It's been a long while since I've looked forward to a book as much as this one and I'm happy to say that it delivers. Its most obvious flaw isn't its own fault, as it's inherently a middle book, building on what went before (in the fantastic 'Breath of Earth', which I eagerly re-read before diving into this one) and setting up what is yet to come (in at least one more novel; Ingrid Carmichael's story feels like it will end up as a trilogy but could well become a series). Outside of that, it's a thoroughly enjoyable work of fantasy and a worthy sequel.
In 'Breath of Earth', Cato set up a glorious alternate world. She conjured it out of historical fact but made a number of changes to what we know: Japan, rather than the United States, invaded Hawaii and the two nations forged a political alliance called the United Pacific. She extrapolated how that would change the culture of North America, not just in costume and manners but by superstition and folklore shaping the culture and technology. She also confirms that this folklore isn't just make-believe. There are both reiki practitioners manipulating energy and Pasteurian doctors keen on clean; both of them work, even if it's in different ways. There are characters, whether 'human', 'animal' or 'spirit', who are creatures clipped from exotic mythologies.
What's more, earthquakes are caused by Hidden Ones, underground kaiju who are merely turning over in their sleep. Best of all, these earthquakes can be countered by geomancers taking in the energy, which they, in turn, project into a mineral called kermanite, which is then used to power airships and other machines. Cato certainly handled her worldbuilding carefully, neatly extrapolating her little exceptions to our reality to generate a fantastic and internally consistent background against which her stories can unfold.
And I have to be careful here, because all her central characters have secrets. While some of them were exposed in 'Breath of Earth', you shouldn't know about them until you read that book.
I'll go as far as to talk a little about Ingrid Carmichael because the back cover blurb does a bunch of that and, if HarperVoyager don't consider it a spoiler, then I certainly can't. Ingrid's a geomancer of immense power, but most people don't know that because she's a girl and an exotic one at that, that 'exotic' here meaning of mixed heritage and thus not quite the same colour as everyone else. She learned a lot about who she is by the end of 'Breath of Earth', which ended with an earthquake destroying San Francisco and her fleeing the city in a small but fast airship called the Palmetto Bug with her old friend Lee and a pair of newfound compatriots, Cy and Fenris.
I won't, however, tell you a bunch of other things. I won't tell you what Ingrid learned, because that's an ongoing process and it gets pretty serious in 'Call of Fire'. I won't tell you the secret that Lee has, but I'll comment that Ingrid finds herself tied up in his story far more than she ever expected, courtesy of a cool creature from folklore that takes a shine to her. Oh, and it isn't the only one. I won't tell you what Fenris is hiding, because that really isn't important and I'm still incredibly happy that it's treated that way here even more than it was in the first book. And I won't tell you Cy's secret either, except to say that what he has hidden from others is mirrored in what others have hidden from him, things which will no doubt be a major part of book three. How's that for a bunch of vague hints as to what might be going on here?
This ragtag bunch of misfits fly north from the wreckage of San Francisco to the city of Portland, to seek out United Pacific Ambassador Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, that one. While he was referenced in 'Breath of Earth', he actually shows up here and he's quite a bit of fun in a more realistic way than I had expected, a driven character who's neither black nor white. Eventually, they have to move further north, to Seattle, and even more things happen there. There's an escalation in play that seems to kick in with each city on Ingrid's itinerary.
But back to Portland. I love the way that Cato sets up what our players do in Portland. Initially, we have a woman of colour, for that's really what Ingrid is, even if that colour isn't quite as dark as it would usually be for such a description, and a Chinese youth masquerading as Japanese (which is a huge deal when the the latter are allies but the former are the enemy), wandering together into Portland's Chinatown, which is already on fire when they arrive. And things only get more complicated from there! Race is a big deal in these books, but not just where it seems to be; the building conflict between the United Pacific and the remnants of China often overshadows the fact that our heroine isn't the usual white girl we might think.
We learn a lot more in this book than its predecessor, suggesting that 'Breath of Earth' was mostly about setting a stage and putting the cast of characters into motion; 'Call of Fire' is where we find out what and how and why, amidst growing tension; and the next volume will presumably be how it all wraps up. Lots of questions are answered here, though far from all of them. On a personal level, both Ingrid and Cy get news of family that they utterly weren't expecting, while, on a grand political level, they start to understand the plans of the people who are manipulating everything on a global scale.
Cato isn't willing for them to figure everything out, though, and she's more than happy to throw them a curveball or three. I particularly enjoyed how they decide to leave for Seattle just at the time that gold is discovered in the far north and the ensuing riot frustrates their attempts. Of course, that announcement is as much a coincidence as your cynical mind suspects, which is to say it's all very much part of a clever plan. There are a few plans in operation here and I'm eager to see how they play out. If I'm guessing correctly, Cato will take the obvious road on a grand scale but really mix it up as she does so, surprising us with the details. I'm eager to see if that's true or not.
And so, while I can't talk about most of what I want to talk about, I can happily report that there's a great deal of good here. The characters are even more deeply defined than before. The action is intense, on the macro and micro scales. The political intrigue, which is truly long-reaching, was far from clear in 'Breath of Earth' but is enticingly explored here. Perhaps what I like best about this series, though, is how Cato is able to play with such a fascinating variety of fantasy elements but ground them all in what seems like a completely rational world. How Ingrid interacts with what are called 'fantastics' here, those creatures of folklore, is fantasy through and through, but Cato grounds it in a neat conversation about how language changes, covering native tales, missionary translations and contemporary understanding.
'Call of Fire' is Beth Cato's fourth novel and it's the first to not notably improve on the last. I was rather scared of that progression, given how 'Breath of Fire' was the best book I read last year. I'd suggest that this isn't quite up to its standards, but it truly would be unfair to say that until I've read the next book in Ingrid Carmichael's story and I can see how everything flows between the volumes. For now, I'll have to restrict myself to saying that this is a thoroughly enjoyable sequel that inherently suffers a little by not being the beginning or the end. Bring on book three! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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