Her female lead, Rose, is a PhD who has fallen on hard times. While sudden financial distress is a pretty common plot device, a female doctorate student is not usually the character that experiences it. The protagonist is a railway baron who, in a fit of hubris, changed himself into a wolf and now cannot change back.
The main focus of the plot is the magic. Lackey imagines a world where the four elements are controllable by Elemental Masters. The spirits of the elements act as a go between for the Master and the real world. Salamanders control fire, Gnomes earth, Sprites are for air, and Undines interact with water. The book follows Rose's education as she helps her benefactor research a cure for his affliction.
That in itself is a bit of an oddity, in general the driving force behind a book is action, not reaction. It is also pretty rare that a book delves into the academic. The setting is novel as well.
Fire Rose takes place in San Francisco in the early nineteen hundreds. Magical realism is not a widely explored branch of fantasy fiction, but it offers some interesting benefits. Setting the story line in reality affords the author a chance to include the 1906 earthquake in her writing. She attributes it to Earth elementals and draws her characters into the action, using them to narrate the terrible event.
The foray into magical realism has the added benefit of educational exploration. Lackey takes her characters into the pottery factories, exploring the strange effects of lead poisoning- it made women more beautiful and so was desirable in the short term. She delves into the developing relationship with China and the underground trading that went on at the time. The presence of fact in the midst of speculative fiction is a breath of fresh air.
A feminist perspective, a twist on the genre and a new magical framework make the Fire Rose a Classic, and a break from the norm.
Have you read the Fire Rose? Do you think Lackey changed fantasy fiction? Comment below!