My Favorite Bit: Beth Cato talks about BREATH OF EARTH
Beth Cato is joining us today with her novel Breath of Earth. Here’s the publisher’s description:
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.
What’s Beth’s favorite bit?
My new novel, Breath of Earth, is alt history steampunk fantasy set in 1906 San Francisco. I like to joke “Spoiler alert: there’s a big earthquake,” because the date and place (and the very cover) give away that plot point in a major way. That’s fine by me. The earthquake happens, yes, but the circumstances are a bit more complicated than a mere tectonic shift.
My heroine, Ingrid Carmichael, is a geomancer. I drew on history, science, and mythology to create my own magic system and unique earthquake. I’m a research geek, so this was absolutely my favorite bit.
For me, earthquakes are personal. I’m a native Californian. One of my earliest memories is being three years old and in the bathtub when the devastating Coalinga earthquake occurred nearby. We practiced earthquake drills in schools. Family trips to the coast meant crossing the very visible ridged line of the infamous San Andreas Fault.
As part of my worldbuilding, I had to figure out how to cause earthquakes–and more importantly, how to stop them.
My version of 1906 features technology that is powered by crystals called kermanite that store the earth’s energy like batteries. Geomancers like Ingrid are conduits. During an earthquake, geomancers don’t simply feel the rumbling–they siphon the magic of the earth and actually stop tremblors. This isn’t without risks. Earth energy causes a spike in body temperature that can kill them quickly unless they break direct contact with the ground or grab kermanite, which will pull the energy out of their bodies. Ingrid, being the heroine, is especially gifted–and cursed–by her incredible ability to hold and use energy.
Kermanite and geomancy are my fabrications, but when it came to the actual earthquake, I relied heavily on historical fact. There are tons of books on the subject, fiction and non, and movies as well. The data was overwhelming, really. I had to pick and choose what would reinforce my new version of history.
For example, Enrico Caruso is famous for singing in Carmen the night before the real disaster; in my world, there is a highly controversial performance of the opera Lincoln, which celebrates the president’s Emancipation Proclamation as well as his late life work on behalf of Chinese refugees. That’s because the Civil War ended early because of an alliance between the American Union and Imperial Japan–and in 1906, the two are still partnered in their efforts to dominate mainland Asia.
Plate tectonics–the genuine science–play a role in my novel, but there are also more fantastical elements. Mythologies around the world attribute earthquakes to entities like massive two-headed snakes or shifting turtles or a giant namazu (catfish) twitching in the sea. Ingrid’s mentor is obsessed with researching semi-mythical geomantic Hidden Ones. Unlike everyday magical creatures like unicorns or pixies, these Hidden Ones are so extraordinary, so deific, that people question if they still exist at all. Hint: there might be something to the old stories.
For all the media ballyhoo about when the next “Big One” will happen, no one knows. There is something terrifying, something magical, about that. Breath of Earth gave me the chance to explore a subject that has fascinated me ever since I was a scared three-year-old asking, “What happened?”
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.
She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.