I liked Beth Cato's debut novel, 'The Clockwork Dagger', which was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. I liked its sequel, 'The Clockwork Crown', even more, because it addressed all my minor issues with the first book and kicked everything that was good about it into high gear. Her third book, unrelated to the previous two, is a step up again. I adored 'Breath of Earth' from beginning to end and am upset only at how long I'll have to wait before I can devour the inevitable sequel; this is just a beginning.
Those first two books were steampunk fantasies, set in an imaginary world with imaginary geography, imaginary history and imaginary characters. This one is still mostly imaginary but it seems a lot more familiar, because it unfolds in San Francisco, albeit an alternate one that's a little different to what we've read about, because of the fantasy element and some engaging alternate history.
It's 1906 (yes, we know what happened in our San Francisco in 1906; you're leaping ahead) and the city is part of the Unified Pacific, an alliance of the United States and Japan, the latter of which have shaped the culture, fashion and even healthcare of the former to a major degree. The current enemy is China, who are losing hard. Britannia is tied up with a resurgence of the Thuggee Cult (and those who benefit from such a thing) in India. Russia and the Ottoman Empire are also major players who are merely far enough abstracted to not affect this particular book.
Magic is real, in the form of geomancers who absorb energy from the ground and channel it into a mineral called kermanite, which is then used to power anything that needs it, such as the abundant airships which mark the only real nod to steampunk here. The ground moves because of massive creatures underneath called Hidden Ones who toss and turn over time. Other folklore elements crop up here and there, sometimes in a major way, and will surely play a bigger part yet in future books.
But this magic is grounded, pun not intended, and Beth Cato does her level best to keep it consistent and explore the ramifications of its application as if folklore were science. Clearly San Francisco is in need of a gaggle of geomancers to keep itself stable, so what would happen if their building, the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, was mysteriously destroyed with all its protectors inside? Who would do such a thing and what would it mean to the city at large, especially in 1906 (yes, welcome back, you anticipators, you)? And more sinister still, what if there were a means to turn geomancy into a weapon? How much damage could that cause?
There's a great deal of mystery here and perhaps the biggest success of the novel is how capably Cato builds it. She introduces this San Francisco well and I felt that I understood it as she placed me into it, but my knowledge grew with the page count, just as it does for the lead character, Ingrid Carmichael. She's the secretary of Warden Takaguchi, also a father figure for her since the disappearance of her own and the only one who knows what she's actually capable of. She learns too, because events overtake her and throw her into a lot more adventure than she could ever have imagined.
Another success is in Cato's choice of characters. This 1906 is a sexist, misogynistic place, as indeed was the real 1906, and that mindset pervades the world for someone as capable as Ingrid. However, it's also a notably racist place, especially against the opposing Chinese, relegated in this California to Chinatowns ruled by the tongs. The Japanese are friends and allies, as are the Hawaiians (run here by the Japanese not the Americans), but native languages and cultures are suppressed and authorities quick to react.
I'd love to talk more about the companions Ingrid falls in with after she escapes from the Auxiliary explosion, but that way lies massive spoilers. Suffice it to say that each character who bands together with her has an important secret about who they are, though not necessarily in any of the ways you might expect. Cato deserves great praise for writing characters like these and I'm sure she'll receive that for one in particular (hello, Fenris, we're talking about you), not only because of the careful choices she made in doing so but because she made them intelligently enough that they don't appear to be worthy of mention and so are, all the more.
If I can't really talk about Ingrid, Cy, Fenris and Lee without revealing spoilers, I can at least say that I appreciated all of them a great deal. Instead I'll mention how I was less appreciative of Captain Sutcliff, who appears to be as carefully insubstantial as the others are engaging. As a headstrong officer of the American Army & Airship Corps, he may well have his secrets too, but they're not explored here. He's merely an annoyance, someone good at getting in the way and getting the wrong end of the stick, often at the same time. I'm not sure whether he himself or the force he represents should have been more substantial, but it's one or the other. Maybe future books in the series will expand on how authority works in the Unified Pacific because, Captain Sutcliff aside, I'm sure it does, even if we don't see it much here.
I can also mention a character who doesn't actually appear but comes up a lot in the narrative. He's Teddy Roosevelt, who in this world isn't the US President but an Ambassador, one of twelve who sit above the leadership of the allied nations and wield great power. We do get to meet a different Ambassador and I'll keep my mouth shut there too, but surely Roosevelt is going to live up to the potential of his character in further novels.
If it feels like I haven't said much about the substance within 'Breath of Earth', it's because it's wrapped up either in the lead characters or the complex sociopolitical background that underpins what happens. I can't talk about the former because I'd spoil what should be a host of discoveries for you. I shouldn't talk about the latter because that would be boring out of the context of those discoveries. Both could easily prompt long essays, if not theses, and I'm sure that someone will write them for your edification and enjoyment after you've read this book.
And, yes, you should read it. Alternate history. Grounded fantasy. Politics and intrigue. Adventure and airships. Unique magic. Traditional folklore. Cross-pollination of cultures. Oh yes, you should read it. It's rather like a checklist of all the things that should be in a modern fantasy novel that doesn't want to do what all those other modern fantasy novels are doing.
Unfortunately, having read this before its official release date, I'm stuck with a long wait indeed before I can read a sequel. Maybe I should build a habit of breaking into Cato's house at night, stealing the cookies out of her fridge and sneaking a read of her work in progress. Hey, I can blame it on kitsune, right? ~~ Hal C F Astell