Breath of Earth by Beth Cato (Breath of Earth #1)
Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Alternate History
Publisher: Harper Voyager on August 23, 2016
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
After the Earth’s power is suddenly left unprotected, a young geomancer must rely on her unique magical powers to survive in in this fresh fantasy series from the author of acclaimed The Clockwork Dagger. View Spoiler »
In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation—the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer Wardens who have no idea of the depth of her power—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.
When assassins kill the Wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose Earth’s powers to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming the city into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .
Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her powerful magic has grown even more fearsome . . . and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests. « Hide Spoiler
Beth Cato introduces a gritty, steampunk-inspired version of 20th century San Francisco in BREATH OF EARTH, the first book in a new series. While I appreciated the diverse cast of characters and creative world building, I thought the primary characters fell flat and felt that the story overall was too unfocused.
Earthquakes and other natural disasters plague 1906 San Francisco, kept at bay only by the efforts of the Geomancer’s Auxiliary. Geomancers use their connection to the earth to channel magical energy, siphoning it out of the earth to prevent natural disasters and fuel their own abilities. But with the wars of the United Pacific – the alliance between Japan and the U.S. – raging on, some are concerned that geomancy may be turned to a much darker purpose.
For Ingrid, geomancy is the chance to rise above her “shortcomings,” including her working-class status, her mixed-race heritage, and her sex (of course). But women aren’t supposed to possess geomantic abilities, let alone abilities that are more powerful than her older male counterparts. Ingrid is forced to study geomancy in secret under the tutelage of Mr. Sakaguchi, her employer and surrogate father…but when the Auxiliary comes under attack, Ingrid may need to use her abilities and expose herself for what she really is to save San Francisco.
The United Pacific’s influence on San Francisco (and the rest of the world) is palpable in BREATH OF THE EARTH, as their xenophobic dogma and cultural supremacy has completely changed the status quo of the West and Asia alike. Japanese culture is ascendant, and white American citizens do all that they can to emulate the culture in order to curry favour – and stay alive. Unsurprisingly, those who are not white or Japanese are discriminated against…and those with Chinese heritage are herded together in slums and systematically slaughtered. As upsetting as it was to read about this, I really appreciated how Beth Cato incorporated the very real xenophobia towards those with Chinese heritage that existed in the West during the early 20th century. That’s a very ugly part of North American history that is often scrubbed from SFF, but it’s important to acknowledge.
Although I loved the diversity of the characters (mixed-race, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese characters as well as a trans character), I felt very little connection to them. Ingrid in particular was a struggle for me, as she’s very concerned with propriety and comes uncomfortably close to blindly accepting the beliefs of the United Pacific regime. While she does eventually grow, her naivety and preachy nature made Ingrid an unsatisfactory protagonist for me. I feel bad saying it, but her love interest was also one of the most boring potential suitors I’ve read about in recent memory. He wasn’t bad or anything, he just…was. He had very little personality to speak of besides being gentlemanly and handsome.
BREATH OF EARTH is hardly what I’d call plot-driven, as it takes almost 300 pages for the events of the story to come together into a coherent storyline. But if you’re not someone who reads for plot, you may enjoy this creative, diverse, steampunk-inspired fantasy novel more than I did.