All of Mercedes Lackey’s ELEMENTAL MASTERS novels are stand-alone retellings of fairy tales from around the world. Unnatural Issue (2011) is Lackey’s adaption of Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin,” a more obscure French tale from 1695 about a king who wanted to marry his daughter. In Lackey’s version, this king is an Earth Mage named Richard Whitestone, a country squire who was devastated by his beautiful wife’s death 20 years ago. When his daughter Suzanne, who he’s never met, grows up to look just like his wife, Whitestone notices her and decides to use necromantic arts to have his wife’s spirit displace his daughter’s in Susanne’s body. Fortunately, Suzanne has some powers of her own because she’s been trained as an Earth Mage by Robin Goodfellow. When she figures out that her father is planning something evil, she escapes across the moor to a farm run by magicians who may be able to help her. As she is there, conflict is brewing on the continent and eventually all of the characters are caught up in World War I.
(Aside: I am purposely spelling Susanne’s name in different ways. The author does, so why shouldn’t I?)
When I think back on all of the ELEMENTAL MASTERS novels I’ve read, I think it would be accurate to say that all of them share similar pros and cons. I am usually impressed by Lackey’s clever premise — the way she frames the fairytale — but disappointed in its execution. Flat characters and uneven pacing are the typical problems. Unnatural Issue is a perfect example. I love the way that Lackey turns the king of “Donkeyskin” into an Earth Mage who, shattered by grief, becomes an evil necromancer. However, I can’t say that I loved any of Lackey’s characters. They are all rather bland. I think the best words to describe Susanne, the heroine of the story might be “nice” and “innocuous.” She doesn’t inspire a lot of enthusiasm. Similarly dull is Lord Peter Almsley, Lackey’s hero and romantic interest for Suzanne. He is modeled after Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, and he could have been great, but he’s not. And then there’s the bad guy. In true Lackey fashion, he’s really really eeeeevvvvvviiiiiilllllll. It’s hard to understand his motives or how he so quickly devolved from grieving widow to evil necromancer.
The pacing is also a big problem. Frankly, it’s bizarre. We spend the first 75% of the novel watching bland Suzanne escape from her father and begin a new life at a country farm. She makes cheese, she airs linens, she works in the kitchen, she picks berries. A little later she gets some more training in magic. Then she gets a few lessons in manners, fashion, and deportment so that someday she can fit into society. She is soooo boring.
Suddenly, near the end of the book, World War I breaks out and Susanne abruptly decides she wants to go to the Front and be a nurse, despite the fact that she has absolutely no training in medicine. Unfortunately, this does not help her personality, though it should have. She remains dull, but she didn’t have to be. At that point Lackey hurls us into the horrors of WWI, describing rapidly but in detail what life was like for soldiers — the wet trenches, the constant fear, the shortage of food and medical supplies, the importance of antibiotics, the problem of PTSD when soldiers returned home and how doctors called it “malingering” and refused to acknowledge it as a real illness… Not only is this abrupt change in pace and tone extremely jarring, but the horrors of war and the problem of PTSD is an old theme for Lackey. We’ve already seen this in other ELEMENTAL MASTERS books, so it’s getting a little worn. I’m also a little tired of Lackey overlaying the entire novel with 21st century sensibilities. All of the good characters are enlightened and they recognize that slavery is wrong, servants should be paid and well-treated, societal class divisions are silly, women should be respected, etc. Of course we all agree with these things these days, but it’s just a little much that Lackey’s pre-WWI heroes all agree, too, and that her bad guys don’t.
You’re probably tired of listening to me bash this book, so I’ll just say one more thing: In Chapter 9 we watch Suzanne destroy an object that reappears in Chapter 21 and becomes crucial to the plot’s resolution. Lackey forgot that Susanne purposely burned the thing so it could never be used again. Unforgiveable! I also find it aggravating that the publisher’s blurb for Unnatural Issue spells the heroine’s name as Suzanne while in the book it’s Susanne except for once in Chapter 17 when it’s Suzanne. (I searched the ebook version that I have.) C’mon people! Can’t we at least get the heroine’s name spelled correctly?
I listened to the audio version of Unnatural Issue which was produced by Audible Studios. Kate Reading is a great choice for reader, and she gives an excellent performance. Unfortunately, and this is no fault of Reading’s, after spending more than 200 hours listening to her read WHEEL OF TIME, I’ve developed a bit of conditioned aversion to her voice. I realize that’s not very nice to say, but sadly it’s true. I’m sorry, Ms Reading.