Phoenix and Ashes
By Mercedes Lackey
DAW, 2004

Phoenix and Ashes is the fourth book in the Elemental Masters series, although these books are primarily a series by virtue of being placed in the same world, and can be read out of order without missing much. One of the central aspects of the series is that each volume is a retelling of a classic fairy tale; Phoenix and Ashes retells the tale of Cinderella, reset in the England of 1916.

The world of the Elemental Masters series is very close to ours in its history, but there is an additional layer to reality -- a hidden class of magic users. These magic users can communicate with and perhaps even control the elemental forces of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Reggie, a RFC pilot, happens to be an Air master, as was his father before him. He also happens to be part of the landed gentry of England, and while his family are not as snobbish as some, they are certainly rich and powerful.

So rich, in fact, that Reggie had his own airplane before the war started. The boys of the village spent a lot of time hanging around the meadow that he used as a make-shift runway, along with one girl -- Eleanor, who is interested not just in the excitement of the airplane, but also very interested in Reggie's studies at Oxford.

Eleanor is the daughter of a rich industrialist, and hopes to go to university -- Oxford would be best, but very few universities accept women at this point in history. In the meantime, she's getting a head start on her studies and is actively avoiding the socialite activities that most girls her age are expected to be engaging in.

All of this changes suddenly with the war. Reggie is sent to fight in France. Eleanor's father comes home unexpectedly with a new wife and two step-daughters, and not long there after, dies. Eleanor discovers that her step-mother is an Earth master -- a fact that becomes apparent only when she cuts off Eleanor's finger, buries it under the hearth, and completes a binding spell that forces Eleanor to clean ceaselessly and prevents her from leaving the premises.

Meanwhile, Reggie has returned from the battle front with a bad case of shell shock -- not only was his plane shot down, but he was tormented by enemy elementals for days. He is sent back to his estate to recover, and Eleanor's stepmother immediately sets her sights on him as a future husband for one of her daughters.

Eleanor has very little hope of ever escaping her evil stepmother, until one day her godmother shows up at the kitchen door, and tells her that her mother was an elemental master herself, and Eleanor surely has some of her powers. They carefully start to build up her powers, in the hope that someday they can break the spell on Eleanor.

This is a well worded and engaging story with a well-planned plot and interesting characters. It also suffers from a dearth of editing, taking a bit too long to get through scenes, and frequently repeating information. At over 450 pages, this can be annoying. However, some of this wordiness is justified. Lackey clearly has researched this historical period, and takes the time to give her readers enough context to feel emerged in the setting. The novel doesn't focus on magic at the expense of an accurate picture of wartime England and the slowly collapsing social structure of the upper class.

I suspect that this should not have been the first Mercedes Lackey book I read -- it is a good book, but shows all the signs of being written for hardcore fans, who know what they are getting and want as much of it as possible. Still, it is a good book, good enough to convince me to read some other, shorter works by here.

The Elemental Masters series currently consists of:
  1. The Fire Rose
  2. The Serpent's Shadow
  3. The Gates of Sleep
  4. Phoenix and Ashes
  5. The Wizard of London
  6. Reserved for the Cat
  7. Unnatural Issue
  8. Home from the Sea
  9. Steadfast
  10. Blood Red

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