Sunday Shorts: Three Holmes Tales

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Since my most recent book review was about the first adventures of a Holmes pastiche/stand-in named Solar Pons, and since I’ve been trying to make my way through accumulated magazine back-issues to clear them out of my apartment, I thought I’d make three Holmes tales by authors other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the subject of today’s Sunday Shorts.

Even before most of the Holmes canon entered Public Domain, authors have published further adventures of the Great Detective and his friends. Some had authorization from the Conan Doyle Estate and some didn’t. For many years now, the revived Strand Magazine has published Holmes tales by other authors. As with novels and short story collections written about Holmes, the stories in the Strand come with various levels of quality, creativity, and respect for the canon. These are three I particularly liked; two of them are even connected to stories written by Conan Doyle himself, and all three are narrated by someone other than Doctor Watson (two by Holmes himself, a rarity in the original canon).

 

1.       NOTES UPON THE DIADEM CLUB AFFAIR by Lyndsay Faye, from the October 2015 issue of The Strand.  I don’t think I’ve failed to enjoy a Holmes tale penned by Lyndsay Faye (I also keep meaning to read her non-Holmes novels but just haven’t gotten there yet). This one was no exception. It’s a bit light on showing Holmes’ actual deductive abilities, being a more playful tale. Holmes narrates his own meeting with a society fop named Lord Chesley Templeton, who invites him to be a special guest at a meeting of a very special private club. Holmes declines, not wanting to be anyone’s pet monkey, until a letter from Brother Mycroft changes his mind. Holmes and Watson learn more about Templeton, stop a crime, and Watson encounters a Baroness with an interest in writing. Holmes’ disdain for Templeton’s easily-seen-through disguise at the first meeting is set against his own dramatic way of getting Watson to accompany him, just one of several character-driven moments that made me smile. (Fellow fans of Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Family may find humorous Watson’s implication that the Baroness who cameos ends up basing her most famous character on someone from this tale; I wrote it off as Watson purposefully misguiding readers.)

2.       AN ACTUAL TREASURE by David Marcum, from the October 2017 issue of The Strand. Marcum’s tale is also narrated by Holmes via his own journal entries, and also ties back to a very important case in the Holmes canon, the one in which Holmes and Watson first met Mary Morstan (later the First Mrs. Watson). Marcum brings Inspectors Jones and LeStrade into the story as well as the Baker Street Irregulars (and one in particular named Levi), and while the story is again sort of light on Holmes’ deductive abilities, it provides a very satisfactory follow-up to what happened to the jewels that went missing at the end of that earlier case. Marcum also showcases aspects of Holmes’ personality other chroniclers sometimes overlook or ignore: his patience and paternal feeling towards children, his respect for Mrs. Hudson, the fact that although Holmes always claims not to theorize before all the facts are in he actually does it quite often in the original canon (near the end of this tale, Holmes comments “I had formed seven theories about what might have occurred, and while this wasn’t the most probable of them, it was my favorite.”). There’s even a winking mention of Praed Street, although this is many years before Solar Pons and Doctor Parker will take up residence on that thoroughfare.

3.       LADY HILDA REVEALED by Bonnie MacBird, from the October 2018 issue of the Strand. This is a different king of Holmes pastiche, told in the form of a letter from a society lady to Doctor Watson. Also her husband has long since passed away, “Lady Hilda Trelawny Hope” maintains the fictitious identity Watson gave her when he published Holmes’ “Adventure of the Second Stain,” but strives to correct the good doctor on a number of points regarding how she was portrayed. This could easily have been a poke at officious society types, but instead MacBird gives us an intimate portrait of a woman who could, under other circumstances, have been just as strong a foil for Holmes as Irene Adler, Mary Morstan, or Violet Hunter. It’s a wonderful character piece that expands on the original story without ever making Holmes or Watson look bad.

