Breath Of Earth by Beth Cato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One reason I bought this book is its fantastic cover. It intrigued me: who is this woman and what is she holding? Then, after downloading the sample chapter from Amazon, I was hooked. I had to know how this story ended.
This is a steampunk alternate history, incorporating real-life characters (Theodore Roosevelt was prominently mentioned, though he never appears; I hope he shows up in the sequel) and tackling some sobering themes, including oppression of women and persecution of Chinese immigrants. The latter is a little-known and shameful history in early 20th-century California, as the author explains in her Author's Note. She had to do considerable research for this book, as the story is set at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 (there is a bibliography of her sources in the back). It shows. The scenes set in the quake and its aftermath are harrowing.
But her worldbuilding impressed me the most. This is the most important element of a good story for me, followed by characterization and plot, and Cato aced all three. This is is a world where magic and mythical creatures--here called "fantastics"-- exist (one small detail that tickled me was an offhand comment about unicorns pulling wealthy people's carts in the San Francisco Heights), magically powered airships roam the skies, and "geomancers" prop up world economies and wield vast power. They are defined thusly:
Geomancy, however, was a rare skill among people and relied upon kermanite, an even rarer crystal that acted as a supreme electrical capacitor. Wardens absorbed the earth's energy from earthquakes and then channeled their power into kermanite, which was then installed in all varieties of machines. No other battery could keep airships aloft.
Kermanite had stimulated the Roman Empire two millennia past; now it was the Manifest Destiny of the United Pacific [United States and Japan; in this history, Japan and its airships helped the North win the Civil War] to govern the world, thanks in no small part to geomancers.
Unfortunately, the attitudes toward women in this history remain the same, and our protagonist, Ingrid Carmichael, a woman of color, bears the brunt. She is a female geomancer who is not supposed to exist, and she struggles under the same discrimination and constraints. Beth Cato sets all this up admirably in the first couple of chapters, and then we are plunged into a crackling good story, with mystery, intrigue, romance, well-developed secondary characters (including a transgender man) and culminating in the terrifying set piece of the earthquake. The book doesn't end there, but damn those chapters were outstanding.
It's always a pleasure to take a chance on a brand-new author and be so well rewarded. If you've never given Beth Cato a try, read this book. You won't regret it.
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