Giant Catfish, Magic Crystals: Geomancy in Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth


Cover detail from Breath of Earth.

If you spy restless catfish, brace yourself. Something terrible is about to happen.

In Japan, it is said that the large island of Honshu rests on the back of a giant namazu — a catfish. The god Kashima pins the fish in place so that it doesn’t thrash and cause earthquakes. If Kashima is absent, well… that gigantic catfish is going to squirm and the repercussions will be disastrous. Regular catfish are thought to act agitated before a quake, as if prescient of movement from their massive relative.

I incorporate tales like this from around the world in my new alt history novel Breath of Earth. I started writing it with the idea of a steampunk take on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. As my book begins, America and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and in the process of dominating mainland Asia. American society has incorporated many Japanese elements from fashion to religion to food — and also the practice of geomancy.

This is a society where magic and magical creatures are common curiosities. Unicorns are pets for the wealthy; selkies frolic in the bay. Sprites flitter about gardens.

Unusual creatures like the giant namazu are considered Hidden Ones, almost deific beings that are rare or perhaps even extinct. Some geomancers regard them as the stuff of legend, unworthy of attention in the modern era. Others wonder if Hidden Ones really do cause earthquakes — and what might provoke them to wake up or emerge from centuries of dormancy.

I have been asking similar why-and-how questions about earthquakes for most of my life. I’m a native Californian. I was only three when a major earthquake devastated the nearby town of Coalinga, but I remember the eerie sight of buildings with walls sloughed away to reveal their interiors as if they were dollhouses. I practiced earthquakes drills at school and at home, and when my family drove to the coast, we crossed the visible ridge of the San Andreas fault.

I understood the science behind earthquakes, but even so, there always seemed to be something magical about their spontaneous, destructive might. The occasional media headlines hypothesizing the time and place of the next ‘Big One’ acted as a reminder that modern science could only do so much to predict the event and what it will do. I wondered about other things that might cause earthquakes–and how such disasters could be prevented altogether.

Therefore, as I developed Breath of Earth, I established geomancers as rare individuals who can pull the energy released by earthquakes, acting as an absorptive buffer to stop the shaking before it can damage buildings or injure people. However, this comes at a cost. Human bodies take in earth magic as heat. In a major earthquake, this fever can overwhelm them in minutes. Geomancers stay alive by breaking contact with the ground or by immediately transferring the energy to a crystal called kermanite. Charged kermanite is used to power everything from cars to airships.

Within Breath of Earth, kermanite figures into the very alliance between America and Japan; America is one of the few places in the world where kermanite can be mined, and Japan offers the advanced technology to tap its full magical potential. This makes the Unified Pacific one of the great military powers of the world — and all that arises from geomancers and their natural harvest from the earth.

San Francisco, with its famous fault lines, makes for a perfect location for a western American headquarters for geomancers, complete with a boarding school for youngsters in training. Their presence keeps the city safe… to a point. Breath of Earth is based on the 1906 Earthquake, after all, and there is no hiding the fact that such an event happens, though the how and why behind the disaster are different in my timeline than in reality.

The book follows Ingrid Carmichael, a secretary for the San Francisco geomancers who is hiding her own magical power. Women aren’t supposed to inherit geomancy, and her capacity to hold and wield energy is unlike that of anyone else. When a tragedy befalls the other geomancers, Ingrid alone struggles to cope with the city’s increasing vulnerability.

Tension thickens as the days tick by, leading up to the moment the actual earthquake occurred at dawn on April 18th. Many readers have an idea of the scope of the disaster to come, and Ingrid realizes something dreadful is about to happen, too. How? Well, she finds a pond full of restless — and dying — catfish