Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey

This book is set in the early 20th century. Rose Hawkins is a young scholar in Chicago who finds herself having to make some tough decisions after her father dies and creditors take nearly everything she has left. With no other options left to her, she accepts a position as a governess for the children of Jason Cameron, a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco. When she arrives at her new home and workplace, she discovers that Cameron wasn't entirely truthful. While he doesn't actually have children, he does need her scholarly expertise. A recent accident has made it impossible to read the books he needs to read in order to conduct his research. Rose agrees to work for him under these changed conditions, but the strange books he has her reading make her begin to wonder about the secrets Cameron is hiding.

And wonder she should - Cameron is no ordinary man, and his accident was definitely not a normal one. Cameron is an Elemental Master whose specialty is Fire. Confident in his abilities, Cameron attempted a spell that he thought would allow him to assume the form of a wolf at will. However, something went wrong, and he was left in a painful half-man, half-wolf body. He's determined to find a way to undo what he's done, but he needs help for that, which is where Rose comes in. Of course, Rose is neither stupid nor incurious, and Jason eventually finds it necessary to prove the existence of Elemental Magic to her. Rose stays by Jason, even when she discovers what his accident has done to his appearance. With an old enemy looking for any exploitable weakness, Jason needs all the friends he can get.

I have to admit, I wouldn't have minded it if Lackey had only written this one Elemental Masters book. This is by far the best in the series, with interesting and usually enjoyable characters and an almost believable romance (I'll get to that later). The "Beauty and the Beast" aspect doesn't feel at all forced, mainly because Lackey doesn't require that the book use all the details from the story (actually, she doesn't use hardly any).

The magical system was fascinating. I suppose I can see why she felt the need to write more books - this one only scratched the surface of one or two elements, leaving much more that could be explored. This book teaches readers about Elemental Magic through Rose, who becomes Jason's apprentice - it's a nice way to give readers a lot of information while keeping things from getting boring. I loved reading about the Salamanders, and I only wish Lackey had spent more time writing about the Sylphs.

The setting was also fun to read about. I can't personally say whether Lackey got all the details right, but nothing struck me as being jarringly wrong. I wasn't always a fan of Rose and Jason's many popular culture references (or what would have been popular culture back then - musicals, opera, books, etc.) - those felt a little overdone, like Lackey was trying a little too hard. I did, however, like the "life in 1905/1906" details that came up occasionally, like the tidbits about Rose's clothing, etc. Rose's trip to Chinatown was also a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the romance in this book, although this is one of those romantic storylines that is most enjoyable if you don't think about it too much. The friendship and, eventually, love between Rose and Jason develops smoothly and naturally enough. I think what bothers me is thinking about how the mechanics of their relationship will work. Unlike "Beauty and the Beast," which ends with the Beast becoming a man again, Jason doesn't become like he once was. At one point, Jason finds himself wondering how a relationship between him and Rose could possibly work, since kissing him would be like "kissing an Alsatian," even though he's pretty much human from nipples to mid-thigh. Rose is, at first, startled and upset by Jason's appearance, but she gradually grows used to him and even finds him a little attractive, kind of like one of the Egyptian gods. This, I'm guessing, is supposed to reassure readers that she won't mind doing more than hand-holding with Jason, but I'm not buying it. Apparently, either Lackey thought a sex scene, or even kissing, would turn readers off, or maybe even she couldn't picture how things would work out, because Rose and Jason are never described as doing more than holding hands.

Some readers may also be turned off by Lackey's one-dimensional villains. Paul, Jason's apprentice and secretary, has absolutely no redeeming characteristics. Actually, the fact that Jason knew about his apprentice's horrific entertainments and did nothing is a black mark against him - if Rose ever finds out, Jason's going to be in the dog house, no pun intended. Simon, Jason's enemy, is even more one-dimensional. He's there to be both bad and (somewhat) clever, while Paul is merely bad. If you like your villains to be more than just cardboard, this is not the book for you.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and it held up nicely to a re-read, after a few years of sitting in my bookshelves collecting dust. I think I'll just pretend that the other books in the series never happened...

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Rose Daughter (book) by Robin McKinley - This book is a retelling of the "Beauty and the Beast" story and is more faithful to the original fairytale than The Fire Rose. Those who'd like another retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" might enjoy this book, or McKinley's earlier retelling, Beauty.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) - In a world where alchemy is considered science, Ed and Al, two young brothers, have broken the primary rule of alchemy, the law of equivalent exchange, in an attempt to resurrect their mother. As a result, Ed lost an arm and a leg, and Al lost his whole body. Now they're on a journey to discover the Philosopher's Stone and use it to restore their bodies. The brothers' goals are remarkably similar to Jason Cameron's, and fans of the logically constructed magical system in The Fire Rose may enjoy the alchemy is this manga/anime.
  • Powers That Be (book) by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough -Major Yanaba Maddock has pretty much retired from active duty, due to having severely damaged her lungs. She's gone to live on the cold and inhospitable planet Petaybee and has been pressured into spying for her employers there. Her employers are convinced that the colonists have been abducting geological survey teams. Yana finds herself liking the locals, particularly Sean Shongili, whom she comes to love. As Yana learns more about Petaybee's secrets, she becomes as determined as any of the colonists to protect the planet and its people from her employers. Those who'd like another book with a bit of romance, a shapeshifter, and a main female character with a good head on her shoulders might enjoy this book.
  • Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede - Kim survives life on the streets of London by disguising herself as a boy and doing whatever jobs she can find that are the least objectionable or illegal. She knows her life can't continue this way, however, and jumps at the chance to work for the wizard Mairelon when he offers her a job. Those who'd like something with magic, a hint of romance (nothing happens until the next book), and a historical setting (this is set in an alternate Regency England) might enjoy this book.
  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book) by Laurie R. King - In 1915, 15-year-old American Mary Russell, an orphan chafing in her aunt's care, meets Sherlock Holmes and impresses him with her intelligence and observation skills. He agrees to mentor her and lets her take part in a few cases, until she finally becomes part of a much more dangerous case. Those who'd like another story with a well-described historical setting and a close relationship between a fairly reclusive man and an intelligent woman might enjoy this book.

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