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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Cold Magic – Kate Elliott (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: A melting pot of Epic, Steampunk and Alternate History!
Completed: 23 October 2010

I met Kate Elliott at a signing in late August and had the opportunity to chat with her for quite some time. Naturally we talked about her work, but meandered around other topics. I mentioned that I am a history teacher. Kate responded by opening to the map page in my new copy of Cold Magic, saying, “Since you like history, I think you’ll like this...” I looked. I was intrigued.

Furthermore, after seeing Kate and Karen Miller at Aussiecon 4 (context here) I decided that Cold Magic would be the story to launch me into reading more of the excellent female writers in the field. I was investing a lot in this book. I wanted to like it. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that expectation hung over Cold Magic like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Not at all.

Fifty pages in, I was concerned. This was the point at which I had to pause. It wasn’t the story that troubled me – Elliott’s narrative had been unfolding smoothly and enjoyably – but I was worried that I wouldn’t end up liking the protagonist. I previously read Garth Nix’s (otherwise wonderful) Sabriel and struggled to connect with a character at a similar stage in life. I thought perhaps a 28 year old male just isn’t meant to connect with a young, female voice. This issue was exacerbated by the first person narrative. A reader must invest in the narrator. I just didn’t see myself doing so with Catherine Hassi Barahal.

Fortunately I was wrong. Elliott’s delightful tale breached my cynicism and effortlessly won me over.

As in many Fantasy tales, our heroine begins aware of the forces that exist in her world but in no way enmeshed in them. A few chapters into Cold Magic (after the school girl stuff that had me concerned) the scale and sense of urgency ramps up drastically within the span of about ten pages. And it makes sense! Cat didn’t fall through a mirror or a wardrobe. Her transition from student to tremendously endangered heroine happens rapidly and unpredictably, but believably. I was hooked. I read more than half the book in one sitting.

As the result of a family obligation, Cat is married to a young noble - an enigmatic cold mage. The further complication that blasts Cat’s into larger scale events really caught me off guard. In fact I regularly had my expectations overturned. Elliott effortlessly sets up intertwining mysteries that feel honest to the characters, never superfluous, and are genuinely engaging. There is uncertainty over the actions and motives of Cat’s deceased father, Daniel Hassi Barahal. She is also confused about her unusual link with the spirit world that bears implications about her heritage. Cat is a vulnerable and conflicted heroine who is able to find the strength to endure her circumstances. She is not the typical strong female with token weaknesses. The distinction is vital because Cold Magic is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story. Other characters display similarly genuine motivations, and relationships endure realistic complications. There is no convenient resolution of fractured relationships to be found here. Impressively, Elliott has ensured that Cat’s understanding of her identity seems utterly tied to the epic, world-shaping events that have caught her up.

Elliott makes subtle use of other tropes of Fantasy to create red herrings which probably exist as much in the mind of the experienced reader as on the page. The layering of the narrative is so clever that although the story doesn’t fit with the ‘mature’ stories that I have enjoyed lately, the quality of the story telling sucked me in. I would recommend Cold Magic to my school library and to my 30 year old male friends with equal confidence.

The real pleasure for me, however, is in the world building. So much is effortlessly achieved in what is quite a short novel for the genre. In Elliott’s fantastical alternate history, the divergence begins when Rome failed to defeat the Carthaginians at Zama. As a mature writer Elliott ensures that this event has genuine geo-political ramifications. The world doesn’t continue on otherwise untouched, and events that bear similarities with real world history similarly play out differently. The Roman Empire lasted hundreds of years longer and still has influence of a sort in Cold Magic’s 19th Century setting. There was no real Dark Age, presumably due to ongoing empire and the existence of magic. The eponymous ‘cold magic’ derives from a mysterious combination of Celtic druidism and African shamanism, brought to Europa with the refugees from a ‘ghoul plague’ in North Africa. By the time of Cold Magic’s story, Europa is itself recovering from the attempted revolution of the general Camjiata.

One of the major themes of Cold Magic is the clash of industry and magic. Technological advancement, theoretically irrelevant in a world with magic, exists because the cold mages aren’t particularly forthcoming with their gift. The Mage Houses lord it over the people. For reasons partly explained in Cold Magic the cold mages actively seek to cripple and hold back the Industrial Revolution. Elliott brilliantly sets these forces up as diametric opposites - cold mages literally extinguish fires, including those of industrial furnaces, by their mere presence.

Objectively, Cold Magic is a book produced by an experienced and professional author. I can’t fault the writing structure or style. The impression I get, though I’m sure Elliott would disagree, is one of effortlessness (I’m fairly certain that I overused the word effortless in this review). Moreover, it’s a fun and engaging tale from a great storyteller.

Cold Magic is the first book in the Spiritwalker Trilogy. While some plot threads are tied off I can’t see a reader being satisfied to read Cold Magic as a standalone novel. There is a lot of story still to be told. For a reader like me, however, that’s fantastic. 4.5 stars.

Side note: I recommend reading this snuggled up on a cold night. It will be much easier to immerse yourself in the quasi-Ice Age world than it was for me, lying in the Australian sun.

Read it – because Kate Elliott is a high caliber Fantasy writer at the top of her game.
Don’t read it – if you demand a big serving of grit with your Fantasy.

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