Unnatural Issue: An Elemental Masters Novel
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An evil magician. A daughter fleeing from certain doom. Nefarious plots. Kindly strangers. These are all elements that recur in fairy tales, and since many novels use these old stories as their base, they show up fairly frequently in modern books too. Mercedes Lackey has been mining this wealth of tales for years in both her Five Hundred Kingdoms novels and her Elemental Masters series. It’s the latter series that concerns us today, with the release of Unnatural Issue.
Susanne Whitestone may be the daughter of the manor’s lord and master, but she lives the life of a servant. Her mother died in childbirth, and Sir Richard immediately loathed the child whom he blamed for the loss of his beloved. Sir Richard, an Earthmaster, neglects his lands as he lives the life of a hermit, leaving it up to Susanne—and her friend and teacher, the spirit Puck—to tend to the land.
But when chance affords him a glimpse of his grown daughter, he’s struck by her resemblance to his lost wife. And he forms a dark plan to summon his wife’s spirit and ensconce her in their daughter’s body. Discovering this plan, Susanne flees in horror.
Good fortune lands her a job working at the estate of the Kerridges, who shelter those with magical talent. Her respite is short lived, though, as World War One sweeps England into conflict and the wizards are hard put to contain the sorcerous parts of the chaos. It’s the perfect cover for a budding necromancer, and Sir Richard has never given up on regaining his wife.
Like others of Lackey’s recent novels, this one felt choppy to me. There are some parts that are truly gripping, such as the descriptions of the soldiers’ lives in the trenches. I’ve been waiting for the war to catch up to events in this series, and the scenes across the Channel are well written. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of that setting, but with a female main character, much of the action takes place in the villages and hospitals operated by the English troops. There are some scenes in the battles, but not that many. I also enjoyed the scenes with Puck (also called Robin). Much of the novel is engaging enough to read, but just doesn’t advance the action very much.
The interesting chapters are far outweighed by ones that simply exist to flesh out the background. It takes 125 pages for Susanne to get out of Whitestone Manor and start her journey. There is a lot of back and forth among the White Lodge wizards as to what should be done about both the war and Sir Richard himself. Peter Alderscroft spends a good deal of time setting up his alternate identity as a gamekeeper at the Kerridges’s manor and getting to know Susanne. And oddly, Sir Richard himself vanishes from the book on page 258 and doesn’t return in person until page 349, a mere 12 pages from the novel’s end.
Worse, the final confrontation between Susanne and Richard hinges on a major plot hole. Early in the novel, Susanne creates a little magical bundle that casts her image in a fixed location. She initially uses it to foil the spying of her father, and she takes it with her when she flees. It is specified that she burns it so as to avoid having it used against her. And yet she uses the bundle to lure her father to a graveyard in the final confrontation. She even states at that point that the bundle is the same one that she made at Whitestone Manor, and that it could not be destroyed by simple burning.
I think that Lackey is getting involved in far too many projects lately, and it’s hampering her ability to hold together a really good story. The most recent Valdemar novels have suffered from similar issues as well. I had wondered for a while if I was simply outgrowing her stories, but I can still read her earlier novels with the same pleasure as before. I’m forced to conclude that the books that she’s currently producing just aren’t as good as what she’s done before.
I have one final question in my mind, and that is the question of which fairy tale this novel is supposed to be emulating. I’ve hunted online and haven’t found anything definitive. My guess is that it’s a retelling of Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”, but I’m not entirely certain.
I’m left feeling dissatisfied with this novel. The Elemental Masters stories have always been among my favorites, and I hate seeing a series that I enjoy begin the long slide towards dullness. I hope that this trend doesn’t continue, and that Lackey is able to pull in her energies and once again create the kinds of novels that have delighted and entertained me for so long. But for now, Unnatural Issue is a merely mediocre addition to the series.
Also by this author: Brightly Burning, Changes, Changing the World, Conspiracies (with Rosemary Edghill), Crossroads, Elemental Magic, Exile’s Honor, Exile’s Valor, Finding the Way, The Firebird, The Gates of Sleep, Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit, Home from the Sea, Intrigues, Joust, Legacies (with Rosemary Edghill), Phoenix and Ashes, Redoubt, Sacrifices (with Rosemary Edghill), The Serpent’s Shadow, Steadfast, Take a Thief, Under the Vale
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 15, 2011.