Fantastic History #50: Writing Truth into Fantasy Fiction in the Blood of Earth Trilogy by Beth Cato

I was probably about ten years old when I asked my mom, “Why does Hanford (our hometown) have a China Alley and none of the surrounding towns do?” At that point, I understood that many towns throughout Central California were founded because of the railroad and that Chinese immigrants supplied the labor for that construction. Hanford was–and still is–very proud of its China Alley with its Taoist Temple Museum and annual Moon Festival. But where were those things in Selma? Fresno? Tulare?

“Those cities have changed a lot in the past century,” my mom said. “Hanford just happened to keep their alley.”

Over twenty years later, I found out the truth. Selma, Fresno, Tulare–they all had Chinatowns, sure. Chinese fruit packers were expelled from Selma by a posse of forty men, and when the Chinese came back that night, they were dragged from their homes, and as the police watched, forced to leave. Everything left behind was looted. In Fresno, laundrymen and shopkeepers were given five days warning to leave the city, or else. In Tulare, where 20% of the town was Chinese, fires burned through the Chinese quarter, and then white citizens evicted those that remained and intentionally burned down the rest of the district. In the 1890s, Chinese immigrants across the valley fled in terror as rumors spread of an actual anti-Chinese army that would make the Celestials ‘git.’

My Blood of Earth trilogy, which begins with Breath of Earth, takes an alternate history spin on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by adding in geomancy and incredible creatures. Though the fantastical element is strong, to me, it was very important to get my facts right. In changing history, I wanted to make conscious changes rather than ignorant ones. That was especially important when it came to representing the Chinese experience. It’d already been dismissed from the mainstream historical narrative. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.

As much as I love research, though, when it came to this particular topic, sometimes the reading was outright depressing. Assault, murder, injustice; some people denied that the Chinese were human beings at all.

As I dug deeper, as I uncovered the connections to my own hometown, my research became personal. My mood switched from dismayed to furious. I found mention that my town paper (still in existence today) included an 1893 editorial that admonished young women of Kings County to learn the ways of the kitchen so that they didn’t need to hire a Chinese cook.

I hadn’t been taught about any of this in school. Neither had my mom. Even worse, my grandma didn’t know, and she grew up in the 1930s on a ranch three miles away from Hanford right outside the still quite-small town of Armona; the only remnant of its Chinese district is Shanghai Street, which borders the cemetery.

We hadn’t even been lied to across the generations. The historical facts had been utterly erased. The vineyard laborers driven out by an armed posse, forgotten. Firebombed buildings, built over.

Turns out, outrage over historical injustices makes for good writing fuel.

In my books’ world, the United States and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and in the process of taking over mainland Asia. The Chinese are treated even worse there than in our actual history, but I base everything on fact.

I’ve heard from many readers that they thought I had made up everything. I talk about things like the Dog Tag Law, how the Chinese were forced to carry photo IDs (a first in the world) or risk deportation. That and so many other details are real, and I make sure readers know that, too. At the end of each book in my trilogy, I include an Author’s Note where I break down the major changes from history and include a complete bibliography. My sources are also listed on my website.

Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky might be shelved with the Fantasy & Science Fiction and include a whole lot of magic, but writing about history also includes a responsibility to shine a light on the darkness of the past. My books make for entertaining reads, sure, but I hope they are also enlightening ones… and that at the end, readers look at my source materials and dig a little deeper on their own, just as I did. Maybe they’ll find out some things that hit close to home, too.


Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and three feline overlords.

She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Her alt-history Blood of Earth trilogy includes Breath of Earth, Call of Fire, and Roar of Sky.

Follow her at her website and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Fantastic History #16: Creating Geomancy from the Ground Up–Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy by Beth Cato

My Blood of Earth trilogy started with a single vague idea: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, steampunk style. The only other certainty in my head was that it needed to also involve magic, but I needed to make the magic distinct from the healing powers in my novel The Clockwork Dagger, which was just starting to get offers from publishers at the time. My new project was intended to keep me occupied and somewhat more sane during the forthcoming months of existence under an agent-imposed gag order during contract negotiations. I couldn’t talk about The Clockwork Dagger in public until everything was official, but I could discuss my new book in the works. That project was soon titled Breath of Earth.

As I sat down to develop the concept, my first priority was figuring out how magic fit into this alternate history. Once I knew that, I needed to determine how that impacted my heroine. I began to ask an endless sequence of “What if” questions. What if she caused the earthquake somehow? What if something else did? What if the earthquake itself embodied magic?

I suddenly knew the kind of magic I was working with: geomancy. Not only was it a starkly different magic than in The Clockwork Dagger, but it was also a type that I hadn’t seen used much in fantasy fiction.

With geomancy in mind, I then had to look at the world I was building. If this was known magic–not a secret history kind of situation–how had it changed the world? Slowly, gradually, the pieces came together in my notes. Geomancy had a long history. The Romans used it–and even created airships! That painted a ridiculously cool picture in my mind. But with the fall of Rome, the technology was lost. But why? How?

I considered how materials might be necessary to practice geomancy, and that the loss of that resource could have contributed to the Dark Ages. I thought of the Final Fantasy role-playing game series, where I first fell in love with airships as a kid, and how crystals have important roles in various games.

I pieced elements together to form my own magic system within the context of my alt history. Geomancers were sensitive to earthquakes and other outflows of earth energy. They stored that energy as a fever. In an especially bad earthquake, the flow could kill them almost instantly. However, they could save themselves by breaking contact with the ground, or by having special crystals on hand, which I dubbed kermanite. Rome exhausted their original kermanite mines and soon thereafter collapsed as a civilization. In the 19th century, rapid technological developments occurred in America after kermanite was discovered in the California desert. Kermanite charged with earth energy can be used as a battery for everyday objects as well as new advances like airships, autocars, or tanks. That integrated the steampunk genre into the plot, right along with the magic.

That plot included a version of history where the American Civil War ended early due to an alliance between the Union and Japan. By 1906, that cooperation had been formalized as the Unified Pacific, a global superpower currently trying to complete its dominance of mainland China. This had major ripple effects on San Francisco with its high population of Chinese refugees.

Oh yes, and then there was my heroine, Ingrid Carmichael. Not only was she a woman of great geomantic skill–something thought to only be the domain of men–she was also a woman of color. Her understanding of geomancy has evolved with each book. In Breath of Earth, she endures the San Francisco Earthquake–which happens for more complicated reasons than mere plate tectonic action. The second book, Call of Fire, takes her to another geologically volatile region, the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, as a writer, I have to escalate the stakes, which is why the finale in the series, Roar of Sky, ventures to the Big Island of Hawaii to the Kilauea volcano. That book was just released on October 23rd.

Countless “What if?” questions guided me from my initial concept and through about 300,000 words of text. The complex alt history felt as if it broke my brain more than once, but the end result is a complete trilogy that melds geomancy and history in some fun, fantastical new ways.


Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and three feline overlords.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Her new alt-history steampunk series began with BREATH OF EARTH and continues with CALL OF FIRE and ROAR OF SKY (out October 23rd, 2018).

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.