Call of Fire (2017) continues the adventures of Ingrid Carmichael, introduced in Breath of Earth as a secretary at a geomancy school with tremendous hidden powers and who, in this second BLOOD OF EARTH novel, is on the run from an ambitious ambassador with deadly secrets. This time, Beth Cato takes Ingrid, Lee Fong, Cy Jennings, and the brilliant engineer Mr. Fenris up the Pacific Northwest coastline to Portland and Seattle, where the Japanese influence of the United Pacific conglomeration is inescapable.
Ambassador Blum, a mysterious woman who can change her physical form and practices a dark form of reiki, desperately wants to get her hands on Ingrid, which forebodes all kinds of suffering, much like what her father was revealed to have been subject to in Breath of Earth. And since seismic activity is triggered when Ingrid experiences pain, with a correlation between the strength of the tremors and the intensity of the pain, she’d rather stay away from such sensations, thank you very much. When Fenris and Lee are kidnapped in Portland, along with Fenris’ prized airship, another UP ambassador makes himself known: Teddy Roosevelt grants Ingrid and Cy safe passage to Seattle on his own craft, hinting that certain luxuries and protections could be granted to Ingrid should she choose to side with his personal motivations and, nominally, America’s interests.
Meanwhile, Ingrid’s beloved guardian Mr. Sakaguchi is missing, having been taken hostage by Lee’s uncle; there are all kinds of riots and hate crimes being committed by white Americans against Chinese in seemingly every city along the West Coast; Ingrid is hot on the trail of hints and revelations about her father’s past, previously unknown to her; Lee’s true identity and heritage come into play; Cato scratches the surface of Cy’s past and difficult relationship with his family while deepening the attachment between Ingrid and Cy; there’s the ongoing war between the United Pacific and its enemies, including an insurrection in India and the Japanese encroachment into China; and quite a few new kinds of “fantastic” make appearances, including a qi’lin and a swarm of sylphs. If that all sounds like a lot, it is — some of it ends up feeling extraneous or remarkably coincidental, and some of it isn’t given enough page time to support its importance to Call of Fire.
Cato’s research into early-twentieth-century PNW towns and history, Japanese language and culture, and mythical creatures, does pay off. The mud-strewn streets of Portland and Seattle feel fully lived-in, the sudden gold-rush fever which sweeps region carries realistic consequences not only for Ingrid’s little band but for international relations, and details like Japanese architecture and speech are authentic. (There’s little to no translation of phrases like “domo arigato” or “ohayou gozaimasu,” but there’s enough context for readers to pick up on the meaning, and it’s nothing that a quick Internet search can’t clarify.) Her own inventions like geomancy, kermanite, and the inclusion of thunderbirds and other giant magical beasts add richness to the story, as well.
Certain aspects of Call of Fire fall a little flat, though. Nothing major, but it’s in the small details: a few anachronistic terms and attitudes, a touch too much narrative meandering, a lack of character focus. The novel barely spans the passage of a week, and yet it somehow feels simultaneously too rushed and too contemplative, and spends quite a lot of time caught up in Ingrid’s thought process as she takes strides toward being more actively in control of her life and exploring the limits of her powers. She’s fascinating, but I wanted other characters to be given similar opportunities for growth and development. Teddy Roosevelt was, by all historical accounts, a force of nature, and Cato does a great job of exploring his complex and sometimes contradictory behavior in a fictional setting. I wish he’d been featured more heavily, but I also wish the same about Lee and Fenris, particularly because the short amount of time Ingrid spends with those two is overshadowed by the amount of time she and Cy spend together.
The last few chapters of Call of Fire are spectacularly dramatic, setting up what I hope will be another high-stakes adventure in the vein of Breath of Earth. Surprising revelations about Ingrid’s lineage and personal history have the potential to provide an entire novel’s worth of personal drama and character development, and the political turmoil could threaten the entire world should it reach a boiling point. I definitely want to see where Ingrid’s story takes her, and what role she has yet to play in all of this.
Having confronted her villain father and faced the giant two-headed snake that inhabits the San Andreas fault, geomancer Ingrid Carmichael and her friends Cypress, Lee and Mr. Fenris are now on the run — or on the fly, heading their airship to Seattle in search of allies and answers. Behind Ingrid is the army and a powerful dangerous being called Ambassador Blum, whose magic may rival Ingrid’s own. Ingrid doesn’t know much about her own magic, and part of the quest to Seattle is to uncover what she can about her heritage.
2017’s Call of Fire picks up nearly immediately after the first book, Breath of Earth, ended. On their way to Seattle, Ingrid and her friends are caught up in the Klondike gold rush although it has a different name here. The rush into the territory of Alaska puts airships at risk and while Cy and Ingrid are earthbound, their airship the Palmetto Bug is hijacked with Lee and Fenris aboard.
In spite of the various risks our heroes face, the pace of this book was leisurely, sometimes a bit too much so. Certainly, part of the story’s purpose is to broaden even more the view of the elaborate alternate world Cato has created. Anti-Chinese sentiment has flooded Seattle, just like San Francisco, and all the people who live in the city’s Chinatown are at risk. Ingrid’s mentor and foster father Mr. Sakaguchi assured her that the Ambassador Theodore Roosevelt (there are twelve ambassadors, more powerful than presidents or prime ministers) would help them. When they meet him, his help seems limited — and self-serving. And Ingrid can’t shake the ever more powerful Ambassador Blum, who acts like she and Ingrid have a magical connection.
In Seattle, Ingrid uncovers more news about her father, and frankly, most of it is bad. One breadcrumb, though, leads to an important clue about her ancestry — in Hawaii. Cy also uncovers some family news, and most of it is bad too. In one case, something that should be good news is catastrophic to his pacifist sensibilities.
The story continues to be interesting but Call of Fire’s pacing is a drawback. Many of the events from the first book — such as the attack on the city’s geomancers — are echoed here. I never got a visual sense of Seattle to the same degree that I did San Francisco, and most disappointingly, while Ingrid communes with the elemental that lives in Mount Rainier, we never experience it. We never see the angry supernatural thunderbird that attacks an airship either, although Ingrid does commune with it before it’s killed. These felt like missed opportunities, a disappointment after the great visuals of the magical creatures in the first book.
Still, there is suspense enough. While Ingrid is successful in the short run, she has the rug pulled out from under her in a big way at the end. Serious questions remain. Can our heroes stop the global slaughter of Chinese people? Will Ingrid be able to embrace her power and be free? I’m committed to reading the third book, Roar of Sky, to find out.