Today I Read The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey, the first book in her Elemental Masters series.
Miss Rosalind Hawkins has nowhere left to turn. Her father has recently passed away, leaving her with enormous debts she has no way of paying off, and her studies in the classics have left her unsuitable for any work in 1905 Chicago. Plain, intelligent, and outspoken, she cannot even hope for marriage to rescue her from her poverty. And then Professor Cathcart tells her of a strange offer he received, for a tutor with her exact qualifications from a mysterious gentleman. Since her options are either his offer or suicide, Rose packs what few belongings the creditors left her and goes off across the country to the wild hills of San Francisco, and the employ of the rail baron Mister Jason Cameron.
Jason’s reasons for hiring Rose aren’t quite what he states in his letter- for one, he has no children, and so no need for a tutor. He is an Elemental Master who commands the power of Fire, who retired to his luxurious home after a spell went wrong and trapped him in the body of a monster. He needs a translator for his ancient books of magic, to help him research a cure, but one that he can control and keep silent about his condition. Rose, educated in several languages, poor, and with no close relatives, is ideal.
Despite the initial deception, Rose is pleased enough with her new position–Jason is generous, his home beautiful, and the work is fascinating. But soon enough Jason’s enemies begin their attacks, and even the earth herself will tremble…
I met Mercedes Lackey a couple of years ago at Ad Astra, and I began reading her work afterwards. While her Valdemar books are possibly the best known, I prefer her Elemental Masters and 500 Kingdoms series. Each Elemental Masters novel follows a young woman in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century as she discovers her own magical powers and uses them to change her life. The idea is that all magicians have an element that they are strongly connected to–earth, air, fire, or water–and that their personalities and magic are based around that element. The books are loosely based around a fairy tale–The Fire Rose is a version of Beauty and the Beast. The Fire Roseisn’t as connected to the other books in the series, taking place in America while the others tend to be placed primarily in England and Europe, but the world of the Elemental Masters is nicely built.
Lackey provides a wonderful amount of detail about the clothing, customs, buildings, and history of the time period while balancing a lively adventure with strongly defined characters. The wicked villain who causes his own downfall, the arrogant prince who is punished for his hubris, the clever poor girl who betters her station through courage and hard work–Lackey skillfully keeps the archetypes from becoming stereotypes, and the story feels fresh no matter how often the reader has read Beauty and the Beast. This is an excellent book for lovers of historical fantasy and feminist fairy tales.
Time to construct his letter, while the Salamander and all its kin considered his requirements. “Dear Sir;” he said, and the Salamander danced above the vellum, burning the characters into it, in elegant calligraphy. “I write to you because I am in need of a special tutor for my—
He paused to consider the apocryphal child of his imagination. A son? A lonely, crippled waif, isolated from the laughter and play of his peers? No, make it two children. If the crippled boy was not bait enough for his quarry, an intelligent, inquisitive girl would be. “—my children. Both are gifted intellectually beyond their years; my son is an invalid, crippled by the disease that claimed his mother; and my daughter the victim of prejudice that holds her sex inferior to that of the male. Neither is likely to obtain the education their ability demands in a conventional setting.”
He weighed the words carefully, arid found them satisfactory. Appropriately tempting, and playing to the “enlightened” and “modern” male who would be the mentor of the kind of tutor he sought. He wanted a woman, not a man; a male scholar with the skills he required would be able to find ready employment no matter where he was, but a woman had fewer options. In fact, a female scholar without independent means had no options if she was not supported by a wealthy father or indulgent husband. A female had no rights; under the laws of this and most other states, she was chattel, the property of parents or husband. She could take no employment except that of teacher, seamstress, nurse, or domestic help; no trades were open to her, and only menial factory work. There were some few female doctors, some few scientists, but no scholars of the arts, liberal or otherwise, who were not supported in their field by money or males. He wanted someone with no options; this would make her more obedient to his will.
“My needs are peculiar, reflecting the interests of my children. This tutor must be accomplished in ancient Latin, classical Greek, medieval French and German, and the Latin of medieval scholars. A familiarity with ancient Egyptian or Celtic languages would be an unanticipated bonus.”
