Despite a dark premise, Unnatural Issue is a comfort read

It's probably not the best intro to the series, but Mercedes Lackey's latest Elemental Masters novel is a fun and surprisingly fluffy addition.

The heroine of Unnatural Issue is a classic Cinderella case. Born to a pair of Earth mages, her mother died in childbirth and her father has withdrawn from the world. Essentially abandoned, she settles into the life of a servant. But she also has the family talent for Earth magic, and so — with a bit of training from Robin Goodfellow, the Puck — she takes responsibility for the local flora and fauna. Everything is trucking along just fine until her father looks out one unfortunate day and sees the baby he blames for his wife's death has grown to womanhood and looks just like his dearly departed.

He's not just a garden-variety creep, though. After two decades shut up in his moldering rooms, Richard Whitestone is pretty much the festering stump of a human being. In his craziness, he's turned to necromancy. Rather than, say, raise his daughter, he decides to steal his daughter's body to serve as a vessel for his wife's soul. Luckily for Susanne, whispers of dark magic in Yorkshire have reached the White Lodge in London, and Lord Peter Alderscroft has been dispatched to root out the troublemaker.

This premise of this book is deeply creepy: Necromancer wants to possess daughter's body for nefarious purposes. Comparisons to Robin McKinley's incredible Deekskin are inevitable. (If you've never read that one, here's an appreciation by Jo Walton that should make you add it to the TBR pile.) But, at the risk of spoilers, Lackey pulls her punches with the concept. The protagonist escapes unscathed, which keeps the book from becoming dark and depressing. That makes the premise seem kind of pointless. What should be a horrifying betrayal of parental responsibility doesn't have any real impact on the heroine, because they never had a father-daughter relationship in the first place. It merely just illustrates what a terrible person Richard Whitestone is, but ritually sacrificing a kitten would have convinced us just as thoroughly.

Instead, Lackey takes a much lighter, happier tack. Her charmingly wholesome protagonists, Peter and Susanne, join forces to battle the evil sorcerer. Peter, the younger son of a noble house and imminently capable water mage, is funny and goofy and generally adorable. He's sent North to investigate because he's talented at appearing silly and thereby gathering all sorts of information without attracting attention. Numerous absurd impressions follow. He also talks like this: "The worst thing that could happen would be that Mater immediately find my brother a suitable mate and fling him into a church and then into the poor gel's bed posthaste." Gadzooks! Tallyho!

Susanne, on the other hand, starts out a bit dopey. She's a good-natured earth mother, but not much of a deep thinker. For example: She develops a powerful crush on on Charles, Peter's buddy, ignoring the infinitely more suitable Peter and spending much of World War I blundering about the continent after a guy who'd never pair off with someone so unconventional. But her wartime experiences nursing men fresh from the front lines do make her more mature.

Historical fiction fans will get a kick out of the book's dovetailing with the First World War. The story opens with ominous rumblings from the continent. By the end, most of the characters have spent time at or near the trenches. The juxtaposition of modernism's bloody, horrific birth and nineteenth-century fairy-tale magic is an interesting choice. We also get lots of interesting details about early combat nursing. That said, the time-line is a bit jerky. Much of the first half of the novel is compressed into a brief period of time. Then Susanne is spirited out of the country, and the action slows to a glacial pace as the war creeps closer and finally engulfs the protagonists. The shift is bumpy.

Unnatural Issue isn't anything spectacular or ground-breaking. But it is a straightforward, simply fairy tale for adults. In other words, it's comfort reading for longtime Lackey fans and an enjoyable addition to the Elemental Masters series.