on June 5, 2012
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Also in this series: The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, From a High Tower, A Study in Sable
In Edwardian Britain, magic is real. And Masters of the Elements control Fire, Water, Air, and Earth....
Mari Prothero has lived all her life with her father, Daffyd, in a tiny fishing village on the coast of Wales. Though Daffyd takes his boat out on the sea regardless of weather, Mari has learned not to fear for his safety, for her father always comes home safely with a large catch. On her 18th birthday, Mari learns that the family fishing luck depends on the Protheroes relationship to the sea-dwellers -- and to continue her line, she must marry a full-blooded Selkie. But Mari isn't about to meekly submit to marriage with a stranger...
When Lord Alsderscroft gets hints of a strong Water Mage coming into their power on the Welsh coast, he recruits Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White to investigate and report back to him. And when the girls discover Mari's plight, they hatch a plan to help her.
Home from the Sea is the latest in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. Chronologically, it falls between The Wizard of London and The Serpent’s Shadow, and includes characters who will be familiar to readers of the former. Dual storylines told in alternating sections focus on Mari Prothero, a Welsh fisherman’s daughter, and Nan and Sarah of The Wizard of London, now young women in search of a worthwhile occupation. The plotlines converge when Lord Alderscroft, head of London’s White Lodge and one of the most powerful mages in Britain, sends Sarah, Nan, and their bird friends to Wales to investigate a powerful Water mage just emerging into his (or her?) power. The Water mage is, of course, Mari, but learning to use her magic isn’t Mari’s only challenge. In order to fulfill a thousand-year-old bargain between her family and the Selch (the Welsh version of selkies or seal-folk), Mari must marry a Selch man and bear him two children, only to lose husband and one of the children to the sea. But times have changed, and the strong-willed Mari is unwilling to accept her fate without a choice – and without training in her magic.
I loved the Elemental Master series when I first discovered it. Its combination of the well-crafted elemental magic system and creative fairy-tale retellings set in early 20th-century Britain is irresistible. Unfortunately, while pleasing enough on many counts, Home from the Sea isn’t quite up to the standard of the early books in the series.
Mercedes Lackey is deservedly known as a wonderful storyteller with an amazing imagination. When she’s on top of her game, there are few fantasy writers to match her for inventive plots, believable world-building, and compelling characters. In the last several years, however, she hasn’t been on top of her game with any consistency… or perhaps the frequency with which she has been pushing out books is taking its toll. Whatever the reason, Home from the Sea fails to reach Ms. Lackey’s usual level of excellence in several areas.
Pacing is a problem. The plot of Home from the Sea lags in the middle, while Mari learns to use her magic from Idwal, a Selch Water Master. Nan and Sarah, having ascertained that Mari is getting training and is of good intent, continue to hang around for reasons that are unclear. (One might well expect that Lord Alderscroft, having gotten the answers he wanted, would have recalled them to London.) Mari’s choice of a mate is obvious almost from the moment she meets the four Selch sent to court her, but the romance itself develops largely off-stage. The descriptions of magical technique, food, and even Welsh harvest and Christmas customs are interesting enough in their way—Lackey is almost never boring—but they fail to advance the plot or develop or resolve any of the conflicts. In fact, there’s an annoying lack of suspense in the book as a whole, until nearly the end. The threats to Mari arise and are overcome within the last few chapters of the book. There’s also a strong element of deus ex machina assistance which reduces any threat to Nan or Sarah to almost nil.
Perhaps part of the trouble is that the original folksongs and tales of the Selkie are less plot-driven than more traditional fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. They don’t generally include a villain to defeat or a conflict that the hero or heroine must resolve. Lackey attempts to overcome that omission by introducing not one but two villains: the Selch leader, Gethin, and a bullying human constable. However, neither of these villains is particularly frightening or powerful – a distinct change from the antagonists in previous books in the series, who often provide an existential threat to the main characters.
Lackey employs elements from a few other tales in Home from the Sea, notably the ballads of Tam Lin and The Twa Magicians. This would have worked better had she not used them before in other books, The Snow Queen and Reserved for the Cat. Her website also mentions the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” but any similarities with that story are fleeting at best.
Fans of the Elemental Masters series will probably want to read this book, and not only to reacquaint themselves with the recurring characters. Lackey succeeds in bringing Mari’s coastal Welsh fishing village to life, and there are a number of charming and humorous moments. Mari herself is a likeable character, as are Sarah and Nan (though both are slightly blander than they were in The Wizard of London.) It’s almost impossible for Lackey to tell a story badly (though she has sometimes been badly edited), and this book is no exception: despite its flaws, Home from the Sea is still a pleasant read.
I would recommend, though, that newcomers begin the series at the beginning either by publication date (The Serpent’s Shadow) or chronologically (The Wizard of London.) The former is one of the best books in the series, and will give you a better explication of the magic system; the latter will introduce you to Nan, Sarah, Lord Alderscroft, and several other characters found in Home from the Sea.