SUNDAY SHORTS: Abyss & Apex 70

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

I received a review copy of this spring’s issue of Abyss and Apex magazine and here, finally, are some brief thoughts on the stories contained therein:

 

1. EXHIBIT K by Nadia Afifi. A woman wakes up and finds that she’s not only famous for what she did during wartime but also that she’s become an interactive museum exhibit opposite her most hated enemy. I won’t give away the how of the situation (I really hate spoiling short story twists), but I can say it’s not your standard “person from the past adjusts to an unexpected future” story. The author stays firmly in the viewpoint of the main character, Selma Carmichael, allowing the reader to experience this strange new world alongside her – which means any answers Selma doesn’t get (about how the world got the way it is) the reader doesn’t get either. And while in other stories that might bother me, it doesn’t here because of how much else is going on: the reveals about Selma and her enemy’s pasts, the reveal of what the museum curators are really up to – it’s all very well done and very well paced, with tons of concrete physical and sensory details to help the reader feel connected to the world and to Selma.

2. THE BIRDS THAT FLEW IN WARTIME by Tamoha Sengupta. The second story in the issue is far more ephemeral that the first; alternating points of view and style. Some sections are very middle-Eastern fable-like in tone, while others are more modern in voice. The full story comes together in bits and pieces, and there’s a lot for the reader to speculate about. There are some poetic, beautiful turns-of-phrase throughout.

3. A MISSED DIVERSION by R.S. Alexander.  The third story in the issue veers away from hard SF and ephemeral fantasy into the realm of sf-crime. The setting is clearly the near future, but the story is centered on a man in hiding trying to solve the mystery of a friend’s death – by blackmailing the person he thinks committed the crime. It’s a bit of a crime thriller, a bit of a corporate espionage thriller – and a very, very insular story told mostly through transmitted dialogue between our main character and his target. It felt like it would be equally at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Asimov’s.

4. ARS POETICA by David F. Shultz.  This was my favorite story in the issue. Sort-of near-future, not-quite post-apocalyptic setting in which the people with the best chance of saving the human race from falling to robot infiltrators are … writers. Well, poets, specifically. It seems the one aspect of humanity the robots (called bugs for the way they attach to and take over humans) can’t quite imitate is the writing of poetry. So communities survive or fall based on their ability to sniff out who is really writing poetry and who is plagiarizing. Scenes discussing the nature of creativity (nature vs. nurture) alternate with serious dissections of the taking in of refugees who may or may not be what they seem, all mixed with several high-energy, high-body-count, very bloody human vs. robot encounters that felt original in the way they were executed. All the stories in the issue are enjoyable, but this one especially kept me thinking long after I was done reading it.

5. SIBLING SQUABBLES by Gregg Chamberlain. This is a very funny bit of flash fiction about a father trying to explain to a daughter why using magic on her magic-less sibling is not acceptable. It’s classic parent-sibling head-butting, enhanced by sharp dialogue and winking references to a variety of television and literary wizards and witches (I think I got all of them, but I’m not sure), and even a kind of nod (I think) to a Disney live-action classic film from the 60s. I smiled all the way through this one.

6. THE GIFTED SOMMELLIER by Grayson Bray Morris.  The fiction portion of the issue ends with a heart-breaking bit of flash fiction about a wine sommelier with a very specific job to do. I hate to say too much, but the lush detail in such a short piece really sets the mood excellently, and the end brought a tear to my eye.

Issue #70 of Abyss & Apex also has a poetry section – but as I’m not an avid poetry reader, I don’t feel qualified to review or discuss the seven poems or the artwork that accompanies them.

SERIES SATURDAY: The original Planet of the Apes franchise

This is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

 

Apes Original Franchise Banner.png

I have no idea which of the original Planet of the Apes movies I saw first.

