Monday, September 12, 2016

Down the Stacks #36: Home from the Sea

It’s time for a Mercedes Lackey book again here on Down the Stacks.  Unlike my previous reviews of Lackey novels, I’ll be focusing on one particular book rather than just providing an overview of an entire series.  This week’s selection, Home from the Sea comes from the “Elemental Masters” series, which is set in the early 20th century, primarily in England, and contains loosely connected tales of mages hidden among every level of society and can command one of the four classical elements - Fire, Water, Earth, and Air - along with a host of hidden Elemental and airy creatures.  Each Elemental Masters book can stand alone, but a couple of sub-series involving recurring characters have emerged, and Home from the Sea belong to one of those.

Home from the Sea is the tale of Mari Prothero, daugher of a Welsh fisherman from the tiny village of Cogwyn.  Mari’s father, Daffyd, seems to have uncommon bravery and luck, as he routinely sets out to fish during powerful storms and always manages to return with a prosperous catch.  Life is comfortable for the Prothero, aside from the arrival of a bully of a constable who’s determined to find a crime in the peaceful village and Mari’s secret concern that the tiny people she keeps seeing in rain barrels and among the washed-up seaweed means she’s going mad.
Meanwhile, in London, we find Sarah and Nan - two young women who starred in a previous Elemental Masters novel as girls - rather at loss for what to do with their lives after a successful adventure in Africa.  Sarah and Nan are gifted with psychic abilities: both can see ghosts, Sarah can help spirits pass on to the next life, and Nan’s been known to channel earlier incarnations of herself.  They’re also accompanied and protected by a pair of special birds: Sarah by the African grey parrot Grey and Nan by Neville the not-so-normal raven.  After a bit of fumbling about at teaching at the boarding school for special kids like themselves, Sarah and Nan accept a job from Lord Abernathy, the leader of White Lodge that seeks to unite all the mages of Britain into a unified support system, to go to Wales to identify a rising Water Master whose identity is being clouded by otherworldly forces.
As you can probably guess, Mari Prothero turns out to be that new Water Master, and the little things she’s been seeing are water elementals, but her story is complicated further on her eighteenth birthday, when her father reveals the secret behind his incredible luck at fishing.  For generations, the Prothero family has been having children with a clan of Selch, a variety of the mythical beings who can change from human to seal.  Now that Mari is of age, she’s expected to take a Selch husband, have a couple kids, and then give up said husband and one kid back to the sea.  With her father’s livelihood - and life - at stake, Mari has little option but to continue the tradition, but she does manage to set two conditions to the Selch: she gets to choose her husband from a group who will court her, and she gets a teacher for her magic talents.

Home from the Sea is one of the best volumes of the Elemental Masters series.  The story is relatively slice-of-life with low stakes right until the very end, but it’s a slice of the lives of three charming and intelligent young woman who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves and poke holes in the misogynist beliefs of their day when provoked.  Sarah and Nan’s side of the story is kept buoyant by the frequent appearance of Puck as the mischief-loving but powerful Land-Ward of the English Isles.  Puck both advises Sarah and Nan and helps inject a little humor into the tale when needed.  Mari’s story has the romance themes that Mercedes Lackey always puts into her stories, but they’re properly diluted with natural-sounding exposition on the history and nature of the Selch and the mechanics of magic, and it’s all helped by characters who feel like they really belong in their world and their roles in the story.

I’d highly recommend Home from the Sea to anyone who wants an easy but interesting book to read.  It stands well on its own, although if you want to learn more of Sarah and Nan’s story, look for The Wizard of London, where they first appeared.  That’s a fine book as well, but I do prefer Home from the Sea over it.

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