Author Beth Cato discusses the rocky road and promising journey toward her magical alternate history novel, Breath of Earth.
About ‘Breath of Earth’
In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation — the Unified Pacific — in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her power — or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.
When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose Earth’s powers to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming the city into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off…
Forced on the run, Ingrid makes some shocking discoveries about herself. Her powerful magic has grown even more fearsome… and she may be the fulcrum on which the balance of world power rests.
Interview with Beth Cato
What was your initial inspiration for Breath of Earth?
I realized that I had never read a steampunk take on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and I wanted to. I figured I should try to write it.
Breath of Earth presents both an intricate magical system, and a vibrant alternate history. How did you develop these elements of Ingrid’s world? Which was more challenging?
The alternate history was by far the most challenging. I wanted to make it fairly accurate, with the changes in history a conscious choice on my part. This was… daunting. The effort is still ongoing as I continue work on the series. The magical system felt less constrained, more fun, though it also required a fair share of research.
Racism, sexism, and systemic injustice are strong themes in the novel. How did you decide to tackle these issues? What was it like to write about real-world issues in a speculative work?
It’s hard to write about these issues. It made me feel physically dirty at times as I researched what really happened and adapted history for my world. I read many books and tried to seek out stories told around 1906, in diverse voices.
I deeply feel that if I tried to ignore or soften those elements of the past, I would be committing a grave injustice to those who suffered in all truth. As a native Californian, it particularly bothers me that I wasn’t taught in school about what Chinese immigrants endured. I might be writing speculative fiction, but it’s vital to approach these subjects with respect and show my sources. That’s why my book includes an Author’s Note and research bibliography. I hope some readers look at the nonfiction and learn more.
What drew you to Ingrid as your protagonist?
Her strength. She’s a tough woman who is not accorded any respect due to her coloration and gender, but refuses to quail and act as a ‘proper’ woman should. She’s made of sterner stuff than I am, and in truth, I envy that.
How did Breath of Earth change most between your first draft and finished novel?
It changed a great deal as the world deepened and became more real. I’m a heavy duty outliner and started a lot of historical research before I began writing, but the story kept surprising me. For example, the Ambassadors of the Unified Pacific didn’t exist until one decided to stride into the book, and then I had to figure out who she was and why she terrified everyone spitless.
How did you approach writing Ingrid’s antagonists?
I wanted them to have nuance. It’s important to understand what motivates antagonists — why do they act this way? What do they really want? How does this clash with Ingrid’s goals?
Many characters in Breath of Earth have subtle, painful backstories. Which character was your favorite to discover and develop?
Oh, Fenris. I love Fenris, and readers seem to feel the same way. He’s agoraphobic (something I know well myself) and uses his acerbic wit to keep everyone at a distance. Cy is the only person he loves and trusts, and that is absolute. I really look at their love for each other as the deepest love story in the book; these are friends who lost everything but each other, and they rely on each other to survive. I only hint at Fenris’s past — his hesitance to be touched, his joy at his airship named Palmetto Bug — but his scars are clear to see, even as he tries to hide them.
What do you think 2016 would look like if geomantic powers were real?
Geomancy would create a major power shift around the world depending on who had more geomancers, tectonic activity, and kermanite crystals to trap the energy. The Pacific Rim would hold more emphasis. Technology would have advanced in new ways, perhaps with earlier space travel, and the economy would be different with kermanite as a sort of currency.
Which was easier to write: The first line or the last line?
The last line. It was hard to find the right way to wrap up the book while looking to the next. For my first line, I actually kept to a tradition I’ve carried on through my Clockwork Dagger novels: Begin with my heroine making three observations.
Would you rather be a book or a computer?
A book. I want to smell like vanilla as I age, and not be obsolete in a year.