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.

 

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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.

DON DELILLO's MAO II - Book Review

Don Delillo is one of those writers I feel like I should have read long before now. Somehow, he did not come up in any of my Lit courses in college, and I have not sought him out since then. Two years ago the owner of my local independent bookstore recommended MAO II.  Dave’s recommendations have always been spot-on before and as is my habit when recommendations are made while I’m in a bookstore, I immediately purchased the book, put it on a shelf at home, and promptly forgot about it.   But lately I’ve been on a “clean out the bookshelves” binge, and this was one of the books I decided I wanted to read before trading in at the used bookstore.

Plot-wise, the back cover tells us MAO II is the story of reclusive author Bill Gray who, stuck for years now on a failed novel, is inspired to leave his reclusive life and become involved in a group’s attempts to get a French poet released from hostage captivity in Beirut.  Bill’s sudden change in attitude is brought on by an encounter with a world-renowned photographer, and his actions leave his obsessive-compulsive assistant Scott and Scott’s girlfriend Karen at a loss for what to do while waiting for Bill’s return to what they consider normalcy.

That’s the plot, but the book is “about” something larger. It took me a few days after reading the book to figure out exactly what that larger thing is. Ultimately, I think, the book is about the Cult of Personality. DeLillo litters the book with references to Andy Warhol, to Chairman Mao, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who fails to draw at least a surface connection between Bill Gray and J.D. Salinger just isn’t paying attention. Scott is concerned that Bill’s reputation and reprint rights are based on what people think he is up to in his seclusion, and that if he publishes this latest novel (failed or not, we never really get to see the contents) people will no longer be intrigued. The French poet is held hostage by a Communist terrorist building a following in Beirut, whose followers give up their own identities to be a part of his. Even the photographer, Brita, builds her career around a sort of cult: she travels the world photographing writers almost exclusively.

The opening section of the book, which focuses on Karen and takes place at the Mass Wedding lead by the Rev. Moon at Yankees Stadium, almost lost me. DeLillo bounces between at least three (that I could count) distinct points of view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the feeling I had by the end of the section was that this work was going to be too pretentious, too arty for me. Had the rest of the book continued in that vein, I might not have been able to finish it.  Happily (for me), the remainder of the book is written a bit more traditionally. Actually, it becomes a bit heavy on the dialogue side for a while — characters jumping on various soap-boxes and rambling, dissembling, reminiscing, pontificating. At first, the penchant for characters to spout non-sequiturs bothered me, but ultimately that’s what real conversations are like, aren’t they?  So DeLillo does capture that aspect of real life, even if some of his diatribes go on a bit long. He also does a nice job of allowing we, the readers, to see where all of the characters ultimately end up even if the characters themselves have lost track of each other.

I can’t say that MAO II has inspired me to rush out and start reading everything Don DeLillo has ever written, but I am glad I made the effort to read the book.

JIM BUTCHER, Dark and Stormy Knights - Book Review

Thanks to a migraine headache, I’m posting this review a day later than I’d intended to, but here it is:

Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod, isbn 9780312598341, 357 pages, St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99

This is the fourth P.N. Elrod-edited urban fantasy anthology I’ve picked up. Honestly, the deciding factor to purchase each lay in the fact that each includes a story / novella of The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher. I also have to be honest and say I haven’t really finished any of the other anthologies. Over time, I’ve picked out a story or two to try out but have never really had the urge to read the anthologies cover to cover. I didn’t have that urge with this anthology at first, either, but I kept finding first lines / first paragraphs that interested me, and after the third time that happened I decided I needed to just read the whole thing.

I’m glad I did. The contents of any anthology can be described as “hit or miss,” but I can say this collection actually had more hits than misses for me.  According to the back cover text, the characters in these stories are “the shadow defenders of humanity — modern-day knights committing the darkest of deeds for all the right reasons.” Most of the main characters fit that description well, both in the stories that are part of an already existing larger fictional world and the stories that introduce us to new settings.

As I’ve already reviewed each story individually on the 365shortstories community at Livejournal, I won’t retread those thoughts here in any detail.  Of the nine stories in this collection, five are definitely part of existing fictional worlds: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books, Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty” books, Vicki Pettersson’s “Sings of the Zodiac” series, and editor P.N. Elrod’s Jack Fleming mysteries.  I was already very familiar with the Dresden books and have a decent familiarity with the Fleming stories; the other three were new to me.  Of those, I thought Ilona Andrews and Carrie Vaughn did the best at making a new reader feel comfortable. Pettersson’s story was interesting (especially in terms of the question “what makes us human?”) but I felt like I was being penalized for not having read the novels — too much of Pettersson’s story seemed to rely on knowing exactly where in the novel series the characters were, while Andrews and Vaughn gave me enough world and character background to enjoy the story as a stand-alone piece.  As for the two worlds with which I was already familiar, I’m probably not in a good position to judge whether the Dresden story (which does not feature Harry Dresden himself, but rather gangster “Gentleman” John Marcone) is easily accessible without knowledge of the novels. I think it is, but readers new to Dresden can judge better than I.  The Fleming story, as with the others I’ve read, is a decent little mystery, serviceable towards the anthology’s theme, and I think ultimately accessible to new readers; Elrod gives you everything you need to know about Jack to get you through the story.

The remaining four stories in the anthology appear to be truly stand-alone tales.  Shannon K. Butcher’s “The Beacon” reads like an introduction to a series. I have no idea if she plans to continue with the Ryder Ward character, but I think she certainly could and could build up an interesting world around him. Rachel Caine is always a favorite of mine in these anthologies, and this time she gives a tale of dragon-hunting in the modern day that is both funny and heart-breaking. The Lilith Saintcrow story also felt like it might be an introduction to a new series (or perhaps it is part of something that already exists — it didn’t seem so from the author’s notes, though). And the Diedre Knight story felt so complete that I can’t imagine where she would go if it was part of a series.