Review: “The Rust Maidens,” Gwendolyn Kiste

Pros: Inexorable, bleak, and riveting
Cons: Kind of slow
Rating: 5 out of 5

Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens is a slow, lingering journey that’s equal parts bleak and riveting. Phoebe lives in Cleveland, in a neighborhood occupied by steel mill workers. It’s 1980, the year she graduated from high school. Everything’s a bit broken down, and there’s always the worry that someday, during one of the regular strikes, the steel mill might shut down and condemn the area entirely to a slow death. Phoebe wants nothing more than to get out of town, along with her cousin (“but more like my twin”) Jaqueline. Unfortunately, before she can do so, things go horribly wrong. Girls start… changing. Cloudy water weeps from tears in their skin, which puckers like leather. Their fingernails turn to broken glass.

Beneath the skin, in the place where her bones should have been, there was something long and corrugated and oxidized.

The “Rust Maidens” change, and not just physically. Once a well-meaning sister publishes an article in the newspaper in an attempt to bring attention to the problem, everything goes wrong. Three government agents get involved. Doctors start studying the girls. Tourists pour into the neighborhood, taking pictures. But the things no one can agree on are what’s happening, what started it, and how it might be stopped. This is intertwined with Phoebe’s return to the neighborhood nearly thirty years later as her mother prepares to move from the family home. She meets Quinn and Eleanor, two young women who are mixed up with the neighborhood’s history and present.

I’m rather amazed that Kiste managed to bring in elements such as government agents, medical doctors, and tourists without ruining the bleak, inexorable horror of the tale. It’s quite impressive. The prose is soaked with the feel of the run-down industrial neighborhood, the foundering steel mill, the desperate workers, the panel of wives and mothers, the moments when the plight of the Rust Maidens turns into anger and rage and a feeling that maybe it’s something they’re just doing to get attention. The pace is slow and lingering, but that didn’t discourage me–there was quite enough to fascinate me and hold my attention.

It might have been nice to have a quick note starting off each chapter to delineate which time line it takes place in just for a quicker settling-in, but that’s a minor quibble.

This is a really unusual read. It definitely isn’t for a time when you want something action-filled, but if you want atmospheric, industrial horror, it’s fantastic!

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