Given that they were released in theaters between 1968 and 1973, when I was at the tender ages of two through seven, I definitely encountered them on television. In the mid-70s through mid-80s, New York City-area television stations WNYW (Channel 5), WWOR (Channel 9) and WPIX (Channel 11), all then local and not network-affiliated, aired a wonderful weekend mix of genre and genre-adjacent movies: everything from the Apes to Japanese kaiju to wire-fu martial arts to classic Universal monsters to Abbott and Costello and the Bowery Boys. Somewhere in that mix, I encountered the original Planet of the Apes franchise. I may have seen them in release order or haphazardly. I may even have seen episodes of the live-action 1974 television series before any of the original movies, since the TV episodes were chopped and combined in 1981 into five two-hour “movie” presentations (but the TV series is a discussion for a different post).

Whatever order I saw the movies in, I fell immediately in lifelong love with the concept, the campiness, the make-up. And that love has only grown as the franchise has been re-worked and re-launched across movie and print media. (One of my greatest regrets is selling my Marvel Comics Planet of the Apes magazine collection; another is throwing away the Mego Planet of the Apes action figures I played with until they’d be worth nothing on the collector market. Hindsight is 20/20, or something like that.)

I recently re-watched the original five movies in release order, and I still love them. The ape make-up may be unrealistic compared to the motion-capture effects of the newest Apes trilogy, but it has such charm, and such consistency across the franchise (slight differences in the facial structure for chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, less diversity between individuals of a sub-set). I did always find the stratification of clothing (all chimps wear the same color, etc.) a bit less realistic. Why is it that SF (definitely in the 50-60s-70s, and even somewhat now) can imagine complex alien races but not imagine that they might have thriving clothing industries similar to our current day? I wonder if any writer has explored the idea that part of the Apes structured society was a dress code? (I’m not as up on the comics and prose canon-adjacent material released in recent years as I am on the filmed/televised canon.)

The body language of the various ape characters, especially in the first two movies, also fascinates me: the way most of the chimps are more hunch-shouldered and subservient despite being the obviously smartest ones in any room (even the teenager Lucius comes across as smarter, if not less impetuous, than the adult gorillas); the orangutan characters always seem to walk with their heads held high and shoulders wide; the gorillas all move like spacially-unaware linebackers. This changes a little bit in the fourth movie, when all of the apes are subservient and non-verbal, but it’s otherwise consistent.

As a kid, the cold war and racial strife allegories went right over my head. As an adult watching with a slightly more critical eye, they’re obvious without being too ham-fisted in the delivery. I can’t accuse them of being subtle, especially in the fourth and fifth movies, but I also don’t feel like every other line of dialogue is telegraphing the issue to the viewers.

Other things I didn’t notice back then but picked up on now: the fact that Roddy McDowell did not play Cornelius in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the only live-action Apes entry of the 60s-70s that he missed out on; that the timing of Cornelius, Zira and Milo fishing Taylor’s original spacecraft out of the sea it crashed in, getting it working, and getting into orbit just doesn’t add up based on Cornelius, Zira and Lucius’ location in the first half of Beneath (there’s a recent novel that tells this story; I haven’t read it yet but I hope it doesn’t just hand-wave the time component); that Natalie Trundy is the Mark Lenard of the Apes franchise, playing a mutant (in Beneath), a human (in Escape), and a chimp (in Conquest and Battle). (Mark Lenard was the first, and maybe still only, actor to hit a similar trifecta in the Star Trek franchise, playing a Romulan, a Vulcan, and a Klingon) …

