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Very Good, Though Possibly a Little Careless with Detail
Phoenix and Ashes (HC)
Phoenix and Ashes (PB)
Phoenix and Ashes (Kindle)
Mercedes Lackey

I can't decide whether i think Ms. Lackey muffs a Chekhov's Gun, or if the payoff is planned for a future volume. (The playwright, Anton Chekhov, once said that if you mention or show an antique gun in Act I, if it hasn't been fired by Act III it's wasted detail.) I'm hoping for the latter, because the setup she throws in about a third of the way through the book refers to one of the great historical events of the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, but there's no reference to it by the end of the book.

Other than that, this is, i would say, the second-best of her "Elementals/Fairy Tale" stories -- Fire Rose, the first i read, is still the best of them.

The main template for this story is obviously "Cinderella", but i can't decide if the shell-shocked young flyer/love interest represents some other, interwoven tale.

(I must admit that when i saw the cover on the shelf, i wondered for a moment if Ms. Lackey had done a novel about Donna Barr's Desert Peach, and then realised that the uniform was wrong.)

I do like Ms. Lackey's twists on so many of the familiar tropes of the Cinderella story. I was wondering how she was going to pull off the glass slipper bit (of course, in the original French, the slipper is fur; the words for fancy fur [vair] and glass [verre] are very similar and apparently an early translator slipped up); suffice to say that the substitute she produces does quite well, and flashes back to the earlier, slightly gruesome, version as well. ("Look back, look back...")

It's nice to see a Cinderella who doesn't meekly just lie down under the insults and injustices of the Wicked Stepmother and Wicked Stepsisters, and it's nice to see a WSM who has an actual purpose to her Wickedness. Even bound to the house by a spell that also makes outsiders forget about her, Ella gradually defeats the purpose of the spell, and learns magic herself with the aid of her (not fairy) godmother, the local hedge witch.

For, unknown even to herself at the beginning, Ella is an Elemantal Fire Master.

Meanwhile, enter the Prince -- or, in this case, the heir to the duchy -- Reginald Fenyx, aviator (even before the war) ace and shellshock victim. Reggie is an Air Master, and his ability with the Air Elementals gave him the edge in aerial combat, made him an ace quickly, and kept him alive... until he met a stronger Air Master on the other side.

In one of the most affecting passages by Lackey that i have ever read, Reggie explains what happened that day:
" '... I felt something, from [the German pilot]. Not his thoughts, more like what he was feeling. He was -- he was in mourning.' ... Mourning? It was deeper than mourning. It had been self-revulsion, hatred for what the man had been doing, and a terrible, terrible sense of loss. The Hun hadn't only been mourning what he had to do -- he was in mourning for the loss of everything he cared for. 'He was ... flying with sorrow, the deepest, blackest sorrow I had ever felt in my life. And it was because by doing his duty, which was the honorable thing to do, he was being forced to kill us, who should have been his comrades. Because his beautiful heavens were filled with blood, and his beautiful blue wings belonged to the Angel of Death. He knew he would never, for however long he lived, fly in skies free of blood. His world was shattered, and he'd never really feel happiness again.' "
Shot down, Reggie's physical wounds make him unfit for duty, and mental and emotional wounds leave him a shell shock case. Shipped home to England he encounters sympathy from some but is disdained as a malingerer by many, who (as in later wars), having never experienced stress trauma themselves, write it off to simple fear.

And so the two principles of our tale are in place, and all we need is the touch of Ms. Lackey's magic wand to set the tale in motion.

As Jean Cocteau says, in the prolog to his magical film of Beauty and the Beast, the most wonderful words in any language are "Once upon a time..."

Well... Once upon a time, there was a young woman with a wicked stepmother, and there was a young Prince who was troubled...