The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.
For although princes rule the ice-locked lands of Europa, it is cold mages who control the magic that keeps those princes in power.
It is the dawn of a new age, a time of upheaval and great change. The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are rising, an airship has crossed the ocean from the new world of Amerike, and new technologies brought in from foreign lands are transforming the cities.
There’s just one problem: the cold mages don’t want things to change.
As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood and old feuds, Cat is betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage. As she is carried away to live a new life, fresh dangers threaten her every move and secrets form a language she cannot read. At least, not yet.
You can read an excerpt here.
Kate Elliott has said that Cold Magic is an: “Afro-Celtic post-Roman Icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons,” (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur). To which I said: yes, please.
And so I found a novel that was an interesting blend of alternate ancient history and the beginning of an industrial age, a book with wonderful layers of culture and politics – and yet I couldn’t help feeling the world overpowered the story. The plot left me underwhelmed.
Elliott is obviously very talented at world building, and Cold Magic starts off eagerly detailing the many facets of its world: the politics, the history, the social order, the character backstories… Unfortunately this went on to the extent that it took a good hundred pages before the plot kicked into gear. The opening info download is often a hurdle for epic fantasy, but when it’s done right you hardly notice – here I definitely noticed. And while there were lovely character moments to be found in those first hundred pages – Elliott deftly captures the exasperation and martyrdom of teenage girls and has fun with Cat and Bee’s bickering – I couldn’t help but feel the story was treading water instead of moving forward.
The story really gets started once Cat is forced into matrimony and dragged away from everything she’s ever known, and that scene does a wonderful job of crystallizing Cat’s character and making her shine. Cat’s determination to protect her cousin, her panic and pride, and her eventual explosion of sharp words aimed at her newly wedded Magister made me completely love her.
Yet that burst of plot momentum quickly begins to fade. Cat and her Magister travel to his mage house, encountering lawyer trolls and angry mobs along the way, but there still isn’t a sense of impetus, of building towards something – honestly the story is pretty flat. There’s a convenient force to chase them along the road, and then when Cat escapes and makes her way back to the city she came from, there is another force to chase her on the way back. Plus she’s constantly escaping from buildings in a fairly repetitive manner. So even with our heroine on the road, this plot doesn’t seem to cover much ground.
That’s not to say that there is nothing of interest in these sequences, because there’s plenty – Cat encounters all sorts of strange customs and magic and peoples, she finds her life in danger, and accidentally makes her way into the spirit world; she learns about her heritage, and grows to understand her arrogant husband to the point that an attraction starts to build. All that was well and good – but it couldn’t hide the fact that there just wasn’t an arc to this story.
There were also plenty of ridiculously convenient moments – Cat just happening to find her husband’s family when she’s on the run; the relative who just happens to appear at an opportune time; the various prophetic dreams that drop people into the places they need to be at just the right times; the interesting people Cat just happens to meet on the road; not to mention the way Cat and Bee finally meet up with the revolutionary movement is almost laughably contrived.
So while Elliott’s world is a fascinating blend of the familiar into something new – and I would by and large call this an epic fantasy, the steampunk elements are mostly just trappings – the rich detail can’t quite make up for the lack of story. Still, there was enough here of interest that I will be picking up the second book in this trilogy, but whenever I do get around to it, I’ll be heading for the library and not the bookstore.
Byrt Grade: World Building: A / Narrative: B
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
In short, there’s much to admire and enjoy in the complexity of Elliot’s alternate Europe and the political, magical, and social maelstrom that is brewing there. There were even moments that flickered at the edges of the numinous. I wouldn’t have bothered writing a review of this if I hadn’t really almost liked it lots. But it just didn’t quite come together for me.
This isn’t a book you read to be wowed by its epic or dark qualities. Cold Magic is a book about personal struggle, growth and identity. The writing can be needlessly heavy at times, but the world is very interesting, kind of an ice-age steampunk with some relatable history thrown in. If points of the plot were predictable, the overall story is somewhat heart warming and potentially thought provoking. Cold Magic is a somewhat light, entertaining read which will suit both young adults and adults alike. It’s a strong first entry to a new trilogy.
I haven’t been this excited about a traditional fantasy novel since Kushiel’s Dart. And while this is a very different book from that one, it does something similar by taking familiar concepts and putting a new spin on them. Here, it is the impoverished upper class family, the orphan raised to be a companion and replacement for the true daughter, and the forced marriage. I think anyone who’s read a few Regency novels will recognize these elements.