fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one ARC each month i’d been so excited to get my hands on and then…never read
ugh, this was so, so good. it’s a feminist fantasy-western set in arketta; an inhospitable wilderness whose harshest region is known as the Scab, which is evocatively described as the ragged line of mountains that cut through the middle of the country.
it has all the trappings of a proper western: mines and trains and guns and horses, but with fantasy elements woven into the dusty landscape: a variety of ghosts whose danger-level increases from the benevolent seraphants, to the neutral remnants, to the vicious vengeants, as well as the raveners; bewitched humans who can inflict intense pain with their minds.
arketta is structured as a generational class system comprised of fairbloods, who have shadows, and dustbloods, whose rebellious ancestors had their shadows punitively removed and who have subsequently inherited the trait. i don’t really understand the significance of this shadow-sitch, except that fairbloods are the elite and dustbloods are basically indentured servants with no real chance of earning their freedom.
it’s a harsh life, especially for girls.
the young daughters of impoverished dustblood families are frequently sold to welcome houses, to serve as ‘good luck girls’—they are sexually sterilized, stripped of their name, and given a magic-laced facial tattoo of a flower, which designates their new name. here, they will serve as ‘daybreak girls’ and perform domestic labor until they turn sixteen, when they will transition into the role of ‘sundown girls,’ fulfilling the real purpose of the welcome houses—catering to the various appetites of the house’s male customers, known as brags.
compared to what their lives would be out in the scab, here they are at least well-fed and comfortable—the house provides the girls with everything necessary to keep them healthy and viable as the income-generating commodities they are:
Aster had been told, many times, to be grateful for that work. Good Luck Girls never went hungry, always had a roof over their heads, saw the doctor and the dentist twice a year. Entertaining the brags meant they got to wear the kind of clothes other girls could only dream of, too, and enjoy an endless supply of Sweet Thistle.
the girls are encouraged to partake of the addictive intoxicating numbness of sweet thistle, which keeps them dull and compliant (and dulls the edges of their oftentimes painful encounters), but if one should become too damaged to earn $$, they’re easily replaced.
aster has already been a sundown girl for some time, but her little sister clementine is about to experience her Lucky Night, and she is dreading clem’s initiation into the ranks of the sex trade. when clementine accidentally kills her first brag, the sisters manage to escape with three other girls; mallow, tansy, and violet, with the fingers-crossed hopes of finding sanctuary with lady ghost—a woman who can reportedly remove their tattoos and give good luck girls their freedom—for a price.
it’s a high-stakes adventure through a many-periled landscape, where five girls full of righteous anger scrape back a little something for themselves for once—bank-robbing and robin hooding, driven by necessity into pure ingenuity, forcing their way through a world that has underestimated, dismissed and mistreated them. with bounties on their heads, pursued by several interested parties, they are in constant danger, but they manage to find allies; pockets of resistance who help usher them along on their quest.
it’s a wild and energetic ride, packed with detail right down to the slang, and it’s such a well-constructed story—even though i anticipated some of the conflicts, she resolved these conflicts masterfully, with originality and a deft touch not often to be found in a debut novel.
i can’t wait to get my hands on the follow-up to this, The Sisters of Reckoning, to see what happens next, because now i am invested!