The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey is another old one; there's a copyright date in my edition of 1995. Sometimes this book is listed as the first of the Elemental Masters series, and there are definitely some features of elemental magic in The Fire Rose, but I don't think Lackey had completely settled on the system when she wrote this one. Think of it more as a prototype or a pilot, with refinements to come later.
One difference is that this book is set in San Francisco (and a bit in Chicago) instead of Europe (usually England in the other books). Although since most of it takes place inside a mansion, the actual location doesn't matter much.
You may be wondering why I keep doing this to myself (reading Lackey's books). I'm not entirely sure. I should probably stop, and I probably will after I've read all the ones on my shelf. They're just not that great, and this one is no exception.
First of all, the villain is so evil he's a caricature. His name is Paul du Mond and he is secretary to Jason Cameron, a reclusive rail baron. He's also Jason's apprentice but it seems likely he'll never become a Master himself. He's lazy and doesn't want to put forth the effort -- he wants it to be easy. Jason's rival, Simon Beltaire, promises ease to du Mond, through initiation into the magickal system of Aleister Crowley. So du Mond is going behind Cameron's back. Oh yeah, and Jason's horse doesn't like du Mond either.
But wait, there's more. Du Mond's hobby is "breaking" whores. Taking women who've just been sold, or who are about to be sold, and raping them and demeaning them. He also lies to his boss about a business venture and arranges to get himself set up far enough away from Cameron's mansion that he can start his training with Beltaire, which will include sex magick. And if that wasn't enough, he takes sex slaves, usually Chinese women because the authorities would be unlikely to investigate deaths or disappearances. When they die on him, he gets others.
So he's lazy, a liar, a rapist, a murderer, and probably a couple of other things I've forgotten. Gee, do you think we're supposed to hate him? It would've been enough without the "hobbies," as he was still going behind his mentor's back and all.
Simon Beltaire, meanwhile, doesn't have much of a presence. He meets with du Mond a time or two, and has a battle with Cameron in San Francisco at the end. That's about it.
On to Jason Cameron, the male lead, if you will. He's a filthy rich railroad baron and a Fire Master. Some time ago, he decided he wanted to be able to turn himself into a wolf at will. (I don't know that the reason why is ever adequately explained.) Well, it doesn't go so well and he ends up half-wolf, half-man. He becomes a recluse, with du Mond handling all his interactions with the outside world. He gets rid of servants, using instead salamanders (fire elementals) to take care of everything around the house.
So in terms of character complexity, Cameron may be the best The Fire Rose has to offer. He's successful, but he got too ambitious and was humbled as a result. He's powerful, but he's got some serious limitations because of his appearance, and he can't leave the house. He's intellectually interesting to Rose (we'll get to her next), but he also scares her a little. He relies on opiates to relieve pain, but actually tries to listen to a doctor's advice and cut back and/or use alternatives.
Which would be great, except Lackey is totally inconsistent with regard to Jason's abilities. He has paws for hands, it sounds like. Can't write. Has salamanders do it for him. I believe that when his "notes" are referred to, the salamanders could have written them. But Jason shouldn't be referring to notes at all. If he can read notes, he doesn't need Rose. (He hires Rose to read books for him because apparently his eyes have been affected too.) So can he read the notes, or not? Depends on whether the situation demands it or not, I suppose.
And then there's his appearance. At first we're given to believe he's truly grotesque. But over the course of the book, he goes from being described as half animal to handsome, in Rose's eyes. To the point where they even discuss the possibility of traveling out of the country. So while he's got paws for hands and a decidedly lupine face early on, he's apparently not much more than a really hairy guy (like a person with hypertrichosis) by the end. Or else Rose has a bestiality fetish.
Rose, meanwhile, is obnoxious and flighty. She's a woman and an academic around the turn of the 20th century, when this was an unusual status for a woman. Which we are reminded of at every freaking opportunity. She has her bachelor's degree, and a master's degree, and by gosh, she's working on a doctorate. But she's destitute because her father got caught up in an investment scheme and then went and died on her. She knows all kinds of ancient languages and she's hired under false pretenses to read from Jason's books of magick in a hope that he can find a cure for his condition.
