Any good series starts somewhere in the middle. It's impossible to go into everyone's backstory right from the beginning. So while enough information is given to understand what's going on, there will always be a few questions as to how the characters got started. Mercedes Lackey goes back to before the beginning and shows us how Lord Alderscroft became the leader of the Magician's Circle in The Wizard of London.
While this is the 5th 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
Sarah Jane Lyon-White has had an amazing life, especially for one so young. The daughter of doctors working with missionaries in Africa, she was never raised with the seen-but-not-heard theory of child rearing in 19th century Britain. Rather, while her parents made sure to protect her from the worst aspects of life in Africa, they also allowed her to learn and grow as a little adult. But Africa isn't always the best place for a young lady, and even the most doting of parents can't teach their children everything they need to know. So young Sarah was sent on a steamer ship with a group of other expatriate children back to London. She was much luckier than most, though, and was received by the warm embrace of Isabelle Harton and the Harton School.
Nan Killian couldn't have had a more different upbringing. While Sarah has two parents who love her and want the best for her, Nan has no father to speak of and a mother who is more concerned with where her next bottle is coming from thank keeping the cupboard full. While Sarah's parents made sure that she would have both a decent education and a safe place to live, Nan never learned to read more than just the signs near where she lived and never knew if she'd have a roof over her head next week. And while Sarah's parents sent her away to a place what they knew was both a loving place and a place where Sarah's abilities would be brought to their full potentian, Nan's mother sold her to child slavers. Or at least she tried to. Nan, with Talents of her own, came to the attention of the Hartons all by herself. And the Harton School can always make room for one more Talented student.
Most of The Wizard of London is centered around Nan and Sarah at the school. Neither girl is an Elemental Master, or even Mage. Rather, the Harton School focuses on the Talented.
Both Isabel and Franklin Harton, as well as many of their students, have abilities that are better described as psychical than the more traditional Elemental Magic that we've seen so far in the series. Nan has a very strong ability to read people's thoughts and intentions, honed by a life on the streets. Sarah as more of an affinity with spirits, both the long dead and the recently deceased. Both the girls' talents make the susceptible to the more unscrupulous out there, and it's the Hartons' responsibility to let them use their powers for good, while not being taken advantage of either.
Several of the adults at the school are also Warriors of the Light. As Warriors, the can take on a different Avatar when invoking the ability. And when facing evils as old as the ones faced here, they'll need every advantage that they can get.
For David Alderscroft wasn't always the avuncular figure living at the Master's Circle that we know now. Alderscroft was once a vain, petty young man whose only goals were money and power. Innately a Fire Master, he ended up under the tutelage of Lady Cordelia, and forsaking the heat that is a part of his nature, turned to Ice instead. Mastering the lack of heat the same way one might master heat itself, he not only turned his ability cold, but his heart as well.
For Cordelia has been an Ice Master for much longer, and she has much deeper laid plans than Alderscroft has any idea of. Approached long ago by an Ice Spirit that has been locked away in a glacier, she twisted her own Air mastery to Ice as well. But as a woman in nineteenth century Britain, there's only so far that she can go by herself.
With the power of an Ice Elemental behind her, Cordelia is a formidable foe. People who fight on the side of good have their own Old Ones too, though, and a visit from one of the Good Neighbors may be in order to keep things right.
So much of this book centers around The Harton School and the people within. We see Nan and Sarah grow and develop their Talents. We see Isabelle, Frederick and their cohorts from India protect their charges. And that's fine. A slow build can be nice sometimes, and by the time we discover how truly wicked Cordelia is, we care so much about our school that we're really pulling from the good guys to win the day. Whoever the good guys might turn out to be.
Highs: The idea of The Harton School being such a mix of different cultures and animals living together is quite nice.
Lows: The main battle seems to happen so quickly that it feels rushed.
Verdict: It's great to see how the Master's Circle got its start, as adding in a visit from the Good Neighbors is an extra treat.
Further Reading: Reserved for the Cat, The Midnight Palace