The Salamander writhed, suddenly, and opened surprisingly blue eyes to stare at its master. It opened its lipless mouth, and a thin, reedy voice emerged.
“We have narrowed the field to five candidates,” it said. “One in Chicago, one in Harvard, three in New York. The one in Chicago is the only one with a smattering of ancient tongues and some knowledge of hieroglyphs. The others are skilled only in the European languages you required; less qualified, but—“
“But?” he asked.
More attractive,” the Salamander hissed, its mouth open in a silent laugh.
He snorted. At one point he would have been swayed by a fairer face; now that was hardly to the point. “Have they relatives?” he asked it.
‘The one in Chicago is recently orphaned, one of those in New York was raised by a guardian who cares nothing for her, and her trust fund has been mismanaged as she will shortly learn. Those that do have families, have been repudiated for their unwomanly ways,” the Salamander told him. “They are suffragettes, proponents of rights for women, and no longer welcome in their parents’ homes.”
Tempting, But relatives and parents had been known to change their minds in the past, and welcome the prodigal back into the familial fold.
“Show me the one in Chicago,” he demanded. She seemed to be the best candidate thus far. The Salamander left the vellum page’ and returned to its obsidian dish, where it began to spin.
As it rotated, turning faster and faster with each passing second, it became a glowing globe of yellow-white light. A true picture formed in the heart of the globe, in the way that a false picture formed in the heart of a Spiritualist’s “crystal ball.” The latter was generally accomplished through the use of mirrors and other chicanery. The former was the result of true Magick.
When he saw the girl at last, he nearly laughed aloud at the Salamander’s simplistic notion of beauty Granted, the girl was clad in the plainest of gowns, of the sort that a respectable housekeeper might wear. He recognized it readily enough, from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog left in his office a few years ago by a menial.
Ladies’ Wash Suit, two dollars and twenty five cents. Three years out-of-mode, and worn shabby.
She wore wire-rimmed glasses, and she used no artifice to enhance her features. In all these things, she was utterly unlike the expensive members of the silk-clad demimonde whose pleasures he had once enjoyed. But the soft cheek needed no rouge or rice-powder; the lambent blue eyes were in no way disguised by the thick lenses. That slender figure required no over-corseting to tame it to a fashionable shape, and the warm golden-brown of her hair was due to no touch of chemicals to achieve that mellow hue of sun-ripened wheat.
“She is orphaned?” he asked. The Salamander danced its agreement. “Recently,” it told him. “She is the most qualified of them all, scholastically speaking.”
“And possessed of no—inconvenient—family ties,” he mused, watching the vision as it moved in the Salamander’s fire. He frowned a little at that, for her movements were not as graceful as he would have liked, being hesitant and halting. That scarcely mattered, for he was not hiring her for an ability to dance.
From the look of her clothing, she had fallen on hard times—unless, of course, she was a natural ascetic, or was donating all of her resources to the Suffrage Movement. Either was possible; if the latter was an impediment to her accepting employment, the Salamander would have rejected her as a candidate.
“We will apply to her—or rather to her mentor,” he decided, and gave the Salamander the signal to resume its place above the half-written letter. “I am willing to pay handsomely for the services of any male or female with such qualifications, to compensate for the great distance he or she must travel. The tutor will be installed in my own household, drawing a wage of twenty dollars a week as well as full room and board, and a liberal allowance for travel, entertainment, and books. San Francisco affords many pleasures for those of discriminating taste; this year shall even see the glorious Caruso performing at our Opera.” Clothing he would have supplied to her, having it waiting for her if she consented to come; easier to supply the appropriate garments than to hope the girl had any kind of taste at all. He would not have a frump in his house; any female entering these doors must not disgrace the interior. While his home might not rival Leland Stanford’s on the outside, the interior was enough to excite the envy of the richest “nob” on “Nob Hill.” There would be no cotton-duck gowns from a mail-order catalog trailing over the fine inlay work of his floors, no coarse dark cottons displayed against his velvets and damask satins.
