November 08, 2018
(+++) MAGIC, POLITICS AND STEAMPUNK
Blood of Earth #3: Roar of Sky. By Beth Cato. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Here we go with a trilogy wrapup that takes place in an alternative version of the early 20th century, in a world where geomancers play a crucial role by absorbing earth energy and moving it into storage crystals that power homes, flying cars and so forth, a world where a geomantic failure causes the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 by unleashing untamed energy. Here we have a world where Beth Cato tries gamely to use some aspects of Chinese culture and bows to multiculturalism and political correctness by having protagonist Ingrid Carmichael be motivated in part by the horror she feels at the racism and segregation that Chinese people face from the Unified Pacific (UP) – a world-dominating alliance of America and Japan. Being female and of mixed race, Ingrid has personal experience of being marginalized, cast out and looked down on – not to mention the fact that she and her Japanese mentor, Mr. Sakaguchi, are on the run from the military and from the powerful and ruthless Ambassador Blum, a shape-shifting kitsune (essentially a fox spirit) with aspirations to dominate the world.
So here we go to – Hawaii. By the end of the previous book, Call of Fire (which followed the first in the sequence, Breath of Earth), Ingrid has escaped Ambassador Blum for the time being but has been left physically weak, unable to walk, and in constant pain. Trying to find the source of her unusually strong (though now diminished) magical powers, which she suspects result from being the granddaughter of the volcano goddess Madame Pele, Ingrid heads for the volcano Kilauea aboard a fairly standard-issue steampunk airship owned by Ingrid’s pacifist lover, Cypress (Cy) Jennings, and his partner, Fenris Braun. The descent into Kilauea is actually one of the best scenes in the book, thanks to some unexpected leavening, if not exactly humor: the potent world-protecting Ingrid goes into Kilauea along with a group of bumbling tourists. But whatever minor levity this brings is soon gone as the standard-issue fantasy quest heats up (and not just because of the volcano). A legendary Chinese being appears in suitable deus ex machina fashion to tell Ingrid to deliver a divine weapon called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade to her adoptive brother, Lee, son of the late emperor. This requires Ingrid to find a way into the city of Excalibur (a particularly ill-chosen name, although surely meant ironically) – this is the floating city of the UP, whose chief engineer, Maggie, happens to be Cy’s sister and needs to be won over to the good guys’ cause before something vaguely Deathstar-like happens.
If all this sounds rather mixed up and overly complicated, that is because it is rather mixed up and overly complicated. There are the usual quest elements, as Ingrid and companions leave Hawaii in a race to California and then Arizona to confront and ultimately defeat their enemies. There are fairly standard expectations that the good guys must be “audacious and brave” despite the great odds against them. There is the undercurrent of Ingrid’s self-discovery that propels the entire trilogy. There is the ultra-pure motivation of Ingrid, whose love for her friends (Cy included) is almost irritatingly pure. There are easy encapsulations of characters other than Ingrid: Cy is a brilliant inventor, Fenris a Mr. Fix-It type. There are periodic appearances of mythological creatures from Asian cultures. There is a final battle that reads a bit like something written by an over-hyped Ian Fleming. Ambassador Blum is one of those standard, devious, ultra-evil and ultra-powerful villains so awful that just mentioning her name upsets people. So there are echoes aplenty of Harry Potter, James Bond, Star Wars, and pretty much everything in the steampunk world, to the point of having the final setting aboard the world’s largest airship. And after all the fireworks eventually go out, there is the expected conclusion in which the survivors are determined to live a normal life hereafter – but there are hints that Cato might return to them, or at least to this world, in future books.
Roar of Sky is surprisingly easy to read without having gone through the first two books in the series. This is partly because Cato keeps the pace breathless and does action scenes particularly well, and partly because the characters are, in the main, such standard-issue stereotypes (even when given a multicultural veneer) that readers can easily figure out what must have happened before even without knowing the details of the earlier adventures. Although aimed at adults, the Blood of Earth series reads, in the main, like a so-called YA (Young Adult, which is to say teenager-oriented) trilogy, with its easy-to-grasp characters and motivations, coming-of-age elements, action-packed sequences, and frequent echoes of other YA stories. Although it is fun to read for its fast pacing and some exotic tinges, and although it has some trappings of social awareness (again, largely in YA mode), Roar of Sky and the sequence it concludes read mostly like genre escapist novels full of sound and fury, signifying not very much.