Breath of Earth begins a new fantastical alternative-history series from Beth Cato, in which hydrogen-filled airships dot the skies, giant beasts in the ground cause earthquakes, and Teddy Roosevelt became an internationally-renowned Ambassador rather than the 26th U.S. President. (There’s also a nationally touring opera prominently featured in a side plot; if Lincoln isn’t a sly nod to a certain massively popular Tony-winning musical, I will eat my least-favorite hat.)
In an almost-recognizable San Francisco, a permanent establishment of geomancer wardens keeps the city and the surrounding countryside safe from tremors and other manifestations of magical energy. By absorbing the earth’s power and transferring it to crystals of a special mineral known as kermanite, the wardens allow for the safe use of that power, which would otherwise shake the city’s buildings to rubble — until an assassin’s attack levels the wardens’ stronghold, killing most of its members. Secretary Ingrid Carmichael and her kindly mentor, Mr. Sakaguchi, escape serious harm thanks to Ingrid’s hidden geomancy, but their survival only serves to bring them into even more danger, as United Pacific soldiers from the Japan-U.S. alliance begin asking uncomfortable questions and unseen enemies move closer, threatening even greater acts of destruction. Along with Mr. Sakaguchi’s Chinese house servant, Lee Fong, Ingrid is drawn against her will into plans and conspiracies, bringing her into contact with charming Southern gentleman Cypress Jennings and his brilliant airship mechanic, Mr. Fenris, who have their own secrets and agendas. With just four days until the great quake of 1906, can Ingrid and her newfound allies move fast enough to save themselves and the rest of the city?
The system of magic in Breath of Earth is a lot of fun; I liked that there are magical creatures of various shapes and sizes, from itty-bitty faeries to giant beasts living under the earth, each with a certain significance to the place in which it’s found. Best of all, there’s a system of checks and balances to geomancy: if a geomancer takes in too much energy, they put their life at risk, but the possibility of storing that energy in kermanite is a great way to use magic for practical, long-term purposes, like powering airships or autocars. And the brief mentions of geomancy throughout history, particularly during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, make it clear that this is a long-established magical practice with inextricable effects on human civilization.
Additionally, Cato folds in less-savory aspects of San Francisco’s past, like the racially-segregated parts of town and the abhorrent treatment of Chinese immigrants (and, really, anyone who wasn’t the so-called “right” kind of white). Even though the War Between the States had a drastically different ending in this alternative history, thanks to the Japanese intervention of weapons and troops, Ingrid’s dark skin and gender prevent many people from seeing her as more than just a servant. Despite her tremendous natural talent for geomancy, she is forbidden from studying it alongside her male peers, much like all women in her time are supposedly incapable of learning any subject as well as a man might be able to. Combine this with devastating wars and genocides raging across India and China, and you’ve got a healthy heaping of indignation and social outrage mixed in with Breath of Earth’s political intrigue, non-stop action, and sweetly endearing romance.
If you’re in the mood for high-stakes adventure and characters who plunge headlong into danger; if you like the idea of alternative history with an honest appreciation for how that history would affect people across the spectrum of races and cultures; if you’re looking for something steampunk-flavored that blends science and magic, then Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth is for you. I know I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next instalment!
Jana gave a great plot overview for this book, so mostly what I can add is how much I enjoyed it. Full disclosure: Beth Cato provided a blurb for my forthcoming book.
In Breath of Earth, Cato depicts a complete and wonderful magic system. In 1906 San Francisco, geomancy or earth magic is the center of things, but this world teems with other magics and magical beings. Ingrid, who works at the San Francisco Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary — as a secretary and housemaid — has powerful abilities herself, but the geomancers believe (or at least have decided; it’s not clear which) that woman can’t wield geomantic power. Ingrid is frustrated by this, and even her father figure Mr. Sakaguchi treats her almost as if she is an invalid, for reasons she doesn’t understand. The situation gets urgent fast, when an act of sabotage kills every geomancer except Mr. Sakaguchi — and Ingrid.
The world of Breath of Earth takes a specific point of real-world history as its jumping off point, and postulates a world of warring empires: Britain, a different USA, and Japan. Japan is ascendant, and conducting a war of extermination in China, a fact which touches Ingrid and Mr. Sakaguchi directly and personally.
The action is well-written, the magic is wonderful and Cato raises the stakes time after time in vivid and surprising ways. The southern-wanderer character, Cypress Jennings, is attractive. The love story is woven in skillfully and doesn’t slow down the action.
Whether it’s mermaids or a stampede of terrified cattle down a San Francisco street, the book is filled with wild, plausible images. Ingrid is a scrappy character with secrets to uncover. Jennings is an enigmatic ally. He isn’t the only one with secrets; his engineer partner Fenris has some too.