Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) San Francisco, 1905: Rosalind, a medieval scholar, is hired by Jason, a powerful sorcerer. Jason’s enemy offers to restore Rosalind’s family fortune if she will betray Jason. And then the earthquake strikes…
Thoughts: The unofficial beginning to the Elemental Masters series, The Fire Rose takes a step into the past, to the early 1900s in San Francisco, and centres around Rose, a recently orphaned female scholar trying to make her way in a man’s world. Her home and possessions have been sold to cover her family’s debt, and she is in desperate need of a job to keep food in her stomach and a roof over her head, and mourns the fact that she’s unlikely to get to do anything that would play to her talents as a scholar of classical literature and foreign languages.
But wishes always get answered in Mercedes Lackey novels, and the mysterious Jason offers her employment that seems like nothing short of a dream come true. Opulent living quarters close to a large and diverse city, good food, beautiful clothes, and her job mainly consists of reading books aloud to him from one room to another. What more could she ask for?
Well, for one thing, she probably could have asked for her employer not to be a cursed beast-man mage with a cruel and power-hungry apprentice. But what story has any merit without conflict?
The magic system in this novel is fairly simple, relying on a standard 4 elemental arrangement, plus a 5th element of spirit or light. Magic is accomplished mostly through calling on the magical creatures associated with one’s element. What is interesting, however, is that while the standard elements seem to cross cultures easily enough, the creature associated with it change. While gnomes are the Earth creatures in America, Chinese sorcerers have an affinity with dragons. It’s unclear whether ones cultural upbringing affects how a person sees the spirits or whether they truly differ by region and culture; there are hints that it may be somewhere in the middle. It’s a mix of the locally familiar and the foreign. More details on that might be revealed in future novels in the series, but as of this review, I haven’t read any of them yet to find out.
Like most of Lackey’s novels, The Fire Rose is mostly fluff reading, entertaining and comfortable to sink into, not excessively thought-provoking or challenging. It relaxing more than anything else, with Lackey’s trademark idealism running throughout. The bad guys are power-hungry and sinister, and you know they’ll be defeated because that’s how things work. You know Rose will live happily ever after, because that’s how it works. No matter how much darkness there is, no matter how much cruelty is witnessed or suffered through, you know it’ll work out in the end, and that’s what makes Lackey’s work so very comforting to read. Idealist fiction at some of its finest.
Interestingly, though, not everything gets tied up so neatly. As the story clearly draws on the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, you expect Jason to have recovered from his accidental transformation and return to human form. This actually doesn’t happen, and both Rose and Jason are left to develop their budding relationship with some things standing in the way. Rose is a very competent and efficient woman who cares more for Jason’s mind than appearance, but it was quite refreshing to not see every plot thread wrapped up so neatly.
The downside to this is that from what I hear, the rest of the Elemental Masters series consists of a lot of similarly-themed one-shot stories, not a direct continuation of Rose’s story. I’m not sure if those plot threads ever get tied up, or if they continue to dangle. Sometimes there’s a nice sense of realism to a story ending without everything being perfect, and personally, I think this is the case here. The story that needed to be told was told, and enough was presented to sufficiently hook the reader on the secret magical history of the world and the people who walk within it.
As I said, this book is good for some comfort reading, where you don’t want the pool you dive into to be exceptionally deep. It’s idealistic, it works with familiar urban fantasy elements, and overall, it’s just a lot of fun. Classic Lackey, and recommended for fans of her Valdemar books who want to see something different while still loving the way she writes.