And the geography. Oh my god, the geography: at the start of the first film, Taylor’s crew crashes into a large lake in a canyon area. (I don’t know where they filmed it, but it sure looks like the American southwest.) At the end of the film, of course, we get the famous reveal of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand of the ocean as Taylor finds out he’s been on Earth the whole time.  In Beneath, Brent and Nova track Taylor into the underground city, and we see mock-ups of famous NYC landmarks, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the Omega Bomb resides.  In Battle, we find out that the city Caesar led the rebellion in in Conquest is … New York City? Because Kolp is ready to launch that same Omega bomb… but the city we saw in Conquest and Battle looks absolutely nothing like Manhattan or any of the boroughs. I still can’t, even with my willing suspension of disbelief, figure out how the American northeast changes so drastically between the 1991 setting of Conquest and the 3978 setting of the first film. I’m still not even sure of the distance Taylor and crew travel on foot at the start of the first movie: are we to assume the lake/river they crash in is a transformed Hudson River Valley? That feels too close considering the number of days they seem to travel before the landscape changes to greener and they enter Ape territory. Is it the Delaware? That might be a little more plausible. The Susquehanna or Ohio? I just don’t know. it does occasionally keep me up at night.

The things I did notice, even as a kid?

1) The very clear shift in who the audience was supposed to be rooting for. In the first two movies, we’re clearly meant to root for (if not identify with) misanthropic Taylor and chivalrous Brent, lone speaking humans aided, mostly in secret, by one other non-verbal human (Nova) and at most three chimps (Zira, Cornelius, and their nephew Lucius) working in secret against their own obviously oppressive government and a hidden city of mutants. The third movie isn’t subtle about flipping this dynamic on its head: now we’ve got three chimps (Zira, Cornelius and poor, doomed Milo) trying to escape the clutches of an increasingly-oppressive human government with the help of only three humans working in secret (Dixon, Stephanie and Armando). Conquest is almost a complete flip of the dynamic of the first movie, with our solo hero (Caesar) and his non-verbal female interest (Lisa) being aided by only one sympathetic human (MacDonald). Battle completes the transition by relegating even the friendliest humans to supporting cast status (at best) and centering on ape vs. ape politics and those pesky evil mutants again.

2) Those apes looked nothing like the real chimps, orangutans and gorillas in our world. Even then, I wanted some kind of explanation as to how they evolved. How did chimps become human-sized? How did orangutans and gorillas all become so slim? And how did they all become so uniform even within species? It’s what I now call the “one line of dialogue” rule – if it can be explained in one or two lines of dialogue (and this certainly could have been), then the writers need to make that happen. But obviously, in the original Apes franchise, none of the several movie (or TV series) writers cared enough to postulate some kind of human gene-manipulating interference.

And I think that’s the interesting dichotomy of the original Apes franchise: while it did try to comment on weighty topics of the day (not just the Cold War and race relations, but the treatment of women and human abuse of nature vs. stewardship of it and fears of a threat from outer space wiping us out), it also didn’t really expect to be thought about too deeply, and so some gaping plots holes sit in plain view without a patch-job in sight.

Still: plot holes and weird geography are a part of the original franchise’s charm, and I will never stop loving it. It will stay near the top of my Favorite Movie Franchises list, always.

(Since it’s not a part of a series and thus doesn’t really fit into any of the posts I’m planning, this is probably the place to mention Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake/reboot/whatever-you-call-it. I didn’t see it until just last year. I found that it had a lot of the original franchise’s charm in terms of make-up and costumes and plot-holes and that it seemed to be trying to tackle some weightier subjects like the original franchise (militarism in particular, this time). I didn’t hate it as some people did. But I did find the “twist” ending to be gratuitous and unnecessary, almost as if someone (Burton or the studio) thought that in order to make this the start of a new franchise, they had to twist the original twist. And it just didn’t work, on any level. Even as meta-commentary, it fell flat. But I am glad I finally watched it, and I had fun watching Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan chew the scenery.)

Reading Round-Up: April 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 7 books in April: 2 in print, 2 in e-book format, and 3 in audio. They were:

1.      Lightspeed Magazine #107 (April 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories and novellas. This month’s favorites for me were Caroline M. Yoachim’s “The Archronology of Love,” Mathew Corradi’s “Gundark Island or, Tars Tarkas Needs Your Help,” Shweta Adhyam’s “A Conch-Shell’s Notes,” Carrie Vaughn’s “The Lady of Shallot,” and Ashok K. Banker’s “The Seeds of War.”

