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.
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.