Unnatural Issue is primarily a retelling of a fairy tale that goes by many names: Cattikin, Many-Furs, Donkey-Skin, etc. In most versions, a queen dies, a heart-broken king refuses to marry anyone who is not a match for his dead queen, and a princess must flee her father’s amorous intentions. I recommend finding Cattikin, for in that variation, the princess is quite resourceful. First she tries to postpone the marriage into oblivion by asking for impossible gifts: dresses of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight, each of which fits into a walnut shell; and a cloak made from 1000 different furs. When delaying tactics do not suffice, she removes herself from the unhealthy equation and takes a position as kitchen maid in a neighboring kingdom. There she prepares soup of exquisite deliciousness, attends dances attired in her magical dresses, and gives mysterious gifts to the king, hidden in his bowl of soup. The king is intrigued and eventually figures that the irrational-seeming discrepancies lead to the discovery of his beloved.
Robin McKinley previously novelized the motif in Deerskin, but that book is rough-going, because in her version, the worst is not averted, it happens.
Mercedes Lackey resets this gem of a story in her Elemental Masters series, bringing back most of her previous main characters in cameo roles, as well as introducing new main ones. Instead of being a king, Richard Whitestone is a hereditary Earth Master, landed gentry with a good estate, and a trusted member of the White Lodge. Tragically, while he is in
tracking a murderer who has employed dark Earth Magic, his wife dies in childbirth. Enraged and embittered, Richard Whitestone disowns his baby daughter, Suzanne. He becomes a complete recluse and brings a blight upon the very estate his family has protected for generations.
Suzanne is raised by the servants, learning not the social airs and graces of a young lady, but practical, homely skills and magic. Robin Goodfellow, Puck himself, straight out of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, is her teacher. It is Suzanne who creates boundaries to contain the blight cast by her father’s wretchedness, and who establishes good will with the local elementals: the fauns, brownies, and other earth-spirits of Old England.
In his secret study, Richard turns to the writings of necromancers in search of a way to bring back his wife from the dead, but he is stymied by the need for a body to serve as a vessel for her soul. Then, from his curtained window, he sees 20-year-old Suzanne, the very image of her mother. From that point on, all his energies are bent on making his wish a reality.
Suzanne discovers her danger in time to escape. She flees across the moors and finds refuge at Branwell Hall, where Earth Magic is understood, and welcomed.
Meanwhile, Richard’s meddling with necromancy has caused ripples which alert the White Lodge, and, somewhat belatedly, Lord Aldridge sends an Elemental Master to investigate and intervene.
At this point, Lackey performs a bit of literary necromancy of her own, re-animating one of the great characters of all times: Lord Peter Whimsey, created by Dorothy L. Sayers. In Unnatural Issue, he is slightly changed into Lord Peter Almsley he is, after all, a gift to any story in which he manifests a Master of the Element water, with a flair for infiltration. Almsley appeared previously in The Gates of Sleep in a supporting role; now he is the heroine’s complement. Alchemically, he has evolved from side-kick quicksilver to hero’s gold.
Lord Peter gets himself installed as Branwell Hall’s new gameskeeper in order to suss out Suzanne her magical ability, her history, and whatever she might know of an elusive necromancer.
Richard Whitestone is not about to give up his plans, and now he has no compunctions about conjuring and commanding legions of the dead, and even nastier things like trolls and redcaps. Once he discovers Suzanne’s whereabouts, he declares war on Branwell Hall and all who dwell therein. And when European unrest erupts into the unholy mess that becomes “The Great War,” Whitestone finds the perfect grounds to continue his revenge against all who sheltered Suzanne.
One of the best features of this book is how Lackey portrays aspects of World War One: the horror of it, the ghastly conditions of the trench warfare, the stupidity and lies that propagated it, the conditions that nurses endured and the responsibilities they shouldered, and how those who knew better could only mitigate the horrors. Suzanne doesn’t get to dance in dresses woven of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight; she dons a nurse’s uniform in
behind the Front.
Furthermore, Lackey uses the language of magic to portray, if not always facts, then certainly truths. Many of us really do experience the kinds of sensitivities her magicians employ as they wield magic; this series is one of the rare validations of the numinous experiences we rarely have words to describe. (I submit this with some trepidation, having read Lackey’s recent internet posting, reminding her readers forcibly that she is writing F-I-C-T-I-O-N. I agree with everything she had to say.)
This ability to sum up, to epitomize, and to transform experiences that society is vigorously relegating to under the carpet or behind the curtain is Lackey’s greatest talent. In her various writings, she has shone a clear light on the self-deceptions of survivor guilt and co-dependency in abusive relationships; she has invented characters who became paradigm shifts for readers who were consequently able to go from victim status to survivors and even heroes in their own life stories; she has incorporated into her stories the grim realities that soldiers and rescue workers undergo, so that their neighbors can have some comprehension of their ordeals; she has parsed the big lies that politicians and their flunkeys love to tell, tearing off the genial mask to reveal the monstrous greed and cruelty beneath the façade.
Lackey is, quite simply, a fantastic writer. Consider the range, the contrast, of the following. In one scene, Suzanne and another girl are systematically using their Earth Elemental magic in the dairy to protect the milk, cream, and butter from spoilage. In another, an Earth Mage is being overwhelmed by animated corpses on a battlefield, and the earth elementals of the ravaged land, including a unicorn, come to his rescue, even as they are themselves dying. I wept unabashedly at this scene.
The author shows a tremendous appreciation for the coexistence of “old ways” and religious traditions so characteristic of Old England. She portrays the persistence and validity of the former, and she slips in a corrected translation of a diabolically (I use that word advisedly) mis-translated, and infamous abused passage of the Old Testament. This was very well done, and may even make up for not including Rudyard Kipling or Dorothy Sayers in her Dedication. Misty may not always acknowledge her sources, but she does her homework.
Editorial comment: there are a couple of continuity errors in this first edition. Early in her escape, Suzanne burns a magical bundle; later on, she is using it again. And a time anomaly presents one character in the trenches in December, then shifts forward to November. These are minor annoyances in an otherwise enjoyable confection. ~~ Chris Paige