2.       Drama Queen (Nicky & Noah Mystery #1), by Joe Cosentino.  The first in a mystery series starring a pair of gay college professors as amateur sleuths has the body count of a crime novel but the tone of a cattier version of cozy mysteries. It’s a light, fun read, and I’m planning to read or listen to the rest of the series at some point.

3.       Sakina’s Restaurant, by Aasif Mandvi. The story of a half-dozen different Indian characters who own or work at the titular restaurant, performed as a one-man show by the author. Not every character portrait works, and the sound design sometimes allows the background to overwhelm the actual dialogue. I think I’d have enjoyed it better if I saw it performed onstage.

4.       A Bloody Business, by Dylan Struzan, with chapter art by Drew Struzan.  Dylan Struzan conducted 50 hours of recorded interviews with crime family member Jimmy Alo, with the understanding that she wouldn’t publish her work until after he was dead. This is an epic piece of creative non-fiction, weaving in Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegal, Al Capone and more. Fascinating. FULL REVIEW HERE.

5.       The Poor Clare by Elizabeth Gaskell. A gothic horror novella that’s light on the actual horror but strong on the suspense. It was just the right length for the story being told (man learns of the tragic history of a woman, her daughter, and her granddaughter).

6.       Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, narrated by Jim Dale.  I’m positive I read this in elementary school, but I had absolutely no memory of the events of the story. I kept waiting for a hot air balloon ride that never happened (thanks, movie versions!) and didn’t remember the subplot with Inspector Fix at all. It’s a fun travelogue with quite a few adventure scenes, but of course is also replete with the stererotypes and racism of the era. Jim Dale’s warm, friendly narration makes it almost too easy to ignore the less palatable parts.

7.       F is For Fairy edited by Rhonda Parrish. The sixth in Parrish’s “alphabet anthology” series has 26 stories centered around all kinds of fairies, with tones ranging from comedic to dark, at lengths from flash to almost-novella. Not every story was a total winner to me, but I liked the majority of them. FULL REVIEW HERE.

So only 7 books in April. Not my most prolific reading month of late.

 

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I did read and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too (with some short notes for stories that really stood out to me). If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim, from Lightspeed Magazine #107 (April 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “To Market, To Market: The Branding of Billy Bailey” by Cory Doctorow

3.       “Gundark Island or, Tars Tarkas Needs Your Help” by Matthew Corradi

4.       “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick

5.       “Blur” by Carmen Maria Machado

6.       “The Seeds of War” by Ashok K. Banker

7.       “The Lady of Shallot” by Carrie Vaughn

8.       “A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam

9.       “The Speed of Belief” by Robert Reed

10.   “Of Strange Oaths” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “Exhibit K” by Nadia Afifi, from Abyss & Apex 2nd Quarter 2019 issue, edited by Wendy S. Dalmater

12.   “The Birds That Flew in Wartime” by Tamoah Sengupta

13.   “A Missed Diversion” by R.S. Alexander

14.    “Ars Poetica” by David F. Shultz

15.   “Sibling Squabbles” by Gregg Chamberlain

16.   “The Gifted Sommellier” by Grayson Bray Morris

17.   “A is for Apple, Who is Love” by L.S. Johnson, from F is for Fairy (Alphabet Anthologies #6), edited by Rhonda Parrish

