The Fire Rose – Mercedes Lackey
The early twentieth century is not a good time to be an ambitious female scholar, let alone a recently bereaved and borderline destitute one. Without her father’s support, the only option left to Rosalind Hawkins is to push her academic work aside and gain employment with whoever will take her. When an astoundingly generous offer from a mysterious benefactor lands in her lap, she is justifiably suspicious, but her circumstances drive her to accept. Travelling to San Francisco to become governess to the children of a reclusive railway baron, she discovers both her position and her employer to be utterly unexpected. If something seems too good to be true, there is always a reason…
The Fire Rose is a take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, originally published in 1995, with an inviting premise that is distinctly flavoured with overtones of Jane Eyre – a combination I fully expected to enjoy. I was instead left appalled. The hero is arrogant and immoral, blinded to the sufferings of others by his obscenely selective notions of ‘innocence’, none of which are challenged; this leaves him little better than the truly reprehensible villain. Rose herself, meanwhile, suffers from an acute case of ‘not like other girls’ syndrome. She is constantly comparing herself to other, hypothetical women to drive home her difference, with a sense of superiority that damages any sense of sympathy with her character, and her classist beliefs are, like her love interest’s, never challenged by the narrative. Every character of colour is a poorly fleshed out caricature treated with disrespect by the rest of the cast. This being the first book in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, perhaps that aspect is at least improved upon in the sequels, but I won’t be reading them. There are spoilers and further outrage below.
SPOILER: (Trigger warning) The ostensible hero, Jason Cameron, is described as someone who ‘would not take advantage of someone who was, in his estimation, truly innocent’. He is also fully aware that his apprentice Paul du Mond goes into the city to inflict brutal sexual abuse upon terrified young (usually Chinese or Mexican) women, enslaved in squalid brothels. The details of the abuse are not entered into by Lackey, but du Mond’s capacity for sadism is not left in any doubt. Aaand this is Cameron’s reference to the subject: “I thought it didn’t matter; after all, many Masters had little peccadilloes when they were Apprentices that they outgrew once they learned discipline.”
The only time du Mond’s behaviour bothers him is when Rose is threatened by it; apparently his version of innocence only includes highly educated, English-speaking white women whom he happens to fancy. Oh, he also spies on her without her ever finding out and openly admits he’d cheat on one of those hypothetical ‘other girls’ had he married one, because all other women must be worthless in comparison to the unassailable Rose. I expect some sexism, racism and classism from historical fiction, but there is no level on which Cameron’s behaviour is acceptable. Rose never finds out he’s a rape apologist, not in this book at least. So in what way exactly is he better than his deceptive nemesis Beltaire?
Wow, I’m angry.