Review: City of Iron and Dust by J.P. Oakes
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Titan Books (July 6, 2021) | Tantor Audio (July 20, 2021)
Length: 400 pages | 11 hrs and 27 mins
Narrator (Audiobook): Dan Calley
In City of Iron and Dust, an oppressed society of Fae seek to rise up against their Goblin overlords in order to win their freedom. Writing in a contemporary urban fantasy style with dark undertones, debut author J.P. Oakes incorporates faerie folklore and magical themes along with dystopian elements to create a harsh world on the brink of violent change. This novel has a fascinating premise to be sure, but the pacing is extremely uneven which made reading it rather slow going.
In the Iron City, all that stands is a symbol of the Goblin victory against the Fae in their age-old war. Now the Fae are imprisoned within its walls, subservient to the five major houses of their Goblin rulers who reside in the towering spires at the center of the city. The only hopes the prisoners have left are fueled by Dust, a drug capable of restoring magic—if only briefly—to the desperate Fae eager to capture even a few moments of what they lost and what their lives used to be. Not only is this substance highly illegal, it is also extremely addictive, giving rise to vicious black market.
In the midst of this grim scenario, we have a varied cast including Knull, a drug dealer; Jag, a sheltered goblin princess; Sil, her badass bodyguard half-sister; Edwynn, an artist and idealist; Skart, an old kobold war veteran and freedom fighter; Granny Spregg, a depose noblewoman with designs to claw her way back into power, and a couple others I might be missing. Cut off from nature which is the source of their magic, the poverty-stricken Fae are barely surviving in these hopeless conditions, which is why the mere idea of a drug like Dust can hold so much power. And now a bag of it has found its way into the city, and whoever controls it will hold the city’s fate in their hands.
I liked this book but didn’t love it. While imaginative and action-packed, it’s also feels bloated and overloaded with way too many ideas and too much stuff going on. As I alluded to before, there are a number of POVs to follow, too many to even remember all of them after I finished the book. Not only that, I also feel the author treats character development far too casually, never giving readers a chance to connect with any of them on a deeper, more meaningful level. We flit back and forth between their perspectives like it’s going out of style, often shifting the focus just as things were getting good. There also wasn’t enough to distinguish between some of the voices, with the dialogue, tone and snark being somewhat interchangeable. Truth be told, none of them really made an impression on me in the end.
There’s also a breathless quality when it comes to many debuts, and I can feel that here. Oakes’ enthusiasm is practically palpable, which isn’t necessarily bad, but things do get a little dicey when you try to put in too much. The saying “less is more” comes to mind here, as a jumble of different styles seem to struggle against each other for dominance. Here and there you get a hint of crime noir, while at other times a touch of military thriller kicks in, all to a dizzying backdrop of fantasy and paranormal elements. And with how quickly the story moves, it rather tough to get a bead on things. Certain literary devices, like the humor, feel forced or ill-timed, coming in at the most awkward moments. The result is this chaotic and often confusing energy that sometimes makes the book hard to follow, which can be very exhausting, and it’s a shame because what should have been the story’s powerful message of resistance against oppression ends up getting lost in all the noise.
With a bit more polish, this book could have been great, and with more experience, the author’s future looks bright. J.P. Oakes clearly has the talent, the imagination, and the potential, but City of Iron and Dust could have done with some streamlining and character development to help it be more memorable. Despite its flaws though, I loved the world-building and the fact that all the characters in the story are non-human. It’s definitely a treat for fantasy fans looking for that sort of thing, as long as you don’t mind the prose and storytelling that’s a bit raw and rough around the edges.