Monday, May 9, 2016

Cinderella's Little Finger

Feeling like a bit of a fairy tale this week so I read Phoenix and Ashes a book in Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series.  This book, like the others in this series is a take on a classic fairy tale, in this case Cinderella, combined with the ongoing thread of the Elemental Masters.  This entry was a solid read that did the job for more, read on as always SPOILERS AHEAD!
Eleanor Robinson is the only daughter of a factory owner who has been sent to the front during WWI.  Before heading out to war, he brought his daughter a new step-mother in the form of Allison and her daughters Lauralee and Carolyn.  Allison is a very upscale sort of woman and she instantly begins to marginalize Eleanor in favor of her daughters and starts to get the village to do the same thing.  News comes from the front of Eleanor's fathers death.  After learning of this, Allison attacks Eleanor, cutting off her little finger and uses it to bind Eleanor to herself and to the house revealing her to be an Earth Master, albeit one who practices Dark Magic.  The effect of this is that Eleanor must now do whatever Allison requires and can no longer leave her own house.  After a couple years of this Eleanor learns how to "bend" the boundaries of Allison's spells and start to venture out of the house and create a little bit of better conditions for herself.  One day a woman by the name of Sarah, the village midwife who also has a bit of small magic.  Sarah let's Eleanor know that her mother was a Fire Master and it appears that she has inherited the same talent.  Sarah begins to teach her what she can and Eleanor continues to learn on her own, not just about her own Fire element, but about the other three elements as well.  Meanwhile we get glimpses of the absolute horror of the war, including the direct effects it is having on the various populace.  We see the people deal with rationing and trying to run their businesses without any men between 16-50.  We see men coming back from the war wounded and mentally destroyed.  We watch as women and young men take up where the other's left off to try and create some sort of life for themselves.  One of these young men to come home with wounds both physical and mental is Reggie Fenyx, a pilot who is also an Air Master.  He comes home to recover and remembers Eleanor from before the war.  He finds her easy to talk to and quit intelligent.  They meet when they can, but both of them have other obligations.  Allison and her daughters continue with their plans.  We discover that the reason they did not kill Eleanor outright was that she is still the only person on her father's will and if she dies all of his assets go to a random cousin.  Allison devises a plan to make Eleanor go mad so that she can claim guardianship over her and of course all her assets.  Allison also uses her dark Earth powers to try and ensnare Reggie for one of her daughters so that she can continue to climb the social ladder.  Allison also uses her Earth power to unleash sickness and misery to obtain more power for herself.  Everything comes to a head at a ball held at the manor of Reggie and his mother.  Allison and the girls go to try and snag Reggie.  Eleanor, who has finally come into her power goes to obtain the aid of Reggie's god-mother who is a powerful Air Master to assist in her breaking Allison's hold on her.  And Reggie invite's Eleanor 'cause she is about the only person he can actually stand.  Reggie decides he doesn't care about class and rank and asks Eleanor if she would consider marrying him.  Before she can answer, the curse reasserts itself and she can barely manage to choke out that she loves him before she must go home.  She leaves behind a glove with a missing finger.  Reggie goes to find Eleanor, finally figuring out that Allison and her girls are up to no good.  Allison and company do everything in their power to make Eleanor and Reggie go mad so that she can continue with her nefarious plans.  She is eventually defeated after she sucks the life force from everybody, including her daughters.  She loses control of her giant earth elemental who turns on her.  Eleanor finally gets to go to Oxford like she always dreamed and she and Reggie continue to grow in their powers.
World Building - The world is set in an alternative history version of England during WWI.  The world if very very very (sometimes overly) detailed with every bit of everything spelled out for us.  There is a fantasy element with the Elemental Masters and other magics appearing as a normal thing.  The author details every bit of the world, giving us everything from the setting to the machinations of the various things going on.  It actually has the feeling of being over stuffed with description yeah.

Story - The story had it's basis in the fairy tale of Cinderella, but the execution of it was wholly original.  This is a great example of how to take a well known and loved tale and turn it into something completely new and yet familiar enough to know what the source material was.  There were several layers to this book and the stories were both very personal and world sized.  I love it when an author can tell a story that encompasses both views giving us perspective from all sides. My only real complaint about the story is that like the world building, it felt over done.  I love multiple stories, but the author took it to an extreme degree, to the point I just wanted to get back to the story lines I cared about.

