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

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