18.   “B is for Burned” by C.S. MacCath

19.   “C is for Contract” by Jonathan C. Parrish

20.   “D is for Diplomacy” by Jeanne Kramer-Smyth

21.   “E is for Elfshot” by Pete Aldin

22.   “F is for Family” by Steve Bornstein

23.   “G is for Gentry” by Stephanie A. Cain

24.   “H is for Heartkeeper” by Suzanne J. Willis

25.   “I is for Imputation” by Joseph Halden

26.   “J is for Jabberwocky” by Alexandria Seidel

27.   “K is for Kin” by Cory Cone

28.   “L is for Leaving” by Lynn Hardaker

29.   “M is for Maturity” by Rachel M. Thompson

30.   “N is for Neverland” by Brittany Warman

31.   “O is for Oasis” by Lilah Ward

32.   “P is for Promised One” by Michael B. Tager

33.   “Q is for Quiet” by Danielle Davis

34.   “R is for Rusalka” by Megan Englehardt

35.   “S is for Savior” by Samantha Kymmell-Harvey

36.   “T is for Titania” by Sara Cleto

37.   “U is for Unseelie Court” by Andrew Bourelle

38.   “V is for Verisimilitude” by BD Wilson

39.   “W is for Wear Wigs” by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

40.   “X is for Xanadu” by Michael M. Jones

41.   “Y is for Your Song” by Michael Fosburg

42.   “Z is for Zamboni” by Beth Cato

So that’s 42 short stories in April, putting me now slightly ahead for the year so far. (April 30th was the 120th day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 2 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  42 read; YTD: 130 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 0 read; YTD: 14 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 7 read; YTD: 50 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 1; YTD: 4 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month, but I set an April goal to try to read primarily books from small press publishers, and I didn’t do good job of it at all (partially due to the smaller number of books read and to commitments to be kept). a pretty decent job of it. Of the 7 books I read, only 3 qualify as from small presses (Drama Queen from Lethe Press; The Poor Clare reissued by Melville House; F is for Fairy from Poise and Pen Publishing). Of the 42 stories, the majority came from small presses (Poise and Pen Publishing: 26; author Patreon: 1; Abyss & Apex magazine: 6; if Lightspeed Magazine counts as a small press among spec-fic magazine publishers, then all of April’s short stories came from small presses of some kind.)

May’s challenge: May is short story month, so the goal is to read mostly anthologies, collections, and novellas. May is also Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Jewish-American Heritage Month. I’m going to try to read some non-fiction in those areas this month as well.

SERIES SATURDAY: Beth Cato's Blood of Earth Trilogy

This is the first of a new series of posts about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

For this inaugural edition, I’m going to ramble on a bit about a recently-concluded trilogy which I absolutely loved:  Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy.

 

BloodofEarth-triptych.jpg

The Blood of Earth trilogy is a magic-infused alternate history with steampunk trappings. The setting is various cities in the western United States, plus a short jaunt to Hawaii at a pivotal moment. It is 1906, just before the great San Francisco Earthquake. The United States and Japan have formed a powerful alliance called the Unified Pacific. China has been subjugated by Japan while Chinese in America are ghettoized, stereotyped, and removed from all chances at equal opportunities. Tensions along the western seaboard are mounting as Chinese residents are treated with less and less humanity – at the same time that the Unified Pacific also seems to be having political disagreements with the British (who have their own insurrection going on) and Russians (who are moving to control the Alaskan oil market).

Kermanite, a mined ore that can hold earth-generated magical energy for later use, is the “power behind the throne.” It’s used to power items small and great, allowing this alternate Earth to have flying ships and weapons which are steam-punk in design and execution if not operation. Some people are more capable of wielding this earth-magic than others; Wardens are stationed around the world to monitor, absorb, and control the energy released by seismic activity. The Wardens are all men – because the idea that a woman could wield such power is just unthinkable in this society. And the idea of a woman of mixed heritage holding such power is not only unthinkable, it’s unfathomable.

Enter Ingrid Carmichael: a powerful magic-user hiding in plain sight as a secretary to a powerful San Francisco-based Warden because women shouldn’t be able to do even an eighth of what she can do. Trained by Warden Sakaguchi from childhood and past the untimely death of her mother, Ingrid is strong-willed. But also knows how to blend in – half Black, half Pacific Islander, and a woman, she kind of has to be able to navigate the anti-Asian, and specifically anti-Chinese, sentiments around her.

