I've been disappointed by a few final volumes in trilogies lately, so I'm happy to say that Beth Cato is bucking that trend and I'm not just saying that because my Nameless Zine review of the previous volume, 'Call of Fire', is quoted in the praise section at the beginning of this one.
There's a heck of a lot to like here, even if this volume brings a few less surprises than its predecessors; it is an ending, after all. That “heck of a lot” is also so evenly spread that I'm hard pressed to say what I liked most.
I've loved Cato's worldbuilding throughout the trilogy and that continues here. For those new to the series (and, yes, you should certainly read in order), we start out in 'Breath of Earth' in an alternate 1906 San Francisco, just before the big quake that we remember from our history. What's different in this alternate history is that quakes are caused by the motion of Hidden Ones, gigantic creatures of legend who live within the earth, and the energy generated by their movement can be safely shifted, by the talents of geomancers, into the mineral kermanite; which, when so infused with energy, is used to power the airships and machines of this fantastic world.
There's a lot there to be going along with, but there's more to consider. Here, the United States is a partner with Imperial Japan in a political alliance called the United Pacific, so there's a strong Japanese influence woven into the North America in which all this action and intrigue unfolds. Some of that is undeniably positive, some more neutral and some particularly negative, such as the growing racism against the Chinese, against which our core story develops. You see, the balance of power between the US and Japan within the United Pacific is shifting, deliberately so according to the plans of the villain of the piece, who I won't name, even if the back cover blurb does. I'd see that as a spoiler.
By this point, the series has already taken us from San Francisco to Seattle. Here it moves us on to Hawaii, the ancestral home of our lead character, Ingrid Carmichael, who doesn't remotely have the family tree that her name might suggest. She's eager to meet her grandmother, who I also won't name, but, in doing so, she finds both more and less than she expects. This meeting between generations is a great example of how Cato is adept at merging reality with fantasy, another favourite aspect of mine in these books.
Another is the way in which she writes characters who are wildly diverse without ever being preachy. Ingrid is not my colour, my race, my nationality or my gender, and her story unfolds two-thirds of a century before I was born in an alternate history that isn't mine, but I had no problems understanding what makes her tick or empathising with her. What's more, there are reasons why she is who she is, none of which feel awkward or contrived. As she begins this book, Ingrid is also disabled, having damaged herself in the events of the previous volume, and that change drives so much of what unfolds here. Again, there are reasons, and none have anything to do with checkboxes. In fact, there's a notably bittersweet section where Ingrid finds herself yet again the victim of racism but in a fashion that acknowledges her real race for the first time. There are layers here. And yes, I'm happy to report that the notable reveal in the first book is let entirely be as the trilogy wraps up, which approach is much appreciated; any attempt to leverage it for plot purposes would have cheapened the trilogy and Cato resists the urge.
She also does a fantastic job of exploring details. Ingrid now has difficulty walking, so she spends a good deal of her time in a wheelchair. That's about as obvious a consequence as they come but some writers would have stopped there; Cato is aware that she can't just stop there when she's placing that wheelchair into Japanese-administered Hawaii in her alternate 1906. She doesn't magic up wheelchair ramps; she explores the reality of her fantasy instead. To highlight another, less quantifiable example, I appreciated the concept of moulting sylph fluff being seen as a hazard to airship ventilation a great deal. It's not an important plot point and it only warrants a brief mention but it's a problem that our characters have to face and it does a magnificent job of making their wild and incredible world a believable one for us. It grounds it as much as some of Cato's historical research does.
Now, Cato does play fast and loose with some historical elements, but that's her right as an author. I enjoyed the trip to a nickel theater anyway, even if it's a little more sophisticated than it should be for 1906. It felt right in context and she doesn't make the common error of assuming that theatres were silent just because they showed silent films. I even learned something here, about the role of the benshi in Japanese silent theaters. The point here is that time and place is gloriously established, even when Cato doesn't adhere to the minutiae of the era.
Talking of film, I was absolutely thrilled to read what is clearly an homage to the Miles Brothers' short, 'A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire', one of the most important actuality films ever made, depicting as it does the San Francisco that existed only a few days before it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire. Here, Cato echoes it in newsreel footage taken after the earthquake, with an intertitle reading, 'San Francisco. We remember. We mourn.' I was blissful afterwards when the author pointed out to me that there is indeed a follow-up actuality, presumably made by other hands, and I had a blast comparing the two films, made so close together in the same place but so utterly and devastatingly different.
There are downsides, albeit minor ones. While many of the positive attributes of the first two books continue, the gradual wrapping up of a number of plot strands makes this one seem more inevitable and predictable. I have absolutely no idea, of course, how Cato could have avoided that without a groundbreaking twist that would probably have felt wrong; I think it's just inherent when a third volume has to wrap up a story with this much momentum going into it.
I was surprised to find the Excalibur, a vast flying weapons facility which threatened much in foreshadowing, turn out to be rather underwhelming, but I think it's mostly because this steampunk Death Star doesn't get to do much except look ominous. To be fair, the comparisons don't run too closely, so there's a lot more originality here than it might seem, and Cato successfully avoids all the clichés, especially the usual convenient flaw, replaced here by something suitably horrifying that resonates well both in our time and with a neat nod to a Victorian classic in the process.
Those are minor flaws that don't really cause any damage to the trilogy. The one flaw that does is the way in which many of the key supporting characters fade disappointingly into the background (or foreground) in this final book.
While the series was always going to revolve around Ingrid Carmichael, there are characters who stood their ground with her or against her throughout the first two books on their own merits, but here they adopted more simple roles of mere sidekicks and villains. It certainly isn't all of them (and one such minor character makes a surprising return to expand magnificently), but it does include some of the most prominent and I wonder whether Cato will return to some of them in the future for side stories. It isn't on her radar now, as she's moving onto an enticing new idea that I can't mention, but it seems to me that there are easy openings to make a return to this world, if she ever feels the need, even though Ingrid's story is now told.
All in all, I've been thoroughly entertained by this trilogy and it's one to which I plan to return. I did expect to say that about a few others recently, but their final volumes were underwhelming and lessened what had gone before. While it could easily be argued that 'Roar of Sky' is the weakest of the three Ingrid Carmichael books, there's still much in it to recommend and it doesn't lessen her story.
This trilogy is original, engaging and told with the sort of voice that many aim for and precious few achieve. It's also a fantastic example of a work of period fantasy that raises many questions about our current reality without ever seeming like a sermon. Yes, writers, stories can be told about characters of other ethnicities, nationalities, ages, genders, races, sexualities, etc. and still be damn good stories, without any need on our behalf to question their authors' political leanings. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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