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Friday, September 3, 2010

"Cold Magic" by Kate Elliott (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Kate Elliott Website
Order "Cold Magic" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Traitor's Gate" with Bonus Q/A
Read FBC Review of "Shadow Gate"
Read FBC Interview with Kate Elliott

INTRODUCTION: Kate Elliott has become well known for two fantasy series, the seven volume Crown of Stars and the Crossroads trilogy, whose last two books have been reviewed here. However to long-term *sf* fans like myself, she is the author of the magnificent Jaran series of the mid-90's still unfinished at four volumes, but still worth a read for its narrative energy and great memorable characters in a "Jane Austen meets Genghis Khan on the set of 'Lawrence of Arabia'" one-liner description.

While I loved the Jaran series and I would be happy to read another installment, I never cared about the two fantasy series above since both are way too traditional - kings, princes, long ago evil, immortal guardians and the like - for my taste, whether they take a place in a pseudo-feudal Western or Far Eastern setting.

So despite an early mention and comparisons to big time favorite series of mine (Mark Newton and Stephen Hunt's respectively) in our Q/A with the author that Mihir did and I edited and posted, Cold Magic flew under my radar until I got an arc from Orbit with an intriguing cover and an editorial letter comparing it with Jaran. My interest piqued, I started the book on the spot and from then on I just could not stop reading it, while the sequel has become one of my top awaited novels of 2010, so much I want to see what's next...

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: Cold Magic stands at about 500 pages divided into 34 chapters, while the narration is first person from the main heroine Catherine (Cat) Hassi Barahal. The novel starts with a map of the ice dominated alt-Europe of the 1800's that it takes place in and ends with some extras including a great author interview.

The debut of the Spiritwalker trilogy which reads as "ice-punk with magic" - combining an early industrial setting, magic, supernatural creatures/realms and of course ice - Cold Magic has a superb ending and offers enough "goodies" for a very satisfying reading experience on its own.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Cold Magic is set in an ice-age like alt-Earth around the 1800's but with a quite different history, magic houses, but also budding science that the "cold mages" dislike and want suppressed, but the local princes try to protect.

The narrator is Cat (Catherine) of Carthaginian descent; in this universe 2000 years ago Carthage was ruled by queens called dido's for the famous mythical founder and Hannibal actually defeated the Romans at Zama, so the two powers fought themselves to a standstill.

While the Roman Empire eventually extended over most Europe, North Africa and Spain remained under
Carthaginian influence and after the Empire's breakup some 1000 years ago, there has been a patchwork of mini-states all over Europe, which now stops at the Baltic ice-sea.

In the meantime, the powerful houses of the cold mages - descendants of West African immigrants who had a mass exodus some centuries ago to N. Africa and Europe after a "ghoul plague" and then they intermingled with the local Celtic druids - have risen to power and act as small but powerful principalities along the "secular" princes domains.

Due to the ice-age, Britain is connected with the continent while North America is populated by hardy trolls who are famous explorers and hold on to a "small clan/kinship" society so they are the natural allies of the humans opposed to the powers of the mages or of the princes.

Cat is almost 20 - age of majority - and studies at a college in a Celtic city in Britain at the edge of the sea, city that is a famous trading one and a mixture of all races and nationalities -for example the headmaster is an Egyptian since they are perceived as "neutral"; Cat lives with her uncle, aunt and cousins of which Beatrice, younger by two months, is like her twin sister, while her uncle is the head of the local family clan which like many other Carthaginian old trading houses is now somewhat impoverished and acts as spies/mercenaries/enforcers for the powerful and the moneyed.

Cat's father, Daniel Hassi Barahal was a famous traveler for the clan who wrote some 50 travel journals. Her mother Tara Bell was a mysterious figure - seemingly an "Amazon" warrior of Belgae origin in the army of Camjiata, a Napoleon like conqueror of Iberian descent who was finally defeated 13 years ago by the mages and has been imprisoned on an island since.

Since the local British princes have been the general's fiercest enemies and since Cat's mother deserted to have a family, Tara and Daniel ultimately had to leave Daniel's family home and they drowned at a river crossing, with the six year old Cat the only survivor returned by the authorities to her family.

Close to Cat's majority, the cold mages come to enforce a "bargain" made with Cat's house many years ago and she will find herself thrown in the unknown, while in a seemingly unrelated event,
the second human-troll airship from the Caribbean free island of Expedition has just arrived in the British city where the action starts.

First and foremost Cold Magic is an exuberant narrative with great energy and inventive world building. These are elements you can see from the first several pages and which attracted me to the book. Of course as with all first person narrations, the enjoyment of the novel is going to strongly correlate with how you connect with Cat's voice and that is such a subjective thing that I will leave it as "I utterly loved it".

On the other hand the world building which in addition to the elements above, offers a supernatural realm and its creatures, prophecies and foretelling and the potential for great expansion can be judged a bit (only) more objectively. I found the alt-history that starts unfolding here - and again it is just a start, not 500 pages of world building only - among the most interesting in current fantasy, so much so that I included it in my "sff universes" post despite my usual role of "at least two books out". At the boundary between the traditional and the "icepunk", the Earth of the Spiritwalker series is very fascinating and a place I want to explore as much as possible in further installments.

When you advance in the novel you will find out new elements to appreciate: lots of twists and turns - some that you can dimly see at some point, but you may still think a bit far fetched until they actually happen, and of course the punch ending that made the sequel one of my two top anticipated fantasies of 2011.

I also found some paragraphs of the novel so powerful and emotional that even on their fourth recent reading, they still moved me a lot and I definitely see Cold Magic and its sequels as books I will treasure and reread for a long time. And there is a lot action too, ranging from daring escapes, to encounters with magical creatures, duels and even small battles with and without magic.

While 2010 had some big positive surprises for me, especially in fantasy, most were books I expected to at least try and they appeared in my 2010 Anticipated Post, but Cold Magic (A++) is the exception: an awesome book that blew me away but which I had very little previous inclination to read until I opened it.


Bastard said...

Really looking forward to this one, waiting for my book to ship even though it was released 2 days ago.

Liviu said...

Amazon has it as available and it is in pretty much all B&N around here - I have some six within 20 miles leaving aside the NYC ones, and all list it as 60 minutes pick up...

Bastard said...

I ordered mine around early March from BD... it happens from time to time, they usually send me pre-releases fairly early.

I don't think I'll get to it at the moment anyways, maybe early next month so it's no big deal.

But of the books I'm waiting for, this is pretty much at the top of my list.

Anonymous said...

I've had kind of bad luck with Elliott. I really enjoyed the first book in her Crown of Stars series but the second book crashed and burned (in my opinion). I have her Traitors Gate book which I still need to read. This book, however, has had a bunch of good reviews so I'm rather excited to get my hands on it....

Booksnhorses said...

Loved the setting and the characters but not quite as much as Crossroads or Crown of Stars; an A rather than A* for me. Still really looking forward to the next book in this series and it is a brilliant book.

Liviu said...

Sarah: You went further than me in Crown of Stars :)
This is very different, closer to Jaran in feel; it has magic/supernatural galore, so I cannot call it sfnal but it has that feeling to some extent

Booksnhorses: I am happy you liked it well enough to continue.


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