In a novel that imagines a very alternate history, Cato (The Clockwork Crown, 2015, etc.) channels her flair for steampunk fantasy into the story of a plucky heroine living in San Francisco in 1906.
Ingrid Carmichael is the personal secretary to one of the geomancers who pull magical power from the Earth and protect the city of San Francisco from potentially catastrophic earthquakes. While Ingrid possesses her own exceptional and misunderstood magical talents, she hides them from a male-dominated society that has difficulty believing in a woman’s capacity for intellect and power. When disaster strikes the city’s geomancers, Ingrid is flung into the conspiracies of a world fractured by multiple international conflicts and dominated by a powerful alliance between the United States and Japan. She discovers unsettling things about her family and her powers and finds herself at the center of a plot that hinges on one of the biggest catastrophes in San Francisco history. Cato has a talent for setting in motion a cast of smoothly likable characters—it’s easier to continue reading about them than not—but they rarely surprise and often feel like typical fantasy-novel types. This flatness makes her racially diverse ensemble feel like a dutiful nod to inclusiveness instead of a genuine range of individuals. In the same way, Cato’s reimagining of history has an air of gauche, if well-meaning, appropriation. Her story argues for racial empathy, but the execution of its details relies heavily on lazy stereotypes. In Cato’s San Francisco, the influences of Japan and China emerge in predictable details sprinkled throughout, but there are few deeply appreciated elements.
A steampunk-flavored adventure with amiable characters and a fantastical version of San Francisco that has imaginative promise but fails to engage with the Asian cultures it appears to take inspiration from.