Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS is a series of ten (so far) novels that take place on an alternate Earth where some people are born with the ability to learn to control fire, water, air, or earth. Each book is also a fairytale retelling, though you may not notice that if you’re not looking for it in the story.
The first ELEMENTAL MASTERS novel, The Fire Rose, is based on “Beauty and the Beast” and is set in 1905-1906 San Francisco. Years before, Jason, a Firemaster (the “beast” of the story), was experimenting with a dangerous magic spell. He managed to curse himself and has been living as a man-wolf ever since (this is obvious from the book’s horrid cover, so I’m not spoiling anything here). He has been searching for a way to reverse the spell, but his beastly shape makes it difficult to search his grimoires for information. (The book cover shows him with hands, but he actually has paws). So he wants to hire someone who can read ancient texts to him. That’s how he discovers the suicidal Rosalind, an educated woman who has lost everything to her deceased father’s creditors and has been forced to drop out of graduate school. Rosalind, obviously, is the “beauty” of the story, but it’s really her mind rather than her face that’s beautiful.
Rosalind thinks she’s going to be a governess, which she considers to be just a more genteel form of slavery, but when she arrives at Jason’s estate, there are no children and she is not introduced to Jason. Instead, she’s installed in a lavishly comfortable room where she reads to Jason, who’s in another room, through a speaking trumpet. During her free time, she makes friends with Jason’s lonely horse and tries to fend off the advances of his secretary, Paul du Mond. Eventually Rosalind realizes that there’s something strange going on with Jason, that Paul is a bad guy, and that there might be something to this magic stuff after all.
It’s hard not to admire Rosalind. (Well, at least it’s hard for me not to admire Rosalind.) She’s a quiet scholarly woman who wants to be educated and independent. She’s frustrated with the roles that women in her society are allowed to play and she wants to be different. Yet, she never loses her femininity.
It’s really hard to believe in Paul, the totally over-the-top villain. His crimes are so heinous that it makes me wonder if Lackey is just trying to add some titillation. Paul’s hobby is to “break in” reluctant girls who are sold to bordellos. Lackey shows us this in several nasty scenes that don’t seem to fit the fairytale tone of the rest of the story.
I was disappointed in the end of The Fire Rose. The blurb mentions the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I assumed that this would be a major part of the plot and I kept waiting for it, but it turns out that it was a pretty minor event in the story. That was a bit anti-climactic.
Other than the weird supervillain and the very short amount of time spent with the earthquake, The Fire Rose is a decent read. It’s definitely fluffy and non-challenging, but it passes the time pleasantly (other than the scenes with Paul in the whorehouse). I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version which was nicely narrated by Kate Black-Regan. The audiobook is almost 13 hours long.