Book Review: Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

In her new book Breath of Earth, Beth Cato finds a way to create an entertaining alternate history centred on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

breath of earth

Title: Breath of Earth

Author: Beth Cato

Paperback: 400 pages; $10.00

Publisher: Harper Voyager (August 23, 2016)

Language: English

How do you create an alternate history centering on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake? Well Beth Cato found a way with her new book, Breath of Earth.

Our protagonist is Ingrid Carmichael, a secretary for San Francisco’s geomancers. These magical men soak up the power caused by earthquakes, protecting the city and channeling the power they receive into kermanite, a crystal-like material that can store the energies unleashed from the Earth to power machines and weapons. Ingrid is unique, because as far as anyone knows, she is the only woman who has this ability and she may be even more powerful then all of San Francisco’s geomancers combined…but it is kept a secret for fear that people would treat Ingrid less like a person and more like a lab rat.

When a bomb destroys the headquarters of the geomancers, Ingrid and her Japanese guardian are the only ones left alive. With San Francisco on the verge of a catastrophic earthquake, Ingrid has to figure out who is behind the attack while at the same time dodging assassins and her own government’s agents, all the while making deals with Chinese gangsters and eccentric engineers. More importantly, Ingrid will uncover the truth about her family and her powers along the way and decide whether to keep fighting or just end it all to save others from more pain and misery.

Breath of Earth is set in an alternate history where by 1906, the United States and Japan are part of a confederacy known as the United Pacific. Their main rival is Britannia (that timeline’s British Empire), which is waging a genocidal war against a Thuggee resurgence in India, while the United Pacific fights their own war of extermination in China. This is a pretty dark timeline to be honest as human life means very little and racism is prevalent, but kudos to Cato for using actual historical events to describe interactions between characters of different races. To quote Harry Turtledove: “Fiction has to be plausible. All history has to do is happen.” And our history has not always been a pleasant one for everyone.

Despite the research Cato has done, the timeline is still rather implausible. Besides the aforementioned Earth magic, there are other types of magic and plenty of mystical beings, such as unicorns and selkies. Creatures known as “Hidden Ones” play a prominent role in the story: they are giant creatures that live beneath the Earth whose stirrings cause the earthquakes the geomancers gain their powers from. In addition to these fantasy elements, the point of divergence from our history is around the time of the Roman Empire: it is due to the Romans using kermanite to power their fleet of unstoppable airships (of course, because this is an alternate history), but history in its broad strokes still plays out as it did in our timeline. Fans of plausible alternate histories will probably be disappointed. Still, this book does have a few things going for it.

For one thing, it is a fun historical fantasy adventure, with some elements of steampunk thrown in (such as a “Tesla Rod” that can shock an enemy but not kill them). I like how even in this timeline Theodore Roosevelt still managed to rise to the top of the United Pacific. Cato teased us constantly with the possibility that he would show up in the story, but he sadly never did. I guess he will be appear in book two (yes, Breath of Earth is the first book in a series).

The characters were also well-written, and almost all of them had twists to their stories that threw me for a loop. I also liked the reveal for who will likely become the main villain for the rest of the series. Not to spoil anything, but I didn’t know much about Japanese mythology and only recognized what the creature was from a Game Grumps lets play I watched a year or so ago. What a time we live in when a trio of irreverent humorists playing video games can help me figure out the nature of the bad guy in a book I am reading.

Breath of Earth isn’t perfect. I was reading from an uncorrected proof, so some spelling and grammar errors may still show up in the final copy. Additionally, there was one scene where Ingrid came to realize the extent of her powers in a mechanic’s shop she was holed up in when suddenly she remembered she saw a car she recognized belonging to a geomancer. The scene caused me to stop reading Breath of Earth for a moment and skim what I had already read looking for mention of the car; I found just a few words regarding it fifty pages earlier. I don’t know, maybe I am nitpicking, but it was just an odd transition and a little too convenient (since it did help move the plot along).

All in all, Breath of Earth is a fine beginning to a new series. Those who like plausible alternate histories won’t find much to their liking, but those who just like a good adventure that doesn’t end with happily ever after (did I mention the 1906 San Francisco earthquake?) will still have a good story to keep them entertained.

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