Phoenix and Ashes: A Cinderella story about PTSD

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsPhoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey fantasy book reviewsPhoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey

Each of Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS novels is a stand-alone fairytale retelling. Some of the novels have overlapping characters, but you can read these books in any order. The fourth book, Phoenix and Ashes, is a mostly pleasant Cinderella story set in England during The Great War. Maya, the Indian doctor from The Serpent’s Shadow, is a minor character. I listened to Michelle Ford narrate the audio version of Phoenix and Ashes (Audible Studios). She is perfect for this tale.

Unlike some of the other ELEMENTAL MASTERS stories, Phoenix and Ashes stays pretty close to the source material; you can tell this is a Cinderella story. Eleanor Robinson’s father is killed during WW1 and Eleanor is left living in the house she grew up in with her socially-climbing evil stepmother and two stepsisters. They cast a spell on Eleanor and make her their slave while they attend teas and balls. Eleanor’s “fairy godmother” is a local witch who helps Eleanor develop her own magical skills. Her helpful woodland creatures are the salamanders that usually accompany fire mages in Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS books. Most interesting is Prince Charming — a young soldier who was sent home with “shellshock.”

Lackey does a nice job of portraying the horrors, the deprivations, and the massive amount of death that The Great War caused. We see an England that is nearly devoid of healthy adult men within a certain age range. Women were running the farms and businesses. German submarine blockades of merchant ships meant that people were hungry. So many of the English soldiers never came home, and those who did were maimed and/or afflicted with PTSD, a brain disorder that people didn’t believe in until recently. Lackey shows us the scorn that the military held for those who suffered from “shellshock” and also the way they were slow to adapt to the Germans’ technological advances. A few times Lackey attempts to bring in some socialist opposition to the war, which could have been really interesting and informative, but this is dealt with so quickly and superficially that it was of no value.

As in the other ELEMENTAL MASTERS books, the evil villains are totally over-the-top sadists, making them seem like caricatures rather than real people. Eleanor’s stepmother is so hilariously bad that it’s hard to take her seriously. In contrast, the protagonists always display surprisingly modern ideas for their time. They’re always progressive feminists who despise the class structure they were born into. A little more diversity and nuance to Lackey’s characters would be nice.

Still, for a fluffy fantasy read, Phoenix and Ashes is mostly entertaining. It’s easy to sympathize with Eleanor’s plight, cheer when she manages to win little victories over her evil stepmother, and feel excited knowing that she’ll triumph in the end. Unfortunately there is a long odd section in which Eleanor learns about passion, balance and responsibility from the creatures on Tarot cards in some sort of dreamland. This was bizarre and boring and didn’t feel like it fit in an ELEMENTAL MASTERS novel since, I think, Tarot has not been mentioned as related to this magic system before. The ending of the story, when Eleanor gets revenge, was also abrupt and not especially satisfying. Sort of like my ending to this review.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I don’t know… this series has never particularly interested me but this one sounds like I would look it. The impact of WWI on the society of Britain is a fascinating topic itself, especially given the entailment laws of some large estates. And I think the impact on the nation’s psyche was pretty powerful too.

    • This is the best part of the book, for sure, but Lackey is pretty “lite” with it. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from just basic knowledge about WWI, but it did let me experience what life might have been like for young women at that time.

      • That “lite” approach is one of the things that frustrates me about Lackey, and you’ve described it perfectly, Kat. The tarot part sounds really interesting; too bad it wasn’t integrated more. I love tarot and books that incorporate it.

    • Mysteries rather than fantasies, but have you tried either of Charles Todd’s two series or the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear?

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