ARC Review: Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland

Special thanks to Grace Fell at Spark Point Studio and Balzer + Bray for providing an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

Rust in the Root
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Pub Date: 20 September 2022
Genre: YA Historical Fantasy

Panda Rating:

(4 pandas)


The author of the visionary New York Times bestseller Dread Nation returns with another spellbinding historical fantasy set at the crossroads of race and power in America.

It is 1937, and Laura Ann Langston lives in an America divided—between those who work the mystical arts and those who do not. Ever since the Great Rust, a catastrophic event that blighted the arcane force called the Dynamism and threw America into disarray, the country has been rebuilding for a better future. And everyone knows the future is industry and technology—otherwise known as Mechomancy—not the traditional mystical arts.

Laura disagrees. A talented young mage from Pennsylvania, Laura hopped a portal to New York City on her seventeenth birthday with hopes of earning her mage’s license and becoming something more than a rootworker.

But six months later, she’s got little to show for it other than an empty pocket and broken dreams. With nowhere else to turn, Laura applies for a job with the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the US government dedicated to repairing the Dynamism so that Mechomancy can thrive. There she meets the Skylark, a powerful mage with a mysterious past, who reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice.

As they’re sent off on their first mission together into the heart of the country’s oldest and most mysterious Blight, they discover the work of mages not encountered since the darkest period in America’s past, when Black mages were killed for their power—work that could threaten Laura’s and the Skylark’s lives, and everything they’ve worked for.


Racism, use of racial slurs, slavery (historical), genocide (historical), violent death (on-page)

TL;DR: Rust in the Root is an exciting and engaging YA historical fantasy set in a reimagined 1930s America, specifically the events of the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and slavery, with a magical and fantastical twist. I found Ireland’s writing to be entertaining, and I loved the characters and the magic, which I found fascinating and wanted entirely more of! This had a darkness to it that I surprisingly really enjoyed and the social commentary felt very timely. I think you would enjoy this if you’ve read books by this author before and if you like your history with a bit of a magical twist!

Despite a somewhat confusing first few chapters, I quickly found myself absorbed in the story and eagerly pressed on to see how the action would unfold. The story is told through alternating perspectives and in a mixed media format that I wasn’t sure about at first but came to really enjoy the more I read—we get letters, newspaper clippings, report extracts and photographs that greatly added to the realistic historical aspect! Ireland’s writing was engaging and entertaining, with a good dose of dry/witty humour that had me laughing out loud at the most unexpected of times, but it was also incredibly atmospheric. America is in throes of recovery from the “Great Rust” and there’s a sense of bleakness that permeates the writing, which shifts into a dogged sense of foreboding as the story progresses. The social/historical commentary was also great and I appreciated how the author doesn’t shy away from showing how even though it’s New York, racism and prejudice still made life for Black people incredibly difficult, and some of the scenes had me wanting to rage so badly! I felt completely immersed in the time period.

Once the details of the world start to make a bit more sense around the 10-15% mark, the story took off and kept a pretty steadily fast pace until the end. That said, one of the main issues I had was with the world-building. Ireland tries to do a lot here and although I loved the whole concept and found it fascinating, I felt that the world-building, particularly the magical system, suffered for it. What made the beginning confusing is that we’re thrown into this world in such a way that it felt like we should’ve already understood what was happening when we didn’t. The magical concept was very cool and I loved the different ways it manifested through flora, fauna, elemental and healing, but it was explained in such a haphazard and clunky way that we’re still learning new things about how the magic works at the very end. At times it kind of felt like reading something while explicitly only knowing half of what you need to so that the picture never really clears up. Having so much packed in also made the ending also feel rushed and at times it felt like Ireland was setting us up for a second book, only for everything to be neatly wrapped up by the end.

Though the world-building left me a little wanting, I think the main characters made up for it. I loved our main characters Laura and Skylark and it was equally enjoyable to read from both their perspectives! Laura was a fantastic character who has grand dreams when she moves to New York to earn her mage’s license and it’s by a stroke of unicorn luck that she winds up interviewing at the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps. I loved her confidence in the face of so much uncertainty and I admired how she wasn’t afraid to put herself out there and try new things even when it scared her. She was so easy to root for and I loved seeing how she grew more confident in her abilities and into her own skin as the story progressed. As Laura’s mentor, Skylark was definitely more reserved and there was a coldness to her perspective that I wasn’t sure about at first but eventually made sense the more we learn about her—it really fit her character and everything she has been through! We’re also introduced to quite a few supporting characters, such as the apprentices, Louise and the Grimalk, who I found really interesting but we don’t really get to know them aside from their magical talent and the mere surface of their personalities, which made them feel quite flat. I did enjoy their group dynamic though and how a sort of ‘found family’ was created between them, I just wished they had been better fleshed out.

Overall, despite some minor issues I had with world-building and character development, I still managed to really enjoy this book and sped through almost 70% of it in one sitting cos I didn’t want to put it down. I definitely wouldn’t mind if we got more of this historical setting and these characters in another book because they were sp fun to read about!

Have you read Rust in the Root or is it on your TBR?

6 thoughts on “ARC Review: Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland

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