Title: The Fire Rose (Elemental Masters #1)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 433 pages
Genre: fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars
Once you get past the absurd cover, this is actually a decent retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Within that framework, Lackey introduces the ideas of Elemental Magic that she continues to use throughout the ongoing series (though, as later books show, she does retcon a bit as she goes along — the rules of magic aren’t quite the same in The Fire Rose as they are in the later ones).
Jason, a Firemaster, has overstretched himself. An attempt to turn himself into a loup-garou, a werewolf variant which can change at will, not from a curse, goes terribly wrong, leaving him stuck halfway between wolf and man (the description of what he looks like is, incidentally, nothing like what appears on the cover). The changes impede his ability to research a cure, and so he needs help. He settles on Rosalind, a recently orphaned young woman who, thanks to her father’s debts, can no longer afford to stay on as one of the few female scholars at her university in Chicago. Jason offers her a job as a his research assistant. Initially she merely helps with reading medieval manuscripts, but eventually she discovers Jason’s magical secret. As it just so happens, Rose has magical potential within herself as well, so as she helps Jason, she also begins her own Apprenticeship in Air Magic. (I refuse, I just flat-out refuse to spell it with a “k” at the end as Lackey insists on doing here).
There is, of course, an adversary. Jason’s previous assistant is a moustache-twirling character, an Apprentice in Fire Magic who will never reach Mastery due to his total lack of discipline. He’s also a total sleaze and a lowlife, an embezzler and a cheat, best known in San Francisco as a “breaker” of women who’ve found themselves sold into whoredom. Lackey does everything she can to make him as repulsive as possible, to the point where it would strain credulity if you didn’t know there are, in fact, sickos like that out in the world. He’s definitely a darker character with more realistic seediness than you typically find in this sort of novel. Always looking for the shortcuts, Paul ends up taking up with Jason’s only rival Firemaster on the West Coast, a man who promises him a quicker route to greatness, liberally spiced with all manner of tawdry pleasures and sadistic delights.
The most compelling aspect of the story is, oddly enough, the setting. Lackey evokes 1906 San Francisco in extraordinarily vivid detail — both high and low society. She clearly did her research — the book is full of nuance, anecdotes, and tidbits, making it ultimately richer than a lot of vaguely-set fantasy historicals. Even though it isn’t an era I’ve spent a lot of time with, I’m too much of a history geek not to appreciate what Lackey does with it.
I find the book’s resolution, well, more than a little odd. The happy-ever-after is definitely a strange one, and implies a degree of isolation for the couple that doesn’t strike me as entirely healthy. It also doesn’t get tremendously well-explored, as is typical in Lackey books. As I’ve mentioned before, Lackey has a bad habit of cramming her climax into the last few pages of the book and then rushing through the denouement as quickly as she can. The Fire Rose is one of the more egregious examples of that fault.
Overall, this book is good but not great, and I appreciate it more for its introduction of Elemental Magic than as a stand-alone. There are definitely better books later on in the series.