Beth Cato’s new novel, Breath of Earth, opens just days before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leveled the city and killed thousands. The earthquake is still remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in US history. Though we’re operating within an alternate history here, there’s a sense of inevitability to the proceedings—the coming earthquake works as both metaphor and historical rupture, the pressure of geological and cultural fault lines pushing to a crisis.
In this version of history, the United States and Japan have joined into the United Pacific States. The United Pacific has been at war with China for years, and as a result, the Chinese population in San Francisco is little more than tolerated. Chinese, Hawaiian, and languages other than Japanese or English are forbidden on the penalty of death. Even certain hairstyles—such as a topknot favored by a Chinese emperor—are considered seditious. The mayor of San Francisco is little more than a gangster shaking down businesses for protection money. Britain and the United Pacific are not allies, and the Thuggee uprising in India is wracking that empire. Unrest is everywhere.
We follow Ingrid Carmichael, secretary to Warden Sakaguchi, a geomancer for the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary. Geomancers draw off seismic power and lock it into kermanite crystals, which are used to power everything from flashlights to dirigibles. The work of the geomancers is two-fold: minimizing the effect of seismic events by drawing down their devastating power, and harnessing that power for the good of society. Due to their importance, geomancers can remain slightly above politics, though only the naïve (like our Ingrid) would believe that they are completely safe from the political and cultural machinations around them.
Ingrid is the daughter of a geomancer, and incredibly gifted in geomancy herself, but due to the sexism of the time, she cannot practice her powers openly. Mr. Sakaguchi has been father figure and mentor to Ingrid, helping her to use her powers safely. As an ethnic Japanese man, he also shields her from people who look askance of her mixed ethnicity and brown skin. She may not be the loathed Chinese, but she isn’t the right ethnicity either. As the novel opens, Ingrid seems insulated, despite the cultural pressures around her. She’s been protected in ways that are invisible to her.
That all changes when the Auxiliary is leveled and nearly all the geomancers in the city are killed in a horrible explosion. Mr. Sakaguchi and Ingrid are dug out of the rubble, only to fall under the tender mercies of Captain Sutcliffe, who is investigating the theft of a large amount of kermanite. He seems to think Sakaguchi had something to do with it. Ingrid tumbles out of the life she knew, and is suddenly on the run for reasons that seem unfathomable. She partners with Cyrus Jennings, a dashing Southerner and inventor, trying to work out the mystery of the geomancers’ deaths, the military threat against Mr. Sakaguchi, and the source of her formidable powers.
Cy and Ingrid are a likable pair, with a gentle rapport and breezy chemistry that keeps the proceedings from becoming too dire. (We know, after all, that the earthquake is coming.) While the plot follows a clear path—Ingrid quite doggedly running down answers—the pace is furious, something I also appreciated in Cato’s previous duology, The Clockwork Dagger novels, but carried off to even stronger effect. While the set-pieces are often spectacular and fantastic, the world- building is the real show-stopping effort. This is not just a dirigible ride for the fun of it (though it is fun), but a journey with meaning and purpose.
The metaphor of earth magic carries with it certain inescapable facets, and Cato takes full advantage. Geologic time is long, so long that human memory can’t even comprehend it. The pressures on this San Francisco are geologic as well, and like the coming earthquake, the violent shift will only seem surprising to those who haven’t been paying attention to the rumblings.