Steadfast by Mercedes Lackey is another fairy-tale retelling from her ELEMENTAL MASTERS series. It recasts Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Steadfast Tin Soldier.
Katie Langford is a circus acrobat on the run. She flees to Brighton and ends up as a dancer and magician’s assistant for a small theatre. Lionel Hawkins, the magician she works for, is an elemental magician; he and his good friend Jack, the one-legged doorman of the theater, soon see that Katie also has undiscovered magical abilities. They train her in these abilities while trying to help her escape the Big Bad that is coming for her —her angry, abusive husband, Dick, who happens to be the circus strongman.
I listened to Steadfast read by Carmela Corbett, and I liked this novel okay at the beginning. The set-up was fun; it was really interesting to experience Edwardian Brighton, with its music halls, boardwalk entertainment, and transient population of entertainers. Corbett did a great job; her delivery, especially of some of the lower-class characters and their accents, was wonderful. I was also impressed by Lackey’s use of the Steadfast Tin Soldier; it’s not one of the classic Disney-fied Grimm tales, and it was exciting to have it used as a concept. And finally, a story where the handsome suave guy doesn’t get the girl —instead it’s the shy disabled guy. Yay!
But, like many of the other ELEMENTAL MASTERS books, this one was about 90% set-up, and 10% action. For most of the book, nothing happened. Katie is walking down a street at night. Katie is in her dressing room, all alone. Katie is eating a sandwich. In each of these scenes, I heard the horror movie soundtrack start up in my head, thinking “Oh no, is she about to be ambushed while she’s eating that sandwich?” But no. Katie was allowed to finish her sandwich unmolested. Dear reader, there were chapters of this, and it does so try one’s patience.
And when Steadfast’s great climax did occur, it made very little use of the magical training we’ve spent so long watching Katie acquire. She and Jack were saved, basically, because they were fortunate. Furthermore, the great mystery that Lackey has been hinting at —why did Katie marry Dick in the first place? She can’t really remember that week of her life at all! —is so hastily explained, it made me angry. Suspense is built up around this topic from the beginning of the novel. But at the end, Lackey just slaps one of the ol’ “he has unexplained magical persuasive powers” on Dick. This further reinforces my suspicion that Lackey doesn’t really revise because, again, this would have been a relatively easy fix on a second pass.
I also stopped liking the protagonists near the end. On the one hand, Lionel and Jack were very strident about the “right and wrong” use of Katie’s powers, arguing, basically, that if she used her powers to protect herself against Dick, she might turn an elemental spirit into a magical serial killer. Maybe if we had seen a scene early on of an elemental who went wrong for exactly these circumstances, but put like this, their argument is just conjecture. However, what’s happening to Kate is horrifically real. She is beaten, raped, treated like a slave, and Dick makes her listen while he has sex with, and then beats, prostitutes that he brings home. For Lionel and Jack to be aware of this treatment and still urge Katie to practice restraint is kind of awful and makes me hate them. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to feel compassion for a woman who actively hopes that her husband will bring home more whores to beat, so that she stands less chance of getting hurt.
Finally, it is evident that Lackey is interested in the social issues of Victorian and Edwardian England. In the three novels from this series that I’ve reviewed, she makes reference to Welsh anarchism, bad working conditions in factories, the Boer Wars, and mine and railroad strikes. These tidbits are really interesting and provide a lot of social context for the era. However, I think that if these issues are going to be important, she needs to integrate them into the story, not just gesture at them on the sidelines. Steadfast came the closest to integrating a major social issue into the story. It used Katie’s status as a wife as a major theme. As her husband, Dick’s abuse of Katie was entirely within the law; only if he killed her would he have transgressed. However, in all three of these books, once the protagonist’s personal problem is solved, no more mention is made of the social issue that once loomed so large. In Steadfast I found this particularly off-putting; once Dick was out of the picture, no one seemed the least bit concerned about the problem that dominated the last couple hundred pages —namely, that wives aren’t people, but property.