SPFBO 8: Oil and Dust by Jami Fairleigh

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I found this cover striking and so I decided to start my batch with this one. That seemed as good enough reason as any since I was unfamiliar with all of my titles this year.

The opening to this really had me intrigued. I think it hooked me hard because I enjoyed both the character and the world within the first few chapters. This story is very up front with what it is, and straight up tells you in the first couple chapters this is a post-apocalyptic world based loosely on our own. About 200 years ago technology vanished, leaving the world as disconnected as it was before electricity/phone/internet etc.

Our MC, Matthew lives in the New England area and he’s an Artist. Artistry is a magic that not many can use. Whatever he paints onto a canvas can be translated into real life, a ruined city can be fixed in an afternoon rather than over a lifetime. The more intricate and more massive the more power and time it takes. Technically, it’s possible to make living things but the effort it takes is not worth it in the end, according to Matthew it would be easier to breed a horse than to paint one into existence.

So, at the opening Matthew wanders into a town who’s overly-excited at his arrival. He’s supposed to be an unknown entity since he didn’t send advance notice of his arrival. However, people know he’s coming and they’re excited that he’s accepted a five year employment agreement. Well, he has no idea what they’re talking about even after he’s shown a letter from his university stating that he would be staying in their town for five years. He has to let them down gently, and he does help them out while he’s there — but the big mystery is who sent this letter saying he was his professor, and why does he want to tie him to this particular town for five years?

When he stumbled into the town he was already on a personal mission to find his family. He was dropped off at the university around three years old and so he’s on a quest to find where he came from. We get a villain POV who is set on stopping him from finding his parents, but we don’t know why. The reader only knows that the villain is going through great lengths to assure that he never meets them.

I liked Matthew as a character, he was insightful, relatable, empathetic but also independent and not really someone who lives to serve others. Sometimes there’s a lack of middle ground characters, those who fall somewhere between asshole and someone who is a “push over” or selfless to a fault — which is where I think most of humanity lands but I tend to see exaggerated characters which make them difficult to relate to. Matthew’s dog, Charcoal, was definitely a highlight of the book. I love animal companions and this dog and his relationship with Matthew was particularly well done. The way that Matthew treats animals in general added a nice humanistic element to him as well.

There are some secondary characters that he meets in along the way that I had some mixed feelings on. I didn’t enjoy how we were introduced to Josephine, it was an attempted sexual assault that he stymies right before it goes too far. The nick of time saves were a theme since it happened a few times in different instances throughout the book. To use this as an intro to a character is just kind of weird, but also for some reason really overused.

The ideas and concepts in the world building was really neat. Outside of the artistry aspect, I liked the mix of science and magic it had going on. In this world magic is more like a science, just another one of the laws of nature that could be studied, measured, tested, and repeated. A lot of knowledge and the ability to communicate it quickly was lost with the downfall of technology, etc. That kind of thing just appeals to me. So, the issue here for me was the delivery. Unfortunately, a lot of this was given to the reader via info dumps and that’s one of the least appealing ways for me to get that information. When it happens frequently it can get increasingly jarring as I’m taken out of the moment repeatedly.

The pacing for me dragged quite a bit in the middle which is where it lost the most amount of points, Matthew goes on sort of a wandering adventure and the events in the middle felt very rushed. It would have been more effective to deep dive into one problem along the way than a handful of rushed problems that are there and gone before I get a chance to care and build up tension.

Overall this was a mixed bag for me. It started out really strong but it had a number of things that just didn’t work for me which overall dragged the score down. I did finish this one so it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy myself. At this point in my SPFBO career I DNF if I’m not liking something and move on to the next book. I would still recommend this to people who like found family, sci-fantasy, post apocalyptical worlds and animal companions.


  • Plot: 10/15
  • Characters: 10/15
  • World Building: 11/15
  • Writing: 11/15
  • Pacing: 8/15
  • Originality: 12/15
  • Enjoyment: 6/10

Final Score: 68/100

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