Devils Unto Dust
by Emma Berquist
Ten years ago, a horrifying disease began spreading across the West Texas desert. Infected people—shakes—attacked the living and created havoc and destruction. No one has ever survived the infection. Daisy Wilcox, known as Willie, has been protecting her siblings within the relatively safe walls of Glory, Texas. When Willie’s good-for-nothing father steals a fortune from one of the most dangerous shake-hunters in town, she finds herself on the hook for his debt. With two hunters, including the gruff and handsome Ben, to accompany her, she sets out across the desert in search of her father. But the desert is not kind to travelers, and not everyone will pass through alive.
Earlier this year I talked about how I secretly love westerns. Or, to be clear, how I love a specific type of western: a female-led western with a speculative or post-apocalyptic twist, along the lines of Blood Red Road and Dread Nation.
As soon as I saw the premise of Devils Unto Dust I knew it was the type of western I like to read, so I was incredibly excited when I finally picked it up.
Similarly to Dread Nation, Devils Unto Dust takes place in an alternate 19th century America where a disease has spread that turns people into ‘shakes’ (AKA zombies) and society has had to change drastically as a result. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though.
Devils Unto Dust is a lot more insular, much more focused on family than wider society, and, at it’s heart, is essentially a road trip novel.
Daisy “Willie” Wilcox has been taking care of her three younger siblings since their mother died and their father, who loves to drink and gamble, left them to fend for themselves. When their father steals money from a local shake-hunter who threatens to hurt Willie and her siblings if he isn’t reimbursed, Willie takes it upon herself to hire two shake-hunters with what little money they have left and sets out away from their home of Glory, Texas to find her good-for-nothing father and bring him to justice.
I think what I loved most about this book was the way Berquist wrote about the setting. I’m an autumn and winter girl at heart, I’d much rather be cold than hot, so the mere thought of living in a desert makes me feel dehydrated. Yet while this version of Glory, Texas is an incredibly dangerous place to live because of the natural environment as well as the zombies shambling about outside, Willie has a lot of love for the climate she’s been born and raised in and I really felt that in this book. I love characters who are strongly tied to a place that they know like the back of their hand and love despite its flaws.
I liked Willie a lot, too. She’s a fairly typical heroine for this kind of story – she sometimes gets herself into trouble by not keeping her mouth shut when she probably should and she’s determined to do everything alone – but I don’t care because she’s the kind of heroine I love, and she still has enough vulnerability to feel like a real person rather than a western caricature.
As the oldest sibling Willie’s become the parent of her family by default and she really feels that weight on her shoulders, so the moments when she struggled with how much she wished she could just turn her back on Glory and strike out on her own with no responsibility were realistic and really quite tender. You can’t help but root for this girl!
One of her siblings, though – her brother closest to her in age, whose name I’ve somehow forgotten – really got on my nerves. Willie’s trying really hard to look after the family and I got tired of him constantly sulking and not listening to her.
The two hunters Willie hires though, Curtis and Ben, are really fun. Curtis is a sweetheart and with Ben I loved how Berquist chipped away at the trope of the grumpy, taciturn loner until it’s revealed that, much like Willie, he’s had to put up a front to help him survive in the world they’ve found themselves living in. While there is some chemistry between Ben and Willie, I also really appreciated that the romance in this novel was incredibly light, there are only really hints of it there, because let’s face it – you’re not going to be thinking about romance when you’re trying not to get eaten.
Berquist’s writing is lovely, I never would have guessed this was a debut, and I’ll definitely be reading more from her in future. The only thing that suffered for me a little in this book was the plot; it took quite a while to get going, and I was happy to be reading a slow post-apocalyptic novel, but then near the end everything seemed to move incredibly quickly and the ending felt a little rushed and convenient. I could predict what was going to happen from fairly early on, and while that didn’t ruin the book for me by any means I did find it strange that it took the characters so long to catch up.
I also would have liked to have known more about the disease itself and whether it was spreading through the rest of the country or the rest of the world, but in all fairness the book is less about the disease itself and more about survival.
If you’re a fan of westerns or zombies or post-apocalyptic novels, I’d recommend checking this one out! It’s not a new favourite but I did enjoy it and I’m glad I finally crossed it off my TBR.