Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

Here’s the thing about Beth Cato’s books: there is insta luv romance, they are well written, the ‘magic’ portions are interesting, historical aspects well researched, there is plenty of action, and the plot is creative. And yet, I’ve found that for me personally, I never like any of the preachy and uptight characters. They almost veer into the author’s idea of a Mary Sue. Certainly, I appreciate that authors put their own soul into a work but at the same time, perhaps I just don’t find that I like her view of a good romance or character. So I am starting this review with that caveat; most will love Cato’s books and deservedly so.

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Story: Ingrid has very strong and very rare geomancy skills. In the San Francisco of 1906, she is not allowed to use those skills since she is a female. But in this ‘Victorian’ setting, Japan and the “US” are working to completely eradicate China, Britain is subjugating India, and San Francisco’s Chinatown inhabitants are in a dangerous position, caught between two worlds. Politics, magic, and cultures collide in a world where geomancers can destroy whole cities and the world is a warground. Ingrid, with the help of a skilled engineer, will become embroiled in a plot that may involve her mysterious missing father – and endanger the lives of the entire city of San Francisco.

Those with a bit of history under their belt will likely recognize the importance of the April 1906 setting. Cato does an excellent job of weaving the facts into a plausible and intricate alternate universe world. More importantly, she also deftly incorporates Japanese, Chinese, American, and even British cultures into a melange that is appropriate and makes sense.

It’s in the characters and their interactions that it all falls apart for me. From a repressed Victorian girl immediately thinking about kissing her insta luv in a brash way to her own rather contrary nature. What others will find nuanced I find rather ‘holier than though’. Again, that is likely just me but I didn’t like Ingrid and I found her love interest to be bland, underdeveloped, and overidealized. As well, both Ingrid and her love interest are speshul snowflakes who save the world through that specialness and deus ex machina plot devices (ah, the trite and overused ‘overheard nefarious confession due to our heroine being in the perfect place at the perfect time). With all the work gone into the worldbuilding, the plot itself was underwhelming.

The writing is brisk and there is plenty of adventure to keep readers intrigued. Yes, twists and turns are fairly well telegraphed or guessable but the fast pace of the plot makes up for the predictability. In all, it is a good read and likely I’m one of the few who just can’t get invested in Cato’s characters. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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