Thursday, March 10, 2011

When a beauty named Rose meets a half-man, half-beast in early 1900s San Francisco...

Books based on fairy tales tend to be a very relaxing type of story.  We already know the basic structure that it will have. The settings or side characters may change, but Snow White will encounter a poison apple, and Sleeping Beauty needs to beware spindles. By placing Beauty and the Beast in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and making magic both esoteric and a subject that can be studied empirically, Mercedes Lackey has created The Fire Rose, the first book in the Elemental Masters series.
Rose has a problem. Her doting father a professor in Chicago has died suddenly. But not, of course, before losing all their saved money in a series of bad investments and mismanaged banks. So now the debtors have landed, she can no longer pursue her doctoral degree, and there is not many avenues left for an over-educated woman.
Out of nowhere, a notice of possible employment appears at the office of her mentor at the university. A rather rich man named Jason Cameron has sent word that he needs a governess and tutor for his two young children. Even though it would be a drastic fall in status, with no where else to go, she took the train tickets and headed west.
Upon arrival, she learns the true nature of her employment. Jason Cameron tells her that he has had a disfiguring accident and can no longer study his books by himself. He tells Rose that he needs her to read to him through a speaking tube between their rooms. While unconventional, Rose has no other options, and so accepts the new job description.
This story, like all good fairy tales, has all the characters types one would expect in a fairy tale. We have the flawed hero with the sidekick-turned-equal girl. We have a turncoat former aide to our hero, as well as an unquestionably evil nemesis. There is never really any question as to who should come out on top, and while the manner in which things wrap up might not be how the reader expects, it’s still a very satisfying conclusion to our story.
As the first book in the Elemental Masters series, it also has to set the world and possibilities for all the books to come. While this is the only book to be set outside of Britain, it does a fantastic job of explaining how magic works, what generally is and is not possible, and even opens up the possibility of Eastern magic vs Western magic with Master Pao, the herbalist in Chinatown. It does use the fairly standard teaching a new Apprentice method of explaining what’s going on to the reader, but Rose is quite intelligent and only needs to be told something once, so it doesn’t get annoying as with other books.
This quality of writing is what makes Mercedes Lackey such a well-respected name in fantasy. Throughout, I was kept up later than I should have, wanting to know what happened next, and that’s how good fantasy should be.
Highs:  It’s always fun to hear a Master Magician’s familiar talk back to them
Lows:  Rose’s despair and cynicism at the beginning could be grating but it didn’t last long
Verdict: Great reading for anyone who likes a good fairy tale
Further Reading:  The Serpent’s Shadow, The Dragon Boy

Monday, March 7, 2011

Manga Monday: Can a street girl be taught the same way as the upper class?

Maids have a strange place in Japan pop culture. Maid caf├ęs are fantastically popular in the big cities, especially Tokyo. They seem to have taken the place of tea house among the younger crowd, with hostess bars filling the gap for older businessmen. These maid girls, especially in manga and anime, are often hyper-sexualized and this genre has taken the place of the school girl fantasy manga of a decade ago. They have little or no relation to the era from which the maid costume originated.

Emma: A Victorian Romance, is not one of these manga.

Emma had a hard start to life. Kidnapped from her home as a young girl and sold to a brothel, she managed to escape on her way there, but ended up lost on her own in London. After escaping, she lived the life of a street child in Victorian London selling flowers and the like, until she met the women who will change her life forever.

Kelly Stowner is a former governess who now lives in retirement. Upon stumbling on a fairly charming little flower girl, and about to leave her last posting as a governess, she decides to take her in as her maid. She also took the time to really pay attention to her new little charge. Young Emma didn’t leave dust on the banisters and cobwebs in the corners just because she was a lazy or sloppy cleaner.  It turns out that she simply can’t see well enough to do any better. And in an act of charity nearly unheard of at the time, Mrs. Stowner takes Emma to get a pair of glasses.  

Having been a governess, and because a household of one does leave some down time for a maid, Mrs. Stowner took the time to educate Emma as well. In her care, Emma learns to read, write, and speak properly. She also learns to read a bit of French, which implies that she was taught the classics as well. Along the way, although very shy and unsure of herself, she learns proper comportment, which in as stratified and formal a culture as Victorian England, is of the utmost importance.

In this volume, one of Mrs. Stowner’s former students, William Jones, comes to visit. He has something of a…run-in …with Emma, and is immediately smitten with her.

What follows is an amazingly accurate depiction of Victorian England, and what might happen in a romance between two people of dramatically different social classes. A self-admitted Anglophile, Mori did an amazing amount of research for the series, and it shows. She took painstaking steps to make sure each line of dialog is accurate to the period as possible. The love that went into this series shows.  And with paired with pleasant characters and a truly Victorian style romance, you get perhaps the most charming romantic story to come out in recent years.

Highs: The folks that hang out at the pub are great fun

Lows: Probably too slow-paced for some

Verdict: A very lovely series for all ages

Further Reading:  Honey and Clover, Maison Ikkoku