he is a thoughtful young man with a hunger for knowledge, whose largest dream is to be allowed to study at the local school.

Back in the bustling centre of Alice, Lynnette is also struggling with unreachable dreams for her future. But where Squid has nothing, Lynn has it all. The only daughter of Colonel Hermannsburg, chief military advisor to the Administration and a widower, she has all of the education, food and comforts she could ever want. And yet all she craves is a life in the army, the one doorway permanently closed to her by the rules of society. To add to her frustration, her adopted brother has just been sworn in to the Diggers after graduating from training with distinction. After spending every spare moment secretly teaching herself swordcraft and tactics, the injustice is nearly more than she can bear. But girls do not become Diggers, just as dirt farmers do not become scholars.

Fortunately for Lynn, she has inherited a headstrong, stubborn nature from her mother. Fortunately for Squid, he has the gift of intelligence because a tidal wave of events are about to shatter his small world and lift him to heights he could never have imagined.

A breach has been made in the ghoul-proof fence and a horde of thirsty monsters are lurching across the desert towards humanity. Alice is prepared – they have been training generations of Diggers to defend against just such a threat – but a power struggle between Church and State leads to rash decisions. Some see this crisis as an opportunity for personal glory, others as a chance to seize absolute power.

In Dust, Justin Woolley has given readers a grand old tale with a distinctly modern twist. It’s a very entertaining mash-up of an adventure, an epic fantasy with a Wild West/Steampunk flair, and also zombies. I really liked the frontier-town styling of Alice, and the idea of central Australia as a last bastion of humanity. The addition of medieval religious zealotry and hint at historic human folly having been the root of this battle for survival, make it all the more interesting. There is some very imaginative and successful world-building here and more than a few enjoyable surprises.

I found this to be one of those stories that sneaks up on you. It begins fairly simply down a well-trodden path, introducing original elements along the way, and it would be easy to say it was going to be straightforward and predictable. The story may hold familiar elements for readers of the genre, but that is far from all that there is here. The author has done a great job of gradually layering his story, extending it downwards and outwards until there is a very complex structure on which to hang the adventures of Squid and Lynn. He has achieved this also with an economy of words, great chapter length, and pacing that really rips along.

Both of the central characters were engaging, and their personalities complemented each other without being too obvious. Their back-stories were intriguing and the revelations were well-paced right up to the end. The ghouls were appropriately repulsive and frightening. The violence was gruesome where sensible, for a zombie story, but not excessive. I honestly can’t tell anymore what is considered age-appropriate levels of violence. As a guide, though, I consider this to be mid-level in terms of graphic descriptions.

I was genuinely disappointed when this story ended because the clever devil had gotten me in, and I am looking forward to the next instalment, ‘A Town Called Smoke’.

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