Orbit, 2011 (first pub. 2010)
Cold Magic is the first book in Kate Elliott’s latest fantasy series, the Spiritwalker trilogy. In a tale of intrigue, magic, and personal revelation, Cold Magic introduces readers to an alternate version of Europe (or Europa, as the novel has it [NB. map linked from Kate Elliott's website]). The year is 1837. Ice caps creep across the land, the remnants of the Roman empire still persist in Italy. The rest of Europa is governed by feuding princes, and powerful but hated mage Houses also keep watch over the populace, using their feared cold magic to keep their dependents in check. Caught between the princes and the cold mages, the people are restless. Amongst all this, protagonist Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan, living with her relatives in Adurnam, a city in the south of Brigantia (Britain). There, she spends her time reading her dead father’s journals, taking lessons at the city academy, and giggling with her beloved cousin Bee. All is peaceful… That is, until a cold mage turns up at the Barahals’ door and demands Cat’s hand in marriage. Suddenly, Cat is caught up in a whirlwind of events: given up by her family, whisked away from her home, and forced to endure the company of the arrogant and icy cold mage, Andevai. But it is only then that she begins to learn the truth about her family, to uncover the histories that will affect her future, and to discover the extent of her own strange powers.
My reaction to this novel was mixed. For a start, I found the beginning quite slow, as it takes a good few chapters for the main narrative to really kick in. Once the action had really begun, however, I warmed to it (haha), enjoying the squabbling and tension between Cat and Andevai, and finding myself genuinely caught by surprise at the twists and disclosures that Elliott weaves into the tale. And yet, I found that I was never fully swept away by the story. This is, I think, because I found the prose style rather distracting. Elliott deliberately opts for a relatively florid style, tailoring her writing to match the novel’s pseudo-Victorian setting. Whilst I respect this decision, I personally found Elliott’s writing a little chaotic. There was – to my mind – some decidedly awkward syntax and more than a few unnecessary adverbs (‘I fumblingly laced on two petticoats’, for example), which made some of the scenes stilted and more confusing than they needed to be. The dialogue, too, was correspondingly more formal and verbose. Sometimes this worked extremely well, but at others it came across a bit clunky and unrealistic. And I don’t think this is merely a question of it being a departure from the ‘transparent’ prose style that is today’s norm – I’ve read a lot of Victorian (and older) fiction, after all. Nevertheless, although I found Elliott’s prose overwrought at times, it certainly wasn’t enough of a distraction to make me stop reading.
The plot of Cold Magic is satisfying, if not overly complex; for me, the real tension was generated more by the unravelling of past secrets than the actual thrust of the main narrative. This isn’t to say that the narrative itself is dull (though I did feel that it was a bit long-winded, and could have been shorter and sharper): Elliot delivers some great moments and surprises, and I particularly enjoyed Cat’s forays into the spirit world. Andevai was also interesting, with his uptight, aloof manner, and I liked the theatrical and impulsive Bee. I can’t say I was overly fond of Cat, but I think this comes down to personal preference, for her feistiness, determination, and loyalty all serve to make her a fine, sympathetic protagonist. What’s more, the novel certainly ends on a dramatic note, and I’m sure that Elliott has a good many more surprises in store in Cold Fire, the trilogy’s second instalment.
The great strength of Elliott’s novel is, in my opinion, its setting. Populated by haughty mages, curious trolls, distant princes, Roman soldiers, unpredictable radicals, Celtic and Afric peoples, spirit creatures, goblins, and more besides, Elliott’s world is crammed full of wonders, variety, and detail. Built upon a wealth of historical and cultural background, the Europa of Elliott’s imagination gains an impressive depth and richness rare even for fantasy such as this – even if sometimes the information is delivered in a rather clumsy fashion. That is to say, Elliott often has the characters explain things to each other in slightly *too much* depth, and, informative as these sections are for the reader, they’re unconvincing in terms of dialogue and character. I sympathise with Elliott about this, though: to communicate such a detailed world through a first-person narrative is a tricky task, and the pitfalls of over-explanation are difficult to avoid.
Stylistic reservations aside, I found Cold Magic very inventive, with a fantastic setting and a very distinct atmosphere. In fact, I’m having difficulty thinking of anything to compare it to. It has airships – but it’s not what I’d call steampunk. It has characters with important magical powers and a background of war and conflict – but, with its first-person viewpoint and character-orientated narrative, it’s not what I’d call epic fantasy. So if you want to try something a little different, something vivid and well-imagined, something with plenty of magic and splashings of romance, something emotional and character-driven, and, what’s more, something with a great variety of female and PoC characters, then take a chance on Cold Magic. I’d be interested to hear what you think.