Ingrid’s best friend is Lee – a Chinese teen servant/surrogate son to Mr. Sakaguchi who has secrets of his own that come into play as the series progresses. Mr. Sakaguchi is a surrogate father to Ingrid as well, given the disappearance of her own father when she was a small child.

Early in the first book, Ingrid meets the handsome, smart, secretive Cy, who is on the run as a Deserter, trying to leave warmongering family history behind. Cy is accompanied by his best friend from the military academy, Fenris – an incredible mechanic/engineer/pilot who is full of heart but acts gruff and uncaring. Fenris, as it turns out, is transgender. Cato works this fact in smoothly, as just another character fact no more or less important than Ingrid’s heritage or Cy’s family history.

Outside of Mr. Sakaguchi, the rest of the Wardens we meet are questionable at best, enemies at worst. When we meet Warden Blum – a powerful Japanese politician – and Warden Roosevelt – yes, Teddy Roosevelt – we’re not sure if they will be friends or foes to Ingrid. Roosevelt is the one “real” historical supporting character in the series. His presence grounds the story in our own history. Cato’s portrayal isn’t always flattering, but I think she captures the real Roosevelt very well – for every national park he created, he said or did something to marginalize people of color, and Cato captures that dichotomy so very well.

But while the presence of Roosevelt and cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and such make the world familiar, it’s the magic and the way it works (for peace and for war) that is the most impressive part of the world-building. Magical creatures exist, ranging from the almost-unknowable (giant snakes that live in seismic fault lines and whose movements generate the earth-magic at the core of the story), to the mighty (Chinese guardian spirits called Quilin, the goddess Pele) to the human-ish (kitsune, selkies) to the tiny (colonies of sylphs). Cato’s explanations for how magical energy is generated, the sickening effects it can have on those not talented enough to hold and control it, the way the Kermanite stores it and releases it – all feel so complete, so true, that every time the ground shakes I wonder if someone nearby is absorbing the energy to protect the rest of us. And the uses to which the magic is put feel very true to our own world. Some people just want to use it to heal (Reiki and acupuncture specialists), help (Ingrid) or build (Cy and Fenris, peripherally), while others want to use it to control (various wardens/politicians) or destroy (the Japanese government and certain insurrectionists). And while our main characters clearly choose sides/roles early on, there are many characters who start out believing one choice is correct and come to see the opposite (telling you who would spoil too much of the second and third books).

The character-building is as impressive as the world-building. Almost every main and supporting character has an arc to be explored. Some of those arcs build slower than others, and there’s at least one character I wish had had more of a storyline, but they all get to have their own moments and lives even while serving the main plot. Even tertiary characters have personality and a living energy often missing from characters who come on stage only to serve a brief purpose / propel the action forward. Ingrid is a wonderfully strong-willed lead character, but that’s not her only trait. She’s insecure about her abilities and what effect they will have if she can’t control them; she’s sometimes head-strong to a fault; she swings from too-trusting to too-suspicious (sometimes at inconvenient times); she pushes herself beyond her limits to save others; she is funny, smart, and romantic. In other words, real and well-rounded. And Cy is almost totally the same – the old saying “opposites attract” is put to the lie here – without subverting Ingrid’s lead role in her own story. And make no mistake: though surrounded by interesting subplots for her group of supporting characters, this trilogy is Ingrid’s story – Ingrid’s fight to hone her abilities, uncover her family’s past, defeat the enemies and save the day. Beth Cato is a fantastic author, and I’m sure she could tell interesting stories in this world without Ingrid if she really wanted to – but she couldn’t tell this story without Ingrid involved every step of the way, up to the very satisfactory end of book three, in which all plots and important subplots are wrapped up.

So: read the Blood of Earth trilogy if you like magic-infused alternate history, strong female leads, diverse supporting casts, steampunk-ish technology, and legends come to life. I’d be surprised if you were disappointed at all.