Beth Cato’s debut The Clockwork Dagger showed promise. Its sequel The Clockwork Crown showed improvement. With Breath of Earth, a steampunk epic fantasy set in a Japanese-dominated alternate 1906 San Francisco, Cato shows she can tell a story with the big boys (and girls).
After the earth’s power under her city is suddenly left unprotected, a young geomancer must rely on her unique magic to survive in this fresh fantasy standalone from the author of the acclaimed The Clockwork Dagger.
In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation— the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong secretary Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her own talent—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.
When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose the earth’s power to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese forces, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming San Francisco into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .
Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her already considerable magic has grown even more fearsome . . . and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests.
At first blush, Breath of Earth suffers a bit from revisiting well and recently trodden ground. N.K. Jemisin just won a Hugo for her opening in a series featuring magic-users who can mitigate earthquakes. Another Hugo-nominated novel featured airships powered by crystals (it’s like we’re living in the 90s all over again). We got a striking look at an alternate San Francisco under the thumb of the Japanese in the first season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Larry Correia’s wonderful Grimnoir Chronicles feature Imperial Japan as America’s chief geopolitical foe.
But as I’ve said in regards to the Grimnoir Chronicles, Imperial Japan has been underused as a villain (they really were every bit as awful as Nazi Germany). And Cato gives us a nice twist by making Japan our ally . . . of sorts. It’s never quite clear how the United Pacific works, but America is definitely the junior partner, and the twelve “Ambassadors” are powerful enough that Teddy Roosevelt chooses that over the U.S. presidency. Cato isn’t prone to extensive exhibition, a storytelling style that works much better against a historical record. We can suss out the basics. Geomancers can absorb the energy from earthquakes. Not only does that mitigate harm from earthquakes, the energy can be transferred into crystals that can then be used as a power source. Hence the airships and even a tank, years before significant development in the real world. Steampunk tech usually doesn’t work for me; Breath of Earth has the sort of sensible steampunk worldbuilding that does.
Cato’s light touch works in the storytelling as well. It’s mentioned early on in an almost offhanded way that most (!) of China’s population has been wiped out by the United Pacific. It’s mass murder on a scale that would make Mao blush, but the horror of it all only sets in later when Cato starts to open up windows into the horrors of this. And all this comes during a fast-moving story driven by both precipitating events and revelations about the nature of geomancy (coupled with a very solid romance).
I have only a couple quibbles. A couple of times Cato resorts to having her characters pick up the Idiot Ball to move the plot along. And Ingrid’s bouts of sass—snark, really, Ingrid is plenty sassy—are incongruous with her character.
Disclosure: I received a(n unsolicited) copy of Breath of Earth from the publisher.