Breath of Earth
By Beth Cato
Not My Edition:
Paperback, 383 pages
2016, Harper Voyager
The year is 1906 and the United States has formed an alliance with Japan, calling themselves the United Pacific, with dreams of world domination – starting with China. Ingrid Carmichael lives in San Francisco with her mentor and guardian, who is secretly training her to be a geomancer – a powerful mage who can harness the power of earthquakes. Ingrid is the only known female geomancer and her powers are proving to be far beyond what any other geomancer has known. After an attack on the other wardens of San Francisco, Ingrid must flee her home and fight a battle not only for her life, but for the safety of her state.
Alternate history isn’t a genre I read often, but it’s one I do enjoy. In this version of 1906, the United States has adopted many Japanese customs thanks to their alliance. They are currently waging war against China, as the Japanese hope to use the country to ease their own overcrowded land. There are some Chinese immigrants on U.S. land but they’re treated as second-class citizens and the tension between the three groups is reaching a breaking point.
There are also steampunk elements to this story, as the magic collected by the geomancers can be used to power many machines, such as blimps, cars, tanks and even common household objects like phones. There are also weapons like Tesla rods, which basically seem like Taser-sticks that can be telescoped out more easily zap the shit out of someone.
In addition to the technology, there are different magical elements. First off, I enjoyed the idea of Geomancy. Those with the power can siphon energy from the earth during earthquakes and in some cases even the smallest tremors. They then put that energy into crystals which are used to power various devices. In Ingrid’s case, she can also store the power in her body and use it to give herself increased strength and even barrier-like protection bubbles. There are other schools of magic as well, though Reiki, healing magic, is the only one heavily discussed. But even Reiki is complex, as there are Light and Dark forms – those who practice light Reiki harvest life energy from plants in order to heal people, whereas those who use dark Reiki take their energy from animals and even people, thus healing more powerfully.
Mythical creatures also exist in this world and while I enjoyed that idea, I don’t think it played out well in the book. I sadly forget the term Cato’s characters use for magical creatures – something like mythics – but they’re mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, like Ingrid enjoying seeing unicorns, even if they’re used to pull carriages. Then towards the end we’re introduced to selkies and even a giant, two-headed snake, but they didn’t seem to fit properly in the world and felt crammed into an already busy plot.
The plot moved along at a nice pace and there was a fair bit of action, but unfortunately I didn’t care for any of the characters; most fell flat and Ingrid was downright annoying. I don’t want this to turn into a rant about her, so I’ll try to keep it brief.
First off, I understand that having your character describe themselves to the reader in a way that seems natural is difficult. However, Ingrid is constantly talking about her hair, skin and robust curves. Every time she stopped to talk about her ample hips or breasts, I was pulled out of the story. This happens in many stories, but Ingrid’s self-descriptions felt excessive. She also develops the hots for the male protagonist and often thought about how handsome he was or how he made her lady bits warm and tingly in the middle of life-threatening action! I get it, he’s hot and you want to have sex with him, but I don’t believe you’d be thinking about this when you’re both about to die and you’re concentrating on using your magic to save your lives! Ugh.
Ingrid is also mixed race and adding that to the fact that she’s a woman, her life is considerably more difficult than those of the men around her, starting with the fact that she must keep her magic a secret and cannot train as a male student would. I understood that Ingrid felt marginalized and that men around her treated her with blatant disrespect simply because of her sex and skin color. Yet I don’t feel this point was accomplished with any grace or subtlety and it was another point that constantly pulled me from the story. Ingrid was always telling the reader how she was disrespected due to her looks and gender and social status, rather than letting the characters around her and the story elements show that. She simply didn’t evoke any empathy and I think her narration hindered more than it helped.
This review turned out to be a lot longer than I expected. Overall, this book was alright. There were some elements I enjoyed but the lack of a connection with the character will keep me from reading the next book, despite the cliffhanger ending.
You can check out Beth’s website or tweet her.