Author: Kate Elliott
Publication Date: September 2010
Paperback: 544 pages
From one of the genre’s finest writers comes a bold new epic fantasy in which science and magic are locked in a deadly struggle.
It is the dawn of a new age… The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy.
Cat and Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can’t be trusted, who can you trust?
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Spiritwalker Trilogy
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I have heard mixed things about Cold Magic – someone very close to me and very trusted told me that the writing just wasn’t doing it for her, but then other trusted bloggers named the book in their top 10 lists of 2010. When I received a giftcard for Christmas, I thought what the heck, let’s give Cold Magic a shot and see what all the fuss is about…
Catherine Hassi Barahal (or Cat to all that know her) has always taken pride in her family’s rich history. The Hassi Barahals are a storied Phoenician clan of merchants, spies and traders of information, tracing their roots back to even before the height of Rome’s ambitious empire. When she was six Cat’s father, the scholarly wanderer Daniel Hassi Barahal, and her mother, the Amazonian warrior Tara Bell, perished in a river crossing accident, leaving sole survivor Cat an orphan. Taken in by her Aunt, Uncle and her beloved cousin Beatrice, Cat has lived a happy, if quiet, life.
But onne day Cat’s world is shattered when a remorseless Cold Mage of the powerful Four Moons House comes to her Uncle’s home and demands the hand of the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter, as payment of a family debt incurred years earlier. Forced into a magically binding marriage – one that can be severed only by death – Cat is cruelly yanked from her home and whisked across the unforgiving, frozen countryside to Four Moons House, for reasons unknown to Cat. What she does know, however, is that her whole life and home was a lie, and she realizes that the only reason she had been taken in by her relatives was for this specific moment in the future; because Cat’s birthday rests a few months earlier than that of her beautiful and much loved cousin, Bee. And this is just the first of the many revelations that Cat makes on the road to her destiny – where she encounters death sentences, betrayals, magic, and closely guarded secrets at every turn.
Cold Magic is only the second novel I’ve read by Kate Elliott (despite her pretty impressive backlist), and, as I’ve said before, I was worried when I started the book due to conflicting reviews. Plus, as it’s marketed as a pseudo-steampunk fantasy novel, I was even more hesitant to dive in (since steampunk is becoming the new vampire – and by that I mean played the eff out). Thankfully, I did suck it up and make the purchase, because Cold Magic is one *really* darn good book.
Although set in the early Victorian era in an alternate world, Cold Magic is about as steampunk as that one episode of NCIS: Los Angeles (which is to say: NOT AT ALL). No, Cold Magic is proto-steampunk if it’s anything to do with the subgenre (yes, there’s ONE airship but, as Ana and I always say, a single dirigible does NOT a steampunk novel make), and it’s actually much more of a traditional fantasy novel – magic, carriages, taverns with lots of mead and cheese and tough bread, etc. Where Cold Magic excels is with the book’s worldbuilding – I loved the alternate/revisionist history with its strong Roman, Celtic and African tones, the different creatures (like trolls and enu) and hierarchy of magic (from wise djelis to the ruthless Cold Mages). Cat’s world is a beautifully textured and incredibly well-conceived place – clearly, I need to read more of Ms. Elliott’s work, because I am a sucker for intricate histories and worldbuilding.
In addition to the solid foundation of the book, Cold Magic has adventure and revelations in spades, as well as a dash of romance. Although the book isn’t perfect and the first third is deceptively mundane and hard to get into (I found my interest wandering as the story seemed as though it would head in a very pedestrian direction, i.e. Cat falling in love with her bridegroom despite his purported cruelty and they both struggle against the constraints of the Cold Mage House and live happily ever after), there is a big WTFPOLARBEAR moment that totally changes the direction of the book and makes it AWESOME.[1. see LOST] Add to this wonderfully executed twist some solid (if slightly unoriginal) characterizations, and you’ve got the makings of an excellent book.
As a heroine, Cat is resourceful, brave and stubborn, and although some of the romantic trappings are trite (Cat’s complete ignorance of her effect on certain male characters, for example), her narration lends a strong, believable voice to the novel. Cat is put to the test harshly in this book as everything she has known about her past is challenged, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with her and root for her all the way. Of course, the other half of the equation is Andevai, Cat’s imperious, cruel, powerful Cold Mage of a husband – who could have easily become a usual romantic lead type of stereotype, but turns out to be surprisingly complex, with layers of conflict and nuance with his family, the mages that have taken him in, and his own power. And while, yes, the romance is utterly predictable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to read. Almost all of the characters in Cold Magic are similarly well-written and layered – in fact the only character I wasn’t crazy about was Cat’s sister-cousin Beatrice (who only irritated me because of her character as the beautiful powerful one that everyone desires, and her tendency to say annoying things to Cat about Cat’s choices – which is to say, her character is written brilliantly, and my distaste is not because of a failing of the author’s but a justifiable bias!). I also loved Rory, but I’ll refrain from digging into his character, as that way lies spoilers.
