An updated children's story in _Phoenix and Ashes_ raised to a terrifying level.
April 8, 2016 12:20am CST
For years I've steered away from the writings of Mercedes Lackey after I got tired of reading the same story over and over again. But in the last few years, I've taken a closer look at her more recent writing, especially where she has taken the old faerie tales and upgrading them into deeper stories. Such I found with the novel Phoenix and Ashes. Part of her Elemental Masters series. This time, two casualties of the Great War meet one another in a story of monsterous personalities and some truly evil goings on. The year is 1917 and England is suffering through the privations of the Great War, with a grim stubborness that doesn't really mask the desperate emotions underneath. For Eleanor Robinson life has turned dreadful. She had built her future around attending Oxford to study, but when her father suddenly remarries, her life suddenly tumbles to bits. Alison, her new stepmother, has the appearance of caring, but Eleanor knows better. Her two new stepsisters, Carolyn and Lauralee aren't much better either, and when the war starts and privations begin, Eleanor finds herself in the clutches of a terrible spell that is slowly sapping her will to live and turning her into a grey, lifeless creature that no one sees. Reginald Fenyx is a downed pilot, his nerves shattered along with a crippled leg. He like Eleanor has sunk into a depression that has turned his world grey and lifeless. At night his memories and terror come quite literally to feed on him, and he can not see any way out of the situation. Worst still, it seems that the vile Alison has determined that poor Reggie is to marry one of her daughters and become the next Lady Devlin. But Eleanor discovers that she has quite an ally of her own.. . the power to summon Fire elementals. But will it be enough to unwork the spells binding her and Reggie, and to thwart Alison's plans for worldwide terror and destruction? Along the way we get to meet several other sorts of magicians and techniques -- such as Sarah, the local village witch who turns out to be Eleanor's tutor as it were. Lady Virginia, an old friend of Reggie's family along with a retired Brigadier also manage to show up at precisely the right time as well. But will they be enough to balance Alison? It's certainly quite a shift from the usual fantasy fare, and a truly inventive twist on a certain, very popular children's story -- I don't want to reveal what the base tale is, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone else to read. The details of daily English life during World War I is very well done and creates a very compelling atmosphere for the book, with plenty of little bits that help to make the setting very clear and plenty of visual imagry in my mind as I was reading. Another good point was that Lackey makes magic a difficult thing to both master and use in this world, which is refreshing to see and helps to make the story that much more intriguing to read. Too, magic is fairly rare, as it should be, and Lackey makes the blend between the world we know, and that inhabited by Elementals just about right -- not too overblown, but also quite believeable. One touch I did enjoy was Eleanor's own quest for knowledge by the use of Tarot cards, and the use of introspection and the fact that the two lead characters are not at all 'perfect', being maimed in body and spirit, and quite aware of their own problems. The use of 'shell-shock' -- what is known today as "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" or PTSD -- in Reggie's case is particularly disturbing to read; Lackey obviously did her research into just what this particular disorder can to to a person, and it makes for chilling reading. Indeed, there is very little of the classic faerie tale in here, it's one of the grimmer and darker fantasy tales that I have read, but it does make for compelling reading. One problem I did have with the story was the fact that exactly which story she was using was telegraphed very clearly to reader in the first chapter, and that made it a touch predictiable, it would have been better to let the reader know what was going on a little farther down the road. Too, Alison and her daughters are a bit too much of single note characters, to make evil really effective it always helps to have just a touch of good mixed in there to keep it interesting. Too, the self-pity in spots got to be a bit overboard in places, and nearly caused me to stop reading, but both Eleanor and Reggie do have the gumption to work on it, so that saved it for me. There are a few loose ends -- such as the great influenza outbreak in 1918 and 1919 being based on a magickal spell, and Alison's ties to other wizards. On the other hand, this book is part of a series, and perhaps those riddles will be answered in other volumes. However, it's not necessary to read the other books to enjoy this one. It's a good read, with plenty of psychological going over, some interesting action scenes and some interesting twists on a classic story. A good, solid four star read. The Elemental Masters series: The Serpent's Shadow The Gates of Sleep Phoenix and Ashes The Wizard of London Reserved For the Cat Unnatural Issue Home From the Sea Elemental Magic: All-New Tales of the Elemental Masters Steadfast Blood Red From a High Tower A Study in Sable -- Forthcoming Phoenix and Ashes Mercedes Lackey 2004; Daw Books ISBN 0-7564-0272-7
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