Thursday, October 13, 2011

War and death cause dark magic to flourish

The Great War creates problems throughout both mundane and magical Europe in Mercedes Lackey's fourth Elemental Masters novel, Phoenix and Ashes.

While this is the 4th book in the Elemental Masters series, it is certainly accessible to first time readers of the series.  While there are no real spoilers that I could tell, or anything beyond basic 'fantasy world magic' to know, there may be some that I missed, so be warned.  Otherwise, read on.

All of the Elemental Masters books are light, quick reading, but the backdrop of WWI during which Phoenix and Ashes takes place forces the story to take a much darker tone.

Eleanor still remembers life before her father remarried.  The beloved only child of a minor lord in the countryside outside of London, Eleanor was allowed to let her intellect flourish, and had every intention of going to the Women’s University at Oxford.

Even after he remarried, life was still at least tolerable.  Alison may have easily inserted herself as the center of her father’s world.  And Eleanor has been exiled to an attic bedroom so her stepsisters, more accustomed to city life, could have the more comfortable accommodations.  And perhaps the new additions to the household spend much, much more money on clothes and accessories than Eleanor ever would.  But at least she still had her schooling to work towards.

But her father volunteered for the front, along with every other man remotely fit enough to fight, and an all-too-common telegraph changed her destiny.

One lucky fact kept her from being disposed of immediately.  Her father never changed his will after his marriage.  As long as Eleanor is around, the money belongs to her and, by extension, her stepmother.  If anything were to happen to her, the estate would be transferred to a distant relation.

So her wicked stepmother did the only practical thing in such a situation.  One terrible binding spell, using one of Eleanor’s own fingers to set the spell to its victim, and Alison  has a new chargirl while the rest of the town just assumes that Eleanor left for Oxford as planned.

She discovers one small piece of hope, though.  It turns out that her mother, unbeknownst to her father, was an Elemental Master herself.  And even in death, with the help of an old friend, her mother is able to help her only daughter discover a hidden potential that has nothing to do with book learning at Oxford.

Not surprisingly, the death and misery on the warfront in France creates a nearly unlimited source of power for the darker side of the magical coin.  The evil Earth Elementals, especially, are feeding off of the blood, disease, and death in the trenches.  Many of the supposed shellshock victims are coming back to London tormented by these creatures, even if they were simply sensitive to magic, not mages themselves.  So when an Elemental Magician of Air is buried in rubble for days, his antagonistic element's dark creatures have a field day with him.

But with the help of a certain other Elemental Magician who works the charity wards and hospitals back in London, perhaps Reginald can heal enough to see the evil that has appeared here at home as well.

We see more of the characters from previous books in supporting roles than we have before.  It's also nice to see that the 'old boys' club' has reformed enough to let both commoners and women into its hallowed halls.

Because of the description of the WWI setting, along with the more fleshed out baddies, this book feels much richer and deeper that the last one.  The villains are still quite one-dimensional, simply wanting money and power for power's sake, but many more pages are devoted to the them and the people they destroy (including her own daughters) to achieve their ends.  That helps tremendously to make their eventual defeat more satisfying.

Less of a summer read that The Gates of Sleep, this fantasy story might be better enjoyed on a winter's night, curled up by a fire with a cup of tea than on the beach.  Check this one out when you want a story where the good guys always win in the end and the girl always gets the guy...eventually.

Highs:  Watching Reginald repeatedly put his foot in his mouth about Eleanor's new station in life

Lows:  It's sad to see how Alison's own daughters really never had a chance, considering what kind of mother they had

Verdict:  Still not the deepest book ever, but much more substantial than others in the series

Further Reading:  The Wizard of London, The Painted Boy

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