Rose is good at making do with little, but freely admits to enjoying the finer things in life (including Caruso! at the opera! mentioned only about 453,000 times in this book). She contemplates suicide early in the book but changes her tune later on. She runs through all kinds of nightmare scenarios in her mind, then goes along with whatever was happening in the first place, anyway. One of the problems I have with her is that she's all skeptical of the idea of the existence of magick but then does almost a 180 and decides she'd like to become Jason's apprentice. (Also she visits a Chinese herbalist instead of a doctor. Well, I guess he is also a doctor, he's got a convenient diploma from Harvard Medical School. Just like the other Chinese character who shows up at the end also happens to be a Presbyterian minister. Wherever that came from.)
Another problem I have with Rose is that she sometimes expresses reservations about Jason, finds him arrogant or violent (he kills du Mond with his teeth) but then decides she's in love with him and marries him anyway. Even though he's apparently got an anatomy consistent with killing someone with his teeth.
The amount of repetition of facts about Rose borders on insulting. She's got all these degrees! She likes nice clothes. She likes opera and musicals. She goes to visit Jason's horse every day even though she can't ride. She's used to walking long distances. This collection of facts just doesn't make a compelling character, to me.
I've reminded myself of something else that irks me. In several of Lackey's books, I get the feeling that she's like, ooh, I'll be inclusive by including Arab and/or Muslim characters or references to them. And then she goes on to treat this in the most cursory and stereotypical way (they like horses, or have multiple wives).
There's not a lot to the plot of this one, I think Lackey likes to spend time thinking about historical details (which may be less than accurate, according to some Amazon reviewers) and less time coming up with a story. Because so many of her stories based on fairy tales (Firebird was an exception, I guess) have a female lead character who is underprivileged in some way (e.g. Maya being a woman and half-Indian doctor in The Serpent's Shadow or the obnoxious Susanne who's on the run from her creepy father in Unnatural Issue) but whose determination is strong, indeed. So there's the generic female lead, who may or may not already know about the existence of magic(k), who has a magickal education or apprenticeship, who gets accepted by at least one person from the magickal establishment after a confrontation with some rogue wizard or magician. It's really the same book over and over again, with the names changed.
You could argue that it's the fairy tales that aren't that different, and you'd probably have a valid point. But Lackey should recognize that and maybe consider not turning out quite so many books which are variations on the same theme. We'll excuse her The Fire Rose because it was one of the earliest books like this. The half-dozen or more subsequent ones? Well, then she should know better.
In the end, I just feel like I've read this book dozens of times already.
Couple of other random observations. Lackey refers to Arabic as a guttural tongue; I never thought of it this way. While I certainly don't speak Arabic, I usually reserve "guttural" as a description for harsh Eastern and Central European languages. The sound of them is just different. Another time, she says a "couple of telegraphs" were sent off. This is a word use issue, too. A telegraph is the machine, a telegram is the message that gets sent. These are just a couple of examples that I happened to mark. They're not that big of a deal. I wish Lackey would tighten up her speaker attributions (way too many -ly adverbs) and describe the décor of Cameron's house a little bit less. (Also, I don't know that we need to be treated to descriptions of all the felonies committed by du Mond's servants as none of them have any bearing on the direction of the story.)
There's one inconsistency, I think. When Rose is trying to get Jason to ride his horse again, she says that du Mond told her the horse was a gift from another Fire Master. Only, that never happened. Rose spends most of the book avoiding du Mond, and she doesn't discuss magick with du Mond when she encounters him outside the horse pen. At that time, she's unaware that magick even exists. So I don't know why Rose would say something that wasn't true. Unless Lackey just forgot.
Honestly, though, if you like Lackey's other Elemental Masters books, it's interesting to see this early take on that series. And you can't blame her for the awful, awful cover, which depicts what appears to be a wolf's head on a man's body -- an image which absolutely does not gel with any of the descriptions of Cameron provided in this book. The picture of Rose looks to be dressed in attire from a bygone era, and the "salamander" looks like a miniature dragon, though salamanders are not reptiles but amphibians, and the salamanders in this book are magical creatures which are less than corporeal.
I mean, if you're a fan and you've missed this one, go ahead and pick it up. It is a standalone so you don't have to keep waiting for the sequel. But if you're just looking for something to read to pass the time, there are better books out there. (And this lukewarm ending is why I should never read books faster than I review them; I'm sure when I finished I had a lot to say, but several days later, I feel like I'm just going through the motions.)