Mercedes Lackey’s newest book in her Elemental Magic series is UNNATURAL ISSUE, a coming of age story about Suzanne Whitestone. Suzanne has been raised to believe she doesn’t matter, at all, to her father Richard Whitestone or to anyone save the household servants due to her mother’s death in childbirth. Whitestone’s grief is so profound that he has immured himself in his rooms for over twenty years, growing more and more bitter and turning away from his duties as an Earth Master. Because of this, the land around his house had become barren and stagnant, surely a metaphor for Whitestone’s soul, until Suzanne herself took up her father’s duties at a young age.
Due to Richard’s grief and rage over his beloved wife’s death, he turned to evil and has become a necromancer. Necromancers, as you may know from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, can raise the dead and speak with them, or worse, enchant them to fight against the living. Because Richard’s original talent was for Earth magic (growing things, basically), he’s able to do necromancy more easily because death is a natural part of the way the world works. He’s become quite proficient, and powerful, with this talent over the past twenty years.
All of this is important to know, because when Suzanne turns twenty years old, Richard finally looks at her through a window and realizes how much she resembles his late wife. This is the last straw as far as he’s concerned, and he resolves to raise his wife from the dead to rejoin him as his consort. But he needs a body to put his wife in because her own would never serve as she’s been dead twenty years; decomposition has set in. This is why Suzanne has suddenly become important. Whitestone’s intention now is to kill his daughter’s spirit (but not her body), then raise his wife’s body and soul, separate her soul from her dead body and put it into Suzanne’s still-living body. This is absolutely disgusting, and Lackey writes it exactly that way.
But Suzanne is not without resources; she’s a powerful Earth magician in her own right, and one of her allies is the Prince of the Fae Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck). Robin is what’s known as a “land warden,” someone who has been around since the dawn of time. Suzanne’s nascent Earth power drew him to her when she was quite young because magicians must be trained if they’re not to unintentionally harm the land, and in any event he’s known to have a soft spot for young children.
But this is a bildungsroman — a coming of age story — so as engrossing as all of this is, it’s only part of the whole. The real story is about Suzanne — how can she figure out how to be her own person with a father like that, because it’s obvious she’s going to run off just as soon as she possibly can once she realizes her father’s evil intentions. What can she do with her gifts and talents? And, when World War I breaks out, will she sit on the sidelines — or will she act?
Note that in this universe, no one magician, no matter how powerful, can change the course of World War I. (Robin Goodfellow knew something bad was coming, and warned Suzanne as she was somewhat “out of the loop” due to her father’s horrible behavior and being confined on his country estate for the first twenty years of her life.) So if Suzanne acts, her talents can only heal small things, but it’s still worth doing. (Note that Whitestone, with all his evilness and necromancy, is unable to affect the overall outcome, either — but he can harass Suzanne and do his best to kill any of her allies.)
So, to sum it up, we have Suzanne, who must come of age quickly in order to fight against World War I, then her father’s evil nature as well. We have her father, who is an evil necromancer — blacker than black as Lackey seems to prefer, though in a fairy-tale derived story like this, it fits. We have a “schoolgirl crush/puppy love” object in the form of Charles Kerridge, an Earth mage with some power but less than Suzanne and who is of a higher class and station than Suzanne, for Suzanne to fall in love with. And we have Lord Peter Almsley, Lackey’s homage to Dorothy Sayers’ well-known character Peter Wimsey, a man of substance and verve, who the reader takes to immediately and hopes Suzanne will notice before it’s too late.
So, will Suzanne live to claim her inheritance as an Earth mage? Will she notice Peter? Will she figure out how to claim her adulthood despite it all? And will the reader appreciate the story? The answers to all of these questions should surprise no one.
The pluses here are the true-to-life characterization and the depiction of World War I. The minuses are the usual “lack of shades of gray” in Lackey’s storytelling — granted, when she does try for them, it doesn’t tend to work too well — and the fact that about halfway through, Richard’s story just disappears and we’re left to figure it out from hints and direct information from Almsley, Suzanne herself and other magicians.
As for a grade, I’d give this one a straight-up B. Lackey’s prolific; she knows what she’s doing as she’s been writing professionally for around twenty-five years. So I can’t really forgive Richard’s story flat-out disappearing (though he was disgusting and I hated reading his viewpoint, it was crucial to the story and I really wish I’d seen more because the ending would’ve been stronger) because it must’ve been intentional. (Lackey has way too much craft and skill to have unwittingly done something like this.) And I feel there must’ve been a better way to do this than to just drop Richard’s story at that point; if I can think of alternative ways to get the story told in the same amount of space, I’m sure Lackey can do the same.
Still. If you enjoy any of Lackey’s writing, you will like UNNATURAL ISSUE; her strengths as a writer are profound and are present in this story. Because of her strengths, the story is compelling and visceral. And if you’ve never picked up any books by Lackey before, you may well appreciate this because it’s a well-told story about a young woman’s coming of age despite profound evil in and out of her own family (the latter in the form of World War I).
— reviewed by Barb