Now, while I did love Cold Magic, there were a number of things I wasn’t crazy about. As I mentioned earlier, the book’s first act plods along at a slow pace and feels extremely pedestrian (I’m sure this is where the book loses most readers, who probably wonder what the hubub is all about). Also, there is an abundance of awkwardly repetitive phrasing (e.g. Cat’s fixation with Andevai’s distinguished jawline), and before the big WTF POLAR BEAR moment (which totally revitalizes and changes the direction of the book), I was losing interest with all the taverns and the eating of food, since Cat is both freezing and constantly ravenous for the first half of the book and eats a lot of tough bread and sharp cheese and cold chicken and… you get the picture. Also, there’s a disproportionate amount of time spent on descriptions of Andevai’s wardrobe, which struck me as kind of silly.
But, these are for the most part overlookable flaws in what is a solid start to a new trilogy. I really, really liked this book. Heck, I loved it. Maybe I’m not *quite* head over heels in love…yet. But I’ll DEFINITELY be back for more (and had I read this in 2010, it would have made my honorable mentions list because it is so wonderfully detailed and I heart Cat). Absolutely recommended for fans of fantasy in the style of N.K. Jemisin, Sharon Shinn and Sherwood Smith.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice. Or at least, that’s how the dawn chill felt in the bedchamber as I shrugged out from beneath the cozy feather comforter under which my cousin and I slept. I winced as I set my feet on the brutally cold wood floor. Any warmth from last evening’s fire was long gone. At this early hour, Cook would just be getting the kitchen’s stove going again, two floors below. But last night I had slipped a book out of my uncle’s parlor and brought it to read in my bedchamber by candlelight, even though we were expressly forbidden from doing so. He had even made us sign a little contract stating that we had permission to read my father’s journals and the other books in the parlor as long as we stayed in the parlor and did not waste expensive candlelight to do so. I had to put the book back before he noticed it was gone, or the cold would be the least of my troubles.
After all the years sharing a bed with my cousin Beatrice, I knew Bee was such a heavy sleeper that I could have jumped up and down on the bed without waking her. I had tried it more than once. So I left her behind and picked out suitable clothing from the wardrobe: fresh drawers, two layers of stockings, and a knee-length chemise over which I bound a fitted wool bodice. I fumblingly laced on two petticoats and a cutaway overskirt, blowing on my fingers to warm them, and over it buttoned a tight-fitting, hip-length jacket cut in last year’s fashionable style.
With my walking boots and the purloined book in hand, I cracked the door and ventured out onto the second-floor landing to listen. No noise came from my aunt and uncle’s chamber, and the little girls, in the nursery on the third floor above, were almost certainly still asleep. But the governess who slept upstairs with them would be rousing soon, and my uncle and his factotum were usually up before dawn. They were the ones I absolutely had to avoid.
I crept down to the first-floor landing and paused there, peering over the railing to survey the empty foyer on the ground floor below. Next to me, a rack of swords, the badge of the Hassi Barahal family tradition, lined the wall. Alongside the rack stood our house mirror, in whose reflection I could see both myself and the threads of magic knit through the house. Uncle and Aunt were important people in their own way. As local representatives of the far-flung Hassi Barahal clan, they discreetly bought and sold information, and in return might receive such luxuries as a cawl—a protective spell bound over the house by a drua—or door and window locks sealed by a blacksmith to keep out unwanted visitors.
I closed my eyes and listened down those threads of magic to trace the stirring of activity in the house: our man-of-all-work, Pompey, priming the pump in the garden; Cook and Aunt Tilly in the kitchen cracking eggs and wielding spoons as they began the day’s baking. A whiff of smoke tickled my nose. The tread of feet marked the approach of the maidservant, Callie, from the back. By the front door, she began sweeping the foyer. I stood perfectly still, as if I were part of the railing, and she did not look up as she swept back the way she had come until she was out of my sight.
Abruptly, my uncle coughed behind me.
You can read the full excerpt HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Kate Elliott, a LiveJournal-er, has announced that she’s working on book 2 of the trilogy and it has been titled Cold Steel. I cannot wait!
Rating: 8 – Excellent (I waffled between a 7 and an 8, but loved the ending so much I had to give it an 8 )
Reading Next: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal