Book Review

From Dust, A Flame

From Dust, a Flame

  • Author: Rebecca Podos
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Publication Date: March 8, 2022
  • Publisher: Balzer + Bray

CONTENT WARNING: death, grief, violence

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Hannah’s whole life has been spent in motion.

Her mother has kept her and her brother, Gabe, on the road for as long as she can remember, leaving a trail of rental homes and faded relationships behind them. No roots, no family but one another, and no explanations.

All of this changes on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday when she wakes up transformed, a pair of golden eyes with knife-slit pupils blinking back at her from the mirror—the first of many such mutations. Promising that she knows someone who can help, her mother leaves Hannah and Gabe behind to find a cure. But as the days turn to weeks and their mother doesn’t return, they realize it’s up to them to find the truth.

What they discover is a family they never knew, and a history more tragic and fantastical than Hannah could have dreamed—one that stretches back to her grandmother’s childhood in Prague under the Nazi occupation and beyond, into the realm of Jewish mysticism and legend. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah must hurry to unearth their family’s secrets to break the curse and save the people she loves most, as well as herself.

Rebecca Podos, award-winning author of Like Water, returns with a contemporary fantasy of enduring love, unfathomable loss, and the power of stories to hold us together when it seems that nothing else can.

I first came across this book on bookstagram, in a post about upcoming Jewish book releases. While I got turned down for it on NetGalley, I eventually managed to get a copy through my local library. Rebecca Podos is a new author to me, but I ended up truly enjoying this book, so I’m obviously going to have to read more of her work.

Initially, we meet Hannah and Gabe, who live with their mother in a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place on a regular basis. There’s obviously a very close relationship between Hannah and Gabe, and while Gabe and their mother are close, there’s tension between Hannah and her mom. Hannah is more of a type-A personality, although she’s emotional and sensitive, while Gabe and their mom are more outgoing and personable, easily socializing and making friends, which Hannah seems to struggle with. But everything changes on Hannah’s 17th birthday, when she wakes up with mutated eyes, followed by her eyes going back to normal but other parts of her body transforming each day. Her mother decides to leave and find someone who can help, but doesn’t come back. 

When Hannah and Gabe get a clue about their mother’s side of the family, they decide to follow up on it. What they discover is a whole rich history that they had no idea about. They realize that they are Jewish, but weren’t raised as any religion, and they start learning more about their family, their religion, and their culture. Hannah’s journey to learn about her own personal and sexual identity contrasts with her journey to learn about her cultural identity and place in the family:

“How can I trust a neighbor, a stranger, a magical sky being with the whole truth when I don’t trust myself? Even my mother doesn’t know who I am.”

She struggles so much with trust because the only person she’s ever been able to trust fully is Gabe, even as she has some feelings of mild envy, at how easily he seems to move through life. They also meet Ari, a neighbor who belongs to a family that was close with their family, and they start to unearth some of the small-town secrets that go back for generations.

“What’s the point of love when, whether slowly and painfully or suddenly and tragically, everyone loses everyone?”

Contrasting with the present-day stories are the flashback scenes of their mother’s life when she was their age. It answers a lot of questions about what was going on and what led to the current situation. There’s a heavy influence of Jewish religion, mysticism, and beliefs present throughout the story, and it was really intriguing to see it included. It was especially nice since it was laid out in a way that’s easy to understand even for people who have no understanding of Judaism, since it’s being explained to Hannah and Gabe, although it’s brought to life in a unique and stunning way. 

This story grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. I actually wound up ignoring my to-do list for the day and just laid around reading for the entire day, until I finished the book, simply because I had to find out what happened. While I figured out the big reveal ahead of time, it didn’t make the story any less enjoyable, because I still wanted to see what was going to happen next. I loved the way family relationships, intergenerational trauma, personal identity, forgiveness, religion, culture, mysticism, and romance all wove together to create a magical story that I couldn’t stop reading. 

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 6

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