Phoenix and Ashes, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Continuing with my reading of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series (and hoping my grades stop gradually falling as I go on!), we come to book #4, Phoenix and Ashes (excerpts: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3). And I guess the "Ashes" in the title are a good clue that the fairy tale Lackey is tackling in this entry is Cinderella.

What do you think about the cover here? I can't quite decide if I like it or not, though I do appreciate that it does give a good idea of the tone and theme of the story. And is my imagination running away with me or does that rising phoenix look a bit like Cinderella's pumpkin/carriage?

Following her acclaimed novels The Serpent's Shadow and The Gates of Sleep, Mercedes Lackey reinvents a classic fairy tale-and gives it a new twist. In a dark and atmospheric retelling of Cinderella, she sets her story in London during the first World War.
Phew! The grade-decline has stopped! Book #1 as an A-, book #2 a B+ and book #3 a B, so I was fearing the series might keep going downhill. Fortunately, that is not the case. We've at least reached a plateau. I give P&A a B.

This particular version of Cinderella is set in England during WWI, and our heroine is young Eleanor Robinson, whose misguided father marries not merely a mean woman, but one who is an evil and powerful magician. Once safely married, Allison doesn't waste any time in getting rid of her husband, sending him off to the war, where he dies. Unfortunately, she wasn't quite as smart as she thought she was being, because there was the small matter of his will that wasn't correctly handled, and now everything goes to his daughter, Eleanor.

As soon as she finds out, Allison performs another evil and powerful spell and, cutting off the girl's little finger, she buries it under the hearth, binding Eleanor to it and forcing on her a compulsion to do nothing but clean the house. Eleanor finds herself also magically unable to leave the house and to tell anyone what's happening to her. So poor Eleanor goes from a prosperous young woman, about to go off to university, to a starving slave to her step-mother (who now controls all her money) and -sisters... until her powers as a Fire Master start to emerge.

If we have Cinderella, then we must have a Prince Charming, and this particular Prince Charming is a wonderful character. I mentioned how a secondary character in The Serpent's Shadow reminded me a lot of Lord Peter Wimsey. Well, Reggie Fenyx (who also appeared in TS'sS, strangely enough, but wasn't the secondary character I refer to above), is also very Peter-ish. He's not just son of a duke, handsome and charming, what reminded me the most about LPW were Reggie's experiences during the war.

An Air Master, Reggie was having quite an easy time flying planes, when he met another Air Master flying for the other side and was shot down. And the nightmare continued when he survived the crash, because he was practically buried alive, and an Air Master in the Earth is a very tempting prey for the nastiest of the Earth Elementals.

The result is that Reggie ends up suppressing his magic completely and gets a grave case of shellshock, one that leaves him often unable to even function. When he gets home, he is faced both with sympathy and with scorn for being a malingerer, and he can't stand either. So he goes home, where he comes into contact again with Eleanor, a young woman he'd been friendly with before the war... and who is the only one he can talk to now and protect him from her stepmother's machinations regarding him.

I just loved the setting of this one, especially because it really added a lot to the story. Lackey really did it wonderfully here, even if she sometimes did get a little preachy. But still, we get a fascinating insight into the daily hardships of those on the home front during WWI, as well as a view of the war itself through Reggie's eyes. There are plenty of tiny, very telling details that painted a very vivid picture.

The story set in this wonderfully done background is just as fascinating, with a villain whose evil is scarily believable and well-justified and whose actions are creepy as hell, and with a heroine who (again!) is not just waiting for rescue, as one might expect in a fairy tale, but works hard at getting out of the jam in which she finds herself and not only rescues herself, but helps the prince, too. As for that prince... *sigh*. Wonderful man! Oh, and I LOVED the ending! Shades of Peter and Harriet there, too!

BTW, the glass slipper? It's not glass, and I loved Lackey's twist on it! She does the gruesome version of the fairy tale with it, and I was bloodthirsty enough to relish it!

So, why not a higher grade? Well, the first thing is the pacing. There's a section of the story in which nothing much is happening but Eleanor's magical education, and the story bogs down quite a bit . I mean, I enjoyed Lackey's use of the Tarot cards as a device to help Eleanor learn and to show her progress, but at times it became a little too much, and though those chapters were interesting to read, it just felt as if we were going around in circles and not getting anywhere.

Another thing was that thinking back, I realize Reggie and Eleanor don't spend all that much time together. So where did that great love come from? I think they're both interesting enough in their own right that I didn't notice while I was reading, but once the book was over, I just didn't completely see them falling in love.

And finally, an annoyance. The whole subplot about the Spanish Flu just gets lost there in the confusion of the ending, and that's too bad, because it was an interesting one.

Still, a very good story. Only one to go now in this series. I'm looking forward to it!


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