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Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 448 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I hoped for more out of this book.

I like the story. It’s an interesting premise and a great use of steampunk themes to build an alternate universe. Leviathan re-envisions the start of World War I as a conflict between two pathways of technological development. The Darwinists, in England, France, and Russia, have gone into biodevelopment, discovering things like DNA coding a bit ahead of time, and using that knowledge to create fantastical new creatures. Airships made out of floating air-whales with other creatures grafted on, balloons out of jellyfish/blowfish type things, lizards who can memorise and deliver messages, wolf-dog-tiger hybrids for security or searching. The Clankers, in Germany/the Holy Roman Empire (still hanging on, apparently) and most of Eastern Europe, have chosen traditional mechanical technology, viewing Darwinist creations as hellish abominations.

The trouble is that, well… there sort of just wasn’t enough there. I know it’s a YA book, but that’s really no excuse. Plenty of authors manage to write YA novels and still use sophisticated storytelling devices. The later Harry Potter books are probably the most famous example, but the honest-to-goodness best example is probably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Westerfeld’s style is a bit slapdash for my preferences. The vocabulary is basic, the sentence structure largely unvaried, the characterisation fairly flat. This disappointed me, and it’s not just because I’m an adult reading a YA book — it would have disappointed me just as much at age 11. You don’t have to write simply to tell a story on a level that young people will understand. (Quite the opposite, I’ve always thought — half the point of reading is to stretch your brainpan out a bit, to introduce new things rather than just dumping in what it’s already familiar with, and that goes for the language itself as much as for the story).

I found myself wishing that the book either had a lot more illustrations — I think it would’ve worked brilliantly as a graphic novel — or a lot fewer, with a lot more verbal description. It seemed in many places as if the illustrations were serving as a crutch for insufficient description in the text. This is particularly true of the Darwinist creations, which I found a little confusing to follow. I can tell there are good ideas there, that the dynamics of how these things operate has been thought out — I just sometimes had trouble following along with exactly what those dynamics were. It became clearer with illustration, but still not perfectly so.

I still haven’t said anything about the actual plot yet, have I? Prince Aleksandr, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is fleeing after his parents’ assassination (the event that, y’know, starts World War I). His path improbably collides with that of Deryn, a British common girl with aspirations of aviation, who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the crew of one of the dirigible-creatures. And… that’s pretty much the plot. It doesn’t really get to going much of anywhere in this first book. We meet the characters, we learn about the world, the war starts, there are adventures on the ground and in the air. That’s not to say nothing happens. Quite a bit happens, in your typical adventure-story sort of way. But it’s all rather thin and entirely unfinished — this is clearly the first book in a series, and it doesn’t wrap up on its own in any significant way.

So, this was a sort of interesting read, but not a really gripping one. I imagine I’ll get the next book the series eventually, but I’m in no rush. And when it comes to YA steampunk, I’ll be anticipating Gail Carriger’s new series a lot more.

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro

Title: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Author: James Shapiro
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 338 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 5 stars

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fascination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First FolioShapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude.

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

(Originally posted at the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog).

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The Serpent’s Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Serpent’s Shadow (Elemental Masters #2)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 400 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

One of the best things about Lackey, I think, is her ability to take a fairy-tale inspiration and then tell a story that goes so immensely far beyond that origin. The Serpent’s Shadow is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And boy, do I mean loosely.

To start with, the heroine has anything but “skin as white as snow”. Maya Witherspoon is a half-Indian aspiring doctor, the daughter of a British army doctor and his mystically-inclined Indian wife. She’s had to flee from India to London for reasons she doesn’t even fully understand at first, but which she will later learn have to do with her mother’s dark twin, Shivani, a priestess of Kali Durga. Shivani has been hellbent for years on punishing her sister for marrying an Englishman. She managed to murder Maya’s parents and thought she got Maya as well. Instead of seven dwarves, Maya has seven “pets” for companionship, inherited from her mother: an owl, a falcon, a peacock, a parrot, a gray langur, and a pair of mongooses.

Much of the story follows Maya’s twin ambitions of gaining acceptance as a doctor and of learning to wield English magic — the Elemental Magic introduced in The Fire Rose. She faces challenges on both fronts because of her sex and her ancestry. The former plot ties in with some nice details about the suffragette movement in Edwardian England, as Maya’s friend Amelia, a medical student, is deeply involved with the cause. The latter introduces us to the socio-political structure of magic users in this version of England — the White Lodge, a group of men, mostly wealthy and aristocratic, based in London, who keep tabs on all magic-users in the country. They’re at first puzzled by Maya, who uses a form of magic they don’t quite understand — she’s applying western magic, inherited from her father, with eastern methods, learned in her homeland. It confuses them tremendously, so they send a member to investigate — Water Master Peter Scott, who only barely makes the grade of “gentleman” by virtue of having been a ship’s captain, and who’s been begging the Lodge to bring some women and more Earth Masters (usually country yeomen, not city aristocrats) into the fold. Finding out that Maya has phenomenal talent to become an Earth Master, he sets about teaching her to use her talents.

As with most of Lackey’s books, the endgame plays out a bit quickly, but (as usual) I’m willing to forgive that. What’s great about this book is that, more fully than The Fire Rose, it integrates magic with normal life. In The Fire Rose, the main characters exist in such isolation that you don’t get to fully see how magic users live and work and deal with the rest of humanity. In The Serpent’s Shadow, it’s a central concern — how to perform magic without freaking anyone out, how to use it to help without being obvious about it, and how to stop someone who’s using it to harm the unwary. Maya is particularly clever, blending her Earth Magic together with her skills as a doctor (and later in the book, we see Water and Fire work together towards the same purpose, in an intriguing example of how the different disciplines can compliment each other). She uses magic sometimes to help with her diagnoses, as illness can show itself to her. We also get to see her using magic as protection, and the concept gets a more thorough explanation here than it did in the vagueness of The Fire Rose. I appreciate the “nuts and bolts” look at how the magic actually works.

So, overall, I enjoy this installment in the Elemental Masters series, not only for its plot and characters, but for the further exploration of how magic in this world operates. It’s nothing outstanding, but it’s worth the read if you like the idea of magical realism, particularly in a historical setting. It’s a great twist on a fairy tale, a thoroughly inventive re-imagining.

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The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey

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.

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