OCTOBER 11, 2012
I LOVE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: the original telling by Jeanne-Marie le Prince du Beaumont, the adaptations by the Brothers Grimm, Cupid and Psyche, Disney, even Jane Eyre. It is the ultimate story of what Huey Lewis would call the transformational “Power of Love.” And my favorite heroines are bookworms. Disney’s Belle is seduced not by the opulence of the Beast’s castle or his all-singing, all-dancing dinnerware, but by his incredible library. And so it is in Mercedes Lackey’s retelling, The Fire Rose. Rosalind “Rose” Hawkins is a bookworm of the most academic sort, with a knowledge of ancient languages and a pair of corrective lenses attesting to her studiousness. In a story that teaches us to see beyond appearances, who better than a bookish woman to not judge a Beast by his exterior? Indeed, Rose comes to know her Beast through letters and conversation before ever laying eyes on him. And so the romance in The Fire Rose is off to a promising start.
It begins with an intriguing premise, relocating the classic love story to 1905 San Francisco and the wild coast of Northern California. Rose is suicidal after her father’s death leaves her destitute and unable to continue her language studies at the University of Chicago. Fortunately, the Fates, and a few magickal creatures, are watching out for her and she is offered a position as tutor to the children of Jason Cameron, a rail baron with a coastal estate south of San Francisco. Rose arrives by private rail at the remote Cameron mansion with its lush rooms and unseen, attentive servants, only to learn that Cameron has no children. Disfigured in an accident, he has actually hired Rose to be his personal research assistant, reading to him from rare alchemical texts. By degrees, Rose discovers the truth about her employer (and his mysterious accident) and the existence of true magick. Jason is a fire master — one of the four elemental sorceries — cursed by his own hubris into the form of a man-wolf after botching a shape-shifting spell. Rose must help him discover a way back to being fully human.
As far as Beasts go, Jason Cameron is quite promising. A prideful magician previously used to a life of parties, pretty heiresses and the admiration of the upper crust, he has fallen far from grace. He is vain, overly confident, and yet all too aware that his condition comes with a ticking clock: the longer he remains in this Anubis-like form, the more violently animalistic he becomes.
The Fire Rose is frontloaded with plenty of wondrous traits. Cameron’s closest friends are the magical salamanders that serve him, a precocious Arabian stallion, and a wise old Chinese herbalist who happens to be an earth master or, as the eastern tradition dictates, a master of dragons. When Lackey chooses to illustrate rather than dictate the story, these characters and the settings come to life. Turn-of-the-century Chicago and San Francisco, and luxury travel along the lines of the Orient Express in a private rail car that would make James West envious set a pretty stage for an historical fairy tale romance. Rose’s lush suite at the mansion, magically tended gardens, a labyrinthine Chinatown, the California coastline — there is magic in the details of these places, enough to carry across each page. Sadly, it does not.
Much of the novel is told, rather than shown, through the internal monologues of the characters. We spend so much time in their heads, listening to them discover and then deny obvious facts, that the beautiful world they live in loses its intrigue and charm. In turn, we lose respect for the characters. The greatest obstacles to Jason’s restoration are his soured apprentice Paul du Mond, and Simon Beltaire, a rival fire master in nearby San Francisco. Both Beltaire and du Mond hate Jason, a fact that he ignores, believing himself to be superior. While this does illustrate his fatal flaw, it tips over rather quickly from confidence into stupidity. Rose is the sole woman on a remote estate with the unseen Jason and the sly, threatening du Mond who, as it turns out, has a nasty habit of “breaking” girls for prostitution on the Barbary Coast. Jason is aware of this violent predilection and still he leaves the man in close proximity to Rose, unwilling to believe du Mond is capable of defying him. Rose herself is suspicious, but even as she gains some skill in magic, she does nothing to protect herself from a heavily foreshadowed confrontation.
Lackey’s writing shows a fascination for the “breaking” process that is gratuitous if not graphic, giving the impression that the author read a history book and just had to share. We already know du Mond is a cad. This detail is used to make him even more deplorable, yet it fails because, ultimately, du Mond has no teeth in the face of the greater, yet sadly underdeveloped threat of his cohort — the rival fire master. The result is a creepy Jerry Sandusky like situation, in which everyone knows the apprentice is committing horrendous acts, but they over look it until it’s too late. In effect, Lackey has split the Beast character into two men — the vain fire master and the violent apprentice. It takes the savagery of both men to make Rose flee Jason’s side for the deceptive safety of San Francisco on the eve of the Great Quake.
The climax finds Rose trapped in the city, just as earth begins to shake. Throwing caution to the wind, Jason (still in beastly form) races to save her, only to be confronted by Simon Beltaire. We have been told that the Great Chicago Fire was caused by dueling fire masters who destroyed the city rather than quell their rivalry. It would seem that the fate of San Francisco is also in the hands of two magicians. Unfortunately, the epic battle of fire and wind starts and ends rapidly. With the death of Beltaire, Jason might be losing his chance at being human again, but even this threat is downplayed. Indeed, the fight seems inconsequential in the face of the bigger natural disaster, even to Rose and Cameron. As Beltaire’s salamanders, free of their master, join the fires destroying the city, our protagonists declare themselves to be too tired to deal with them. And so the city burns. This is a huge misstep, as if Lackey, too, had run out of steam by the end of the book.
The Fire Rose‘s saving grace is that Rose and Jason become more human as they grow in affection for each other. A scene in which Rose reunites Jason with his Arabian horse is particularly moving. Joined, literally, by a magical connection, the two come to a meeting of minds, and possibly hearts, and you find yourself rooting for them to save the day and each other. Sadly, in the end, the final transformation that marks a true Beauty and the Beast story is missing. For Lackey, love apparently does not conquer all. A quick coda assures us that Rose and Jason will indeed be together whether or not the Beast becomes a Prince. After all, he’s still got princely, ahem… attributes from neck to knee, so they can still have a true marriage of mind and body. This bizarrely blithe acceptance of what essentially amounts to bestiality aside, Jason is still at risk of becoming more wolf than man, if the set up holds true. Still, as long as they don’t want children, and don’t mind a reclusive life, all is essentially well. Unless you love Beauty and the Beast. A partial transformation is what got Jason in trouble in the first place — it’s a shame that his story ends exactly where it begins.