“I hope you will have a student that can match my requirements,” he concluded without haste. “Your scholarship is renowned even to the wilds of the west and the golden hills of San Francisco, and I cannot imagine that any pupil of yours would disgrace the master To that end, I am enclosing a rail ticket for the prospective tutor” It was not a first-class ticket for a parlor car; such might excite suspicion. A ticket for the common carriage would be sufficient, and a journey by rail would be safe enough, even for a woman alone. “I am looking forward to hearing from you as soon as may be.”
“The usual closing?” the Salamander asked delicately. He nodded, and it finished, burning his name into the vellum with a flourish. It continued to hover above the paper, as the paper itself folded without a hand touching it, and slipped itself and a railway pass into a matching envelope. The Salamander sealed it with a single “hand” pressed into the wax, then burned the address into the obverse of the envelope.
‘Take it to Professor Cathcart’s office and leave it there,” he instructed, and the Salamander bowed. “If she does not take this bait, we will have to devise something else.
“She would be a fool not to take it,” the Salamander replied, surprising him a little with its retort. “She has no other place to go.
“Women are not always logical,” he reminded the creature. “We were best to assume that the initial attempt will be balked at, and contrive another.”
The Salamander simply shook its head, as if it could not understand the folly of mortals, and it and the sealed letter vanished into thin air, leaving the Firemaster alone in the darkness.
“According to the System of Magick which we all use, as calculated by Pythagoras, all Magickal Power is embodied in the creatures of the Four Elements. If a human—or any other earthly creature, I suppose, but at the moment we are only concerned with humans—wishes to work Magick, he must do so through the intermediary of creatures of the Element which he commands.”
She nodded as she made notes. “Just as an aside, are there any other creatures that work Magick?” she asked.
“For certain, I am only aware that the whales and dolphins have a few Magick-workers among their kind,” he said. “They work Water Magick, of course. There are rumors of other creatures, Man-Apes in both the Himalayas and the forests of the Northwest, for instance, but nothing I can confirm. If they do exist, these creatures are extremely secretive and are rarely even glimpsed. It is believed that they would do anything to avoid contact with humans.”
“I suppose,” she said, touching the end of the pencil to her lips as she thought, “That if they were working Magick, it would be to hide their presence from our own species, so you never would find out for certain, would you?”
He coughed. “A point, I grant you. Well, to get back to the subject, as described by Herr Alexander Metzeger, whose handwriting you so despise—”
She flushed very prettily.
“—every human has all four Elements commingled in his Magickal Nature. Most of them possess exactly equal amounts of all four, and thus, command no Magick for themselves. It is only when there is an imbalance that one can work Magick, for it is only when there is an imbalance that a human comes near enough to the Nature of the Elemental that he can communicate with and command them.”
She scribbled fiercely in her little book, and he paused to allow her to catch up. “Would that be something like a blind man having acute hearing?” she hazarded.
“Good!” he applauded. “Yes, that is an excellent analogy. It may be that because the Magician has that lack in one Element, he becomes more perceptive in another, as the blind man does. There is a danger attendant in having an imbalance, which is that you are vulnerable in the area in which you are the most deficient, and most often, that is the Element that is the opposite of your own.”
“How far can the imbalance go?” she asked. “How—how far can the sensitivity to one Element be taken?”
“To the point where only a Master would be able to find the traces of any elements other than the one that the Magician—or would-be Magician—in question commands,” he told her. “That is why no one can command more than one Element. By simply having that surplus of one, you of necessity drop the rest below even that of a ‘normal’ man.” He frowned, and thought of an analogy, since she seemed to favor analogies. “Think of a square table, with marbles rolling about on the surface. Tilt it towards any one corner, and only that comer will fill with marbles. That is the way Magickal Nature operates, and it is just as well.”
“Why?” she asked.
He had been expecting that question. “Because the Elementals are jealous creatures. They would never tolerate sharing a Magician with creatures of any other Element. Even if a person somehow managed to get a surplus in two Elements rather than one, he would be much better advised to simply concentrate on the one he preferred. The Elementals of his two Elements would be constantly bickering with each other, wasting time and energy, and interfering with his plans.”
