Reading Backwards

Book reviews by your favorite Git.

Phoenix & Ashes

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Mercedes Lackey
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Rating: Excellent
Read: August 2005

I’ve been really disappointed with Mercedes Lackey’s last few books- she’s been churning them out like piss, with much the same result. But when I was at the library, I picked this title off the new books stands, and it had a lot of promise, so I figured, “Why not?”

I want a copy of my own, now! (That’s two excellent library finds that I need to buy!)

It is 1917, and Britain is engaged in the first World War. All able-bodied young men have been shipped overseas, leaving the nation in a state that Americans will recognize as closely resembling the WWII rationing, etc. It is a brutal war; the rules of engagement have changed with the new weaponry, but the war’s commanders have not yet recognized this.

Eleanor Robinson is the daughter of a man who made his money very unromantically manufacturing and selling burlap sacks. Spectacular or not, they have plenty of money, live a lovely life, and Eleanor is able to realistically dream of attending Oxford. THey live in the small town of Broom, one of several villages under the eye of Longacre Park, owned by the Baron, Lord Devlin Fenyx.

Lord Devlin, alas, has passed away. His only son, Reggie, is an ace pilot and, of course, in the Royal Flying Corps. He is a local hero, and all the boys in town as well as Eleanor adored him. But he doesn’t fly so expertly on pure mechanical skill alone- he also an Air Master, a magician. So was his father. Reggie effectively avoids being shot down for two or three years- until a magical mishap sends him crashing to earth where a series of chaotic events leave him shellshocked and vowing never again to use his magic, fearing that it will call the ‘demon’ elemental creatures down on him.

While Reggie has been away at war, Eleanor’s father has remarried, to a woman named Alison with two daughters. He is one of the war’s first casualties, unfortunately. He dies leaving his will unchanged to reflect his marriage- his money is still to go to Eleanor- and without leaving set plans for her to attend Oxford. Her step-mother, furious that Eleanor is due the fortune she thought she had won, takes advantage of Eleanor in her grief to cast a spell binding her to the house’s hearth, and makes her the household drudge. Alison is an Earth Master, and not the nice kind.

In this way, several themes merge into a thoroughly cohesive novel. Magic wars with the modern world and its war. Elemental Masters battle one another while playing social games. Britain’s class system rears its moldy head. Wartime Britain is made vivid reality for both reader and the two main characters, both of whom are essentially absent for the first two years or so of the war. The Cinderella allusions are not in your imagination- they are obvious, and yet not cumbersome. There is no glass slipper, Alison is out to do Eleanor real harm, she is never CALLED Cinderella by anyone, and her fairy godmother is actually another Earth Master.

But most importantly of all, Eleanor is not helpless. SHe, too, has latent power beginning to emerge- she has the power to be a Fire Master, and with that power, she may be able to win her freedom.

I know I have said how sick I am of Cinderella retellings, but this one rocks. It’s right under Ella Enchanted, which is entirely too short, but tighter than this.

My complaints come in the handling of the magic. Ms. Lackey has spent so much time writing about Valdemar, her massive series, which always must have enough information to orient and explain without boring the already knowledgeable, is clumsy in P&A when recapping why such and such occurred or how so and so can do xx. You’re aware every time a character thinks out step by step why what took place, because it’s so obviously deliberate. But, I will forgive this, because the book as a whole is wonderful and I wish IT were longer, too.

There’s nothing quite like a good Cinderella story.

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Written by Shen

August 19, 2005 at 1:22 am

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