“Three arseholes walk into a bar” is not your typical fantasy novel intro, but it’s definitely evocative enough to make you want to read more. J.P. Oakes’ debut City of Iron and Dust — set in a gritty world of goblins, fae, and other magical ne’er-do-wells — isn’t out until next summer, but Gizmodo has a first look at the cover and a peek inside for you today.
First up, a little context to get you into the story:
The Iron City is a prison, a maze, an industrial blight. It is the result of a war that saw the Goblins grind the Fae beneath their collective boot heels. And tonight, it is also a city that churns with life. Tonight, a young fae is trying to make his fortune one drug deal at a time; a goblin prince is searching for a path between his own dreams and others’ expectations; his bodyguard is deciding who to kill first; an artist is hunting for her own voice; an old soldier is starting a new revolution; a young rebel is finding fresh ways to fight; and an old woman is dreaming of reclaiming her power over them all. Tonight, all their stories are twisting together, wrapped up around a single bag of Dust — the only drug that can still fuel Fae magic — and its fate and theirs will change the Iron City forever.
Here’s the full cover, designed by Julia Lloyd and making its debut here on Gizmodo. Below that, you’ll find an exclusive excerpt from City of Iron and Dust.
1. Three arseholes walk into a bar
A bar. A dive. A neon sign glitching on and off above a burst of yellow light seen through a smeared windowpane. A bouncer hulking in a doorway — the type with more knuckles than IQ points. Probably half-dryad by the look of him, although his mother certainly wasn’t one of the willow-tree sprites that get all the press. The smell of wet asphalt and cigarette smoke in the air. Brownies, kobolds, and sidhe bundling past, wishing they had enough money to go in. But no one in this part of the Iron City is particularly liquid right now. They haven’t been for the past 50 years. Prospects don’t look great.
Inside, a mad cram of bodies. A shouting, clawing mass with one thing in mind: erasing the grind of the week with bad decisions, and the possibility to one day tell a story that starts with the phrase, “Don’t judge me, because I was obliterated at the time.”
The fae of the Iron City are at their shift’s end. They are at their wits’ end. They don’t appreciate the rhyme, even though the band on the stage is milking it for all they’re worth. A pixie on vocals, her hair half-shaved, the other half bright as summer lilacs. She’s screeching and screaming, throwing all of her adolescent energy into every word. And it’s immature, and it’s mostly wrong, but there’s still a beauty to her passion that half the preening fae with their pints of fermented nectar can’t wait to tell her about.
Behind her, a kobold has scavenged an old oak door from somewhere and is beating on it like it said something horrifying about his sister. He’s broad, and wearing a shirt to prove it, muscles emerging from the shaggy mane of red hair that obscures half his features.
The slender sidhe violinist who accompanies them is perhaps hampered by her own ennui. Still, attitude counts for a lot on stage and her dead-eyed stare from above knife-blade sharp cheekbones makes up a lot ground.
The three of them have Jag transfixed.
Jag does not belong here. Jag’s neatly coiffed and perfectly trimmed hair don’t belong. Her clothes with their perfect lines and elegant stitching don’t belong. And Jag’s race definitely does not belong.
Jag is a goblin. She is obviously and painfully a goblin. She is green-skinned and sharp featured. She has yellow eyes with slit pupils. She is long-fingered. And while she is taller and graced with more sidhe-like elegance than most of her kind, she is still, undeniably, a goblin.
Jag is an oppressor in a bar of the oppressed.
Jag thinks she knows all this, of course. Jag believes she is wise to the possibilities and the dangers, but Jag is the heir of House Red Cap. Her father is Osmondo Red. Consequences have been, in her experience, things that happen to other goblins.
The other reason no one in the bar is willing to cure Jag of her assumptions is Sil. Sil stands behind Jag’s chair. Sil with a sword strapped to her back, and scars on her face that the sweep of her white-blonde hair cannot quite obscure. Half-fae, half-sidhe, every angle on her body seems to have been sharpened to a point. And while her skin is too green for the tastes of the fae around her, and too pale for the goblins back home, she is more than prepared to take on anyone who wants to take it up with her.
Sil hears the music. She sees the encounter with the numinous it inspires in Jag. She finds it does nothing for her. To her, the notes are simply obfuscation, hiding mutters, muting angry words.
What Sil does care about is intent. The way one gnome shifts his weight, the way another kobold stares. She cares about the purposeful movements that the fae try to dissemble. She cares about escape routes and high priority targets.
She has the whole bar charted by now, the route of every wooden tray of spiked milk and moss-stuffed taco catalogued. She sees, she thinks, everything except the thing that makes Jag grin, and look round at her, and say, “It’s so beautiful!”
She wonders if she ever did see such things. She cannot remember clearly. One beating has become another in her memory. All the lessons she’s ever been taught blurring into one.
She nods, though. She has been taught to agree with her half-sister. Another lesson drummed into her ribs. Her kidneys. The back of her skull.
Jag turns back to the band, grinning. Sil checks to make sure that no one else has made a move. To make sure that Jag is safe.
In the end, that is all she does, and can, care about.
Deeper into the bar, away from the stage, and through the press of onlookers, in the shadows, Knull is shifting his weight from foot to foot. He is made restless by his father’s pixie blood, made practically anxious by his mother’s brownie heritage.
Every drug deal, Knull knows, is a fuck up waiting to happen. It’s not that he’s a pessimist. It just that he knows the best-case scenario is that everyone goes home afterwards and makes themselves incrementally dumber.
Knull also knows that every drug deal is a chance to make serious cash. Especially when the shit he’s selling has been cut three ways to Mourn’s Day, and is likely to only get the purchaser about as high as a three-day-old balloon. And that’s exactly what he’s going to do to the pair of dull-eyed gnomes in front of him now. They aren’t regulars. They aren’t locals. That means they get the tourist special.
“This?” Knull shakes his baggy of Dust at the pair. “You don’t want this.” He slips it back into his pocket. He points to the other baggies he’s spread out on the table.
“Titania’s Revenge.” He picks up a bag of completely identical Dust. “It’s like being kissed on your frontal lobes.” He picks up another — its contents in absolutely no way different from the previous two bags. “Iron Blood. It’s got a bite, but it’ll be one hell of a night.”
“Why,” says one of the two gnomes, “don’t we want the other bag?”
Knull pats his pocket. “This? Serious customers only, mate.”
The gnomes exchange a look. They are big, shirt-sleeves rolled up to reveal tattoos and biceps. Knull recognises their guild brands: coal miners. No Dust, he thinks, will ever get them as high as their own sense of self-importance.
“You think,” one gnome says, “that we ain’t serious?”
Knull pats his pocket one more time. “Midsommar Dreams? That’s dryads only, my friends. It’s not personal, just biology. This would screw you up so bad you wouldn’t know your own names for three days.”
The gnomes exchange a look.
“I want the Midsommar Dreams,” one says.
This, Knull thinks, is like taking sap from a dryad. Except it’s taking money from idiots, which is potentially a whole lot easier.
Excerpt from J.P. Oakes’ City of Iron and Dust reprinted by permission. Copyright Titan Books.
J.P. Oakes’ City of Iron and Dust will be out July 6, 2021, but you can pre-order a copy here.