“They sound like naughty children,” she commented, with a smile she did not know he could see.
He snorted. “They are like naughty children,” he told her. Actually, he had thought of another simile, but it was not a polite one. “Well, that, in essence, is what Herr Metzeger has written in the section of his book you wished to set aside for the moment.”
She made a face. “He took forty pages to say that?” she responded incredulously.
“With more elaboration, which you can read if you choose. He goes on at some length about the characteristics of each Element, how you can tell if a child has that imbalance in his Magickal Nature that will make him suitable for an Apprentice, and how the characteristics of the Magickal Nature carry over into the personality.” Cameron paused for a moment to let a wave of light-headedness pass. “You might find all that useful. If you pay close enough attention, you will be able to decipher a person’s Magickal Nature without ever using anything but your wit and your five senses to do so.”
“Is that what you do?” she asked boldly.
He barked a short laugh. “No,” he told her truthfully. “I don’t have to. I am a Firemaster, and I have my Salamanders do it for me. They can tell with a simple look what a person’s Magickal Nature is.”
She had that contemplative look again. She’s thinking of something. This could be interesting. I wonder if she is going to ask me what her Magickal Nature is, and if she could be a Magician. But the question she asked was not the one he expected. “Could a Master of one Element teach an Apprentice of another?”
“Well, that is an interesting question.” He thought it over for a moment. “In theory, I don’t know why not—in fact, according to some of the old books you will be reading, the great Masters of the past did so. The discipline is the same, only the spells and Ordeals differ. The one drawback would be that if the Apprentice got himself into trouble the Master would not be able to command the Elementals of the Apprentice to return to their places.”
“You stressed the word, command. Could he do something else to save his Apprentice from his own folly?”
Dear God, she was quick! “He might, if his command of his own Elementals was strong enough, be able to persuade his Apprentice’s Elementals to leave the Apprentice alone.” He shook his head, forgetting she could not see him. “I would not care to try such a tactic with any Elemental but the Sylphs, however. They are the most forgiving and tolerant, and the least likely to anger. Gnomes are slow to anger, but when enraged, they are implacable, and Undines I could not handle at all, obviously.”
“Obviously.” She picked the book back up. “Thank you, Jason. You have saved my eyes a terrible strain. On to the rest of Herr Metzeger’s pearls of wisdom however atrociously written they are.”
He settled back again as she resumed her reading, but his mind was still on the last question she had raised.
Her Nature was Air; the Salamander would not have bothered to mention that unless she was powerful enough in Air to command the Magick. Should he make the experiment she suggested, and try training her himself? It would certainly obviate the problem that most Masters and Apprentices had, that as soon as the Apprentice became a Master, one or the other had to seek a new home. A Master of Fire and one of Air could even dwell side-by-side in the same building with no ill effects….
Could I? Should I? Who would it hurt? I don’t think she’s stupid enough to do anything that would get her in real trouble; the only question would be if she could pass her Ordeals, and that would be out of my hands if she was an Apprentice in Fire rather than Air.
It was a question that continued to coil in the back of his mind through the rest of the evening, and even followed him into his dreams that very night.
He made a noise very like a snort. “You are a strange female, Rose Hawkins,” Cameron said, rather rudely. “A most unwomanly woman by polite standards.”
But she had been called that before, and the words had ceased to hurt. “Then polite standards are too narrow,” she replied briskly. “Although I do not call myself a suffragette, I am completely in sympathy with most of their complaints. I cannot speak for the lower classes, but in our class of society, Jason Cameron, young ladies are forced to live atop pedestals, and let me tell you, they are hideously restrictive places to reside! I choose to live down upon the ground where I can actually accomplish something, and if that makes me an ‘unwomanly woman,’ well, so be it.” She crossed her arms over her chest and gazed at him with challenge in her eyes. “Certainly my ‘unwomanly’ nature has stood you in good stead! A fainting, missish, hysterical lady would hardly have done you any good in your current predicament!”