Review: Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

Breath of Earth by Beth Cato (Breath of Earth #1)

Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Alternate History

Publisher: Harper Voyager on August 23, 2016

Source: Publisher

Rating StarRating StarRating Star

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

After the Earth’s power is suddenly left unprotected, a young geomancer must rely on her unique magical powers to survive in in this fresh fantasy series from the author of acclaimed The Clockwork Dagger.

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Beth Cato introduces a gritty, steampunk-inspired version of 20th century San Francisco in BREATH OF EARTH, the first book in a new series. While I appreciated the diverse cast of characters and creative world building, I thought the primary characters fell flat and felt that the story overall was too unfocused.

Earthquakes and other natural disasters plague 1906 San Francisco, kept at bay only by the efforts of the Geomancer’s Auxiliary. Geomancers use their connection to the earth to channel magical energy, siphoning it out of the earth to prevent natural disasters and fuel their own abilities. But with the wars of the United Pacific – the alliance between Japan and the U.S. – raging on, some are concerned that geomancy may be turned to a much darker purpose.

For Ingrid, geomancy is the chance to rise above her “shortcomings,” including her working-class status, her mixed-race heritage, and her sex (of course). But women aren’t supposed to possess geomantic abilities, let alone abilities that are more powerful than her older male counterparts. Ingrid is forced to study geomancy in secret under the tutelage of Mr. Sakaguchi, her employer and surrogate father…but when the Auxiliary comes under attack, Ingrid may need to use her abilities and expose herself for what she really is to save San Francisco.

The United Pacific’s influence on San Francisco (and the rest of the world) is palpable in BREATH OF THE EARTH, as their xenophobic dogma and cultural supremacy has completely changed the status quo of the West and Asia alike. Japanese culture is ascendant, and white American citizens do all that they can to emulate the culture in order to curry favour – and stay alive. Unsurprisingly, those who are not white or Japanese are discriminated against…and those with Chinese heritage are herded together in slums and systematically slaughtered. As upsetting as it was to read about this, I really appreciated how Beth Cato incorporated the very real xenophobia towards those with Chinese heritage that existed in the West during the early 20th century. That’s a very ugly part of North American history that is often scrubbed from SFF, but it’s important to acknowledge.

Although I loved the diversity of the characters (mixed-race, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese characters as well as a trans character), I felt very little connection to them. Ingrid in particular was a struggle for me, as she’s very concerned with propriety and comes uncomfortably close to blindly accepting the beliefs of the United Pacific regime. While she does eventually grow, her naivety and preachy nature made Ingrid an unsatisfactory protagonist for me. I feel bad saying it, but her love interest was also one of the most boring potential suitors I’ve read about in recent memory. He wasn’t bad or anything, he just…was. He had very little personality to speak of besides being gentlemanly and handsome.

BREATH OF EARTH is hardly what I’d call plot-driven, as it takes almost 300 pages for the events of the story to come together into a coherent storyline. But if you’re not someone who reads for plot, you may enjoy this creative, diverse, steampunk-inspired fantasy novel more than I did.

 What do you think of uptight or preachy main characters? Have you read BREATH OF EARTH or any of Beth Cato’s other works? Let me know in the comments!

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  • I have this book, in fact I should have read it last month for review! But you know, too many books:-) I believe this is the first review of it I’ve read among my blogger friends, which is a surprise. Sorry it didn’t work for you, I do still hope to read it at some point.

    • I know, I’ve heard surprisingly little about it from other fantasy bloggers! There were some things about it that I liked, so it’s not totally without its charms. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Interesting premise, and good that it does shine a light on those darker days too

    • Yeah, I really liked the premise of the story overall and its discussion of xenophobia.

  • Kudos to the author for focusing on a part of history that doesn’t get enough attention! I’m sorry to hear about the characters though, and from what I read in your review I’m also getting a very flat feel for the story. Diversity in SFF is awesome, but a truly great read for me also has to transcend the themes that we see to see again and again in genre fiction. I’m still looking forward to reading this though, but I will be sure to temper my expectations especially when it comes to the romance and that disastrous sounding love interest – the most boring potential suitor you’ve read in recent memory, ouch!

    • It’s such a bummer because as you said, it’s a great, important premise with a ton of diverse characters…but I just didn’t care for them at all. When a book ticks all the right boxes but still isn’t a winner, you know there’s something off there!

      Let’s just say that this is one fantasy series where I could’ve done without the romance (never thought I’d say that, HA!)…

  • I would have dnf if 200 pages in nothing was happening, So I commend you for finishing the book and sticking it out. From the synopsis I was really interested in, but cannot get through that many pages of nothing happening. Great Review

    • I was tempted to dnf it in a few spots, honestly. But I always feel really guilty when I do that (I know it’s silly, but I can’t help it!) so I powered through. Thanks, Tori! 🙂

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    Sorry this one didn’t work better for you!, but am glad it hit some good historical points. And ha ha …. a love interest that just …. was. That sounds so exciting! 🙂 The cover looks cool at least 🙂

    • HA, yeah, the love interest was definitely not the most compelling part of this book. The cover is totally gorgeous! Kudos to the designer, for sure.

  • It’s sucks that you didn’t enjoy this book more. It’s the most frustrating thing when a book looks like it’s going it tick all the boxes and then somehow falls short. I do love that it represents a much glossed over part of US history. The xenophobia which took over in US history isn’t always written about and so seeing it in a SFF book is pretty cool. Also, can we have a cheer for diversity in books. I mean, some things weren’t great but at least the book did that?

    • YES, that’s it exactly! By all accounts I should’ve absolutely loved this one, but I just couldn’t connect to any of the characters.

      It’s so disturbing to read about because of how recent it was, but the treatment of Chinese North Americans in the early 20th century was horrifying. And not just in the US either, Canada was awful to people with Chinese heritage too, which I think is something that we as a country like to “forget.”

      True! At this point I’m finding it very difficult to rate a book higher than 3 stars unless it’s diverse or inclusive in some way because let’s be real: diverse books just reflect reality!

  • Sorry this one didn’t work out for you. I do like that they didn’t gloss over the xenophobia of the period though. A dull love interest is never fun.

    • Kudos are definitely due to Beth Cato for addressing the xenophobia in North America at the time! That romantic sub-plot though…womp womp.

  • Lynn Williams

    I’m probably going to avoid this one. I’m still trying to catch up and be good and although I did see this one and loved the cover I didn’t request
    Lynn 😀

    • I hear that! I’m trying to catch up and be good about requesting books too, but I admit that a pretty cover will always suck me in…