Character - This book did a pretty good job with various characters.  For the most part the characters were well developed and did not fall too much into standard tropes, which considering this is a fairy tale retelling is a pretty mean feat.  I especially loved Allison and her girls 'cause let's face it, a well fleshed out bad guy is pretty awesome.  I also liked how the author would use pairs of characters to contrast the strengths, weaknesses and uniqueness of every individual.  Overall pretty good characters.

Editing - I always feel like this author could use somebody who maybe put's a hand on her shoulder and points out that maybe we don't need to describe every single engine configuration of every single plane flown at any point during the war.  The author does this with every aspect of the book, from cooking and cleaning, to flying, to fighting, to the work of the Elemental Masters, to the social hierarchy, to every major and minor action in this book.  I like it when there is a realistic amount of detail that describes the world and I really like when the focus of the book is well thought out, but there is a limit and I think an author needs to focus on what is the interest and focal point of the book.  Other then the overkill of detail, the book was very easy to follow and very readable.  It just needed to be about 150 pages shorter (the book clocked in at a whopping 468 pages).

Cinderella - I thought that the author did a great job incorporating the familiar story of the serving girl turned princess without essentially just telling us the same story.   I especially liked the bit's that hearkened back to the original (and a wee bit gory) story.  For instance instead of a tiny glass slipper, our "Cinderella" had a glove with only three fingers.  To try and trick Reggie into believing it was her instead of Eleanor, Lauralee actually cut off her pinky to "fit" the glove!  This is a direct nod to the step-sisters mutilating their feet to fit into the slipper in the original.  I also enjoyed the fact that both Eleanor and Reggie had "fairy god-mothers"  it added a nice not to the original and a balance to things.   This is how I love my retellings, with direct nod's to the originals, but with new and inventive ideas.

Elements - In this book we got to focus on the dichotomy of the Elements.  We got to see Allison,  an Elemental Master, use her power for evil and we got to see how and why she did it.  The author brought back Maya, and Earth Master from the first book with her healing Earth Magic and we saw how intent and usage can change an Element from one type to it's opposite. I also enjoyed the alternative versions of how certain things may have come about.  For instance, the Spanish Flu, which just added more chaos and death to the already decimated Europe, got a bit of a supernatural treatment when Allison used it to put a dent in the forces to prolong the war for her own purposes.  We got to learn about all of the Elements, their Dark and Light uses, and how they can help or hinder each other thanks to Eleanor and her unique learning process.  I really liked how she purposely learned about all four elements, not just her own Fire element.  This helped her in the long run AND gave us the reader a more well rounded view of the Elements.

Preachy Preachy - So...this book get's really preachy on occasion.  One of the main events is WWI.  I think we can all agree that in general war is bad.  I think we can also agree that WWI had it's won special brand of awfulness.  The tactics that were employed during this war essentially turned soldiers into fodder in an attempt to stop the other guys by any means possible.  The men who came back from this war...if they came back...were broken physically, mentally and emotionally.  We are still dealing with this issues today.  Ok so in one paragraph I have made my views on war and especially WWI fairly clear right?  In this book we essentially get a repeat of this same thing in EVERY CHAPTER!  There are 30 chapters, so that's at least 30 times that the author felt that she had to tell us war is bad, 30 times that she didn't trust the reader to read and understand her the first times she told us.  I understand that this may be a very personal issue for her, and that is understandable, but as a reader I start skipping these parts, not because I disagree, I just already heard what she had to say and want to get back to the story.

Overall Impression - I have mixed feelings about this book.  I felt that it was overly long, overly descriptive and overly preachy.  That being said the story was fresh and original (well as original as a retelling gets), the characters well developed and varied, and the Elemental...well elements were fascinating.  I guess I liked it well enough and would recommend it to anybody who likes this series, fantasy or alternate reality and doesn't mind a couple of extra pages.  I give it 7 out of 10 tarots.  Happy Reading Everybody!

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