This post falls hard into that category of being long overdue, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to post it! In 2015, at Phoenix Comicon, I had the chance to meet and speak with steampunk author Beth Cato. Then, in 2016 , back at the con, we had a chance to revisit her Clockwork Dagger duology, and to discuss one of her latest books, Breath of Earth, which came out in August 2016. Finally, after half a year of teaching, I caught Beth again at the Tucson Festival of Books to tell her how much I loved Breath of Earth, not just for its awesome steampunk setting, but also for its incredibly empowering characters.
Last Summer, Beth Cato and I spent most of our time talking less about the book itself, and more about why she wrote it. Unfortunately all of those notes, were on a device that crashed, so sadly that interview never got posted. What I can post now though is all the reasons I loved the book.
As the back cover states “In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation – the United Pacific – in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China”
Steampunk, alternate history, politics, lead female character? Yes PLEASE!
The main character of the book, Ingrid is amazing. Living in a world as a geomancer and as a woman really sets the tone, as Ingrid is quite the anomaly. There are no female geomancers. While progress has been made for women’s rights, I couldn’t help as I read the book, but think about how confining Ingrid’s life was, having to hide who she was in a man’s world, for the sake of social norms, and make connections with how much farther society needs to go for the sake of equality.
As for the story itself, I really enjoyed Breath of Earth, in part because of the way that Beth Cato was able to weave history (and a particularly less known history) in with the circumstances of the characters. Without giving too much away, the book is set in San Francisco, and opens three days before the 1906 earthquake. At the turn of the 20th century immigrants were hated, feared and exploited, and women were second class, relegated to positions men felt appropriate. Nothing about the plot felt forced, and the historical information never felt expositional, or preachy. Some authors get too caught up in making a point and forget to tell a story. Beth Cato was able to do both. She didn’t shy away from gender or racial issues. She created characters who were confronted by those issues and lived in that world. The characters themselves were believable, and the setting details were so immersive, it was easy to feel myself pulled back into an alternate past.
As a bibliophile and a teacher I loved the Author’s Note in the back. Any fictional work that is based in history ought to something that refers back to the historic research, and Beth Cato’s was amazing. Sure people can use Google, but having an appendix of well sourced material is fantastic and will help provide an opportunity for those who enjoy a story enough to want to dig deeper.
Anyone looking for a new book that has an awesome mix of history, steampunk and a bit of magic should definitely check out Breath of Earth. Especially before the sequel Call of Fire comes out this August.
Also, as a side note, for those who don’t know what the Tucson Festival of Books is, it’s… you guessed it an annual Festival of Books! But not just books. The University of Arizona, which hosts it each year also has tons of science exhibits both for kids and adults. Any nerd in Southern Arizona should make the trip. There are tons of booksellers and authors, and literature related activities. It takes place each year in March, and the next one will be March 10-11, 2018.
One final side note. Beth Cato bakes the best cookies I’ve ever had at an event! They were honey snickerdoodles and they were SO chewy! No seriously, she bakes awesome cookies, and you can get her recipes from her website and newsletter!