The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Wednesday, May 03, 2006

book coverSo I read my first Mercedes Lackey book, The Fairy Godmother, and it's incredible, really blows my mind. I ask for recs, and my fellow readers give me a great list of possible Lackey books to try next. I get them, and then what do I do? Why, wait a year to read them, of course! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

But well, at last I started them! The first series I went for is the Elemental Masters series, which starts with The Fire Rose

Rosalind Hawkins is a medieval scholar from a fine family in Chicago, unfortunately, her professor father has speculated away the family money and died, leaving young Rosalind with no fortune and no future. Desolate with grief, forced to cut her education short, she agrees to go West to take a job as a governess to a wealthy man in San Francisco.

Jason Cameron her new employer is a man with a problem: An Adept and Alchemist, Master of the Element of Fire, he had attempted the old French werewolf transformation, and got stuck in mid transformation. Trapped halfway between wolf and man, he has been slowly losing his humanity, and with it his ability to discover a cure for his condition.
Oh, wow! Wow, wow, wow! A wonderful, magical retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. An A-.

Rosalind Hawkins is a scholar in 1905 Chicago when her father dies and she's left penniless. Faced with a choice between finding a job as a shopgirl or something and accepting a mysterious offer to teach the children of a San Francisco railway baron, she chooses the latter. At least the letter from Mr. Cameron offering her the job seems to suggest the man's not a prejudiced boor!

But when she arrives at Jason Cameron's house, not far outside San Francisco, Rose discovers she's been brought there under false pretenses. There aren't any children there, and the job Mr. Cameron wants her to do is completely different from the one she was supposed to be doing. He tells her he's had an accident that prevents him from reading the books he needs for his research, so he needs someone to do it for him: someone who can also translate from ancient languages and who is willing to read to him through a speaking tube.

Rose is a bit nonplussed by this, but considering that a) she doesn't really have many choices, b) the job pays very well and Cameron's giving her the chance to continue with her own research, as well, and c) this work does sound better suited to her tastes than teaching children, she accepts.

But if she was surprised at the initial request, she's even more so when she sees the kind of books Cameron wants her to read to him. Their subject is magick, and before long, Rose begins to suspect that there might be something to them, something that explains the many strange things happening in the house.

She soon discovers (and this isn't a spoiler at all, since it's something we readers know from the beginning), that Jason is the Firemaster of the San Francisco area. That, as far as I'm able to understand, means that he's a magician who controls that element, Fire, as well as the Fire elementals, the Salamanders.

She also finds out that the reason Jason needs her services is that he suffered an accident, but not a commonplace one at all: he arrogantly tried to work an unreliable spell which was actually more suitable to another element, and trying to change into a wolf, he got stuck between wolf and man. And don't think he's just a bit more hairy, or has a few more anger-control issues.

Nope, take a look at that cover. From Lackey's description, that face might look a bit too much like a wolf, but not much. I visualized it a bit more humanized, but it's made very clear that Jason has become quite a monster. What's more, the badly done change gives him trouble focusing his eyes, his joints hurt, and those anger-control issues? He's got them, and they seem to be getting worse.

So, where should I start? There were so many things I loved about this book! The world-building was fantastic, and I while I appreciate that Lackey limited the information about how elemental magick works and what its principles are to what we needed to know for the book, so that it didn't overwhelm the story, I would have loved to read some of the books Rose had to read, because I wanted more details about how things worked. I think she hit the perfect balance between leaving her readers wanting more and giving this element enough development.

My favourite element... er, thing, about this? The elementals. I loved the salamanders, and the sylphs and all the others. They were well drawn, each with their own personality, and again, I wanted to know more. Can't wait to learn more about the undines, for instance, which were pretty much only mentioned here.

I also loved that Lackey wrote this magical world against a setting that was wonderful in its own right. Turn of the century San Francisco has a charm of its own, and Lackey makes great use of it, with vivid descriptions of places and things. Plus, there's the fact that the action starts in late 1905, and as the months pass and we get nearer and nearer April 1906, and we hear about how the Earth Master is a bit worried because his elementals are restless, that adds a tension of its own to the story. I think I'd always have recognized what was coming, but reading this book in April 2006, while I was reading all those articles in the newspapers about the centennial of the earthquake, was especially interesting. And I actually knew nothing about the book's setting when I picked it up. How's that for a coincidence?

But this book wasn't just amazing world-building. The story Lackey tells against this wonderful setting is great, too. I especially enjoyed the character of Rose. I loved how she wasn't this perfect, goody-goody, boring woman, but a woman with flaws. She's extremely practical, loves her comfort, and sees no sense in rejecting Jason's gifts just because it isn't "proper" for her to receive them. As long as her being a woman puts her in such an untenable situation once her father dies, she sees no sense in continuing to follow its nonsensical rules (not that the brilliant scholar was such a rule-follower before, anyway), especially when there's no one to see! So as long as she's not being asked to do something she considers immoral, Rose sees no problem in being as comfortable as possible. And she's also a bit greedy, too!

I quite liked Jason, too. I loved that Lackey didn't set him up as some all-powerful magician, which would have put him and Rose in too big a power imbalance. He's got his flaws, too, and some so big that have left him caught in the situation he's in. And even that hasn't really cured him of his pride. I really enjoyed seeing how he's so shocked as he begins to develop feelings for Rose, something he'd completely discounted as ridiculous.

As you may imagine from what I've written above, there is a very nice romance here. It's a very subtle and ungraphic one, as I'd expected from the fact that one of the people involved in the relationship is half-wolf (still, Lackey very delicately assures us that sexual activity between Jason and Rose would be perfectly feasible, because he's completely human from nipples to knees, except for the tail), but it's extremely romantic.

The only thing that bothered me about this book were the parts in which we follow one of the villains, Paul du Mond, Jason's secretary, as he goes about his evil business in town. His business truly is evil and horrific, and a bit too graphically described for me. They just didn't go with the rest of the tone of the book. I mean, if it weren't for this, I'd say TFR would work wonderfully as a YA book, but all this is much too explicit for YA!

And it wasn't just the graphic nature of those horrific activities that bothered me, it was also (mostly?) the fact that Jason was aware of them, and basically considered them "pecadilloes"... a sign that the man didn't have the self-possession to become an Elemental Master, but not something so outrageously evil that something needed to be done about it. That was a real shocker to me. I don't ask that Jason be a perfect saint of a man, but it was way too much that he continued to tolerate in his house a man who worked as a "breaker" at a local whorehouse. And if you're wondering what a breaker breaks, it's women: the troublesome, unwilling girls. He makes sure they stop giving their "owners" trouble. *sigh* I'm pretty sure I'm going to be skipping those sections when I reread TFR.

I've got the next two books, Serpent's Shadow and Gates of Sleep waiting, and I can't wait to find out more about this world. What did you think, those of you who've read them? Are they as good as this one?


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