Cold Magic

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Series: Spiritwalker #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: September 2010
ISBN: 0-316-08085-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 502

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Cat Barahal is a scholarship college attendee, a lucky and fairly precarious position given that the college is mostly for the nobility and only reluctantly admits women. She and her cousin Bee are inseparable, both keeping the other's secrets. For Bee, that's her occasionally prophetic dreams; for Cat, that's her ability to hear things that should be inaudible and wrap her surroundings around her to disappear. Before her parents died, her mother told Cat to never let anyone know what she could do. Bee is the only exception she's ever made.

Although her adoptive family's finances are tenuous, Cat's life isn't bad. She is fascinated by her father's journals and re-reads them regularly, thrives in school, and is mostly successful in navigating the infuriating restrictions of class and gender, despite her temper. But then her life is turned upside down: a cold mage, one of the aristocratic rulers of her world, arrives at her home and demands her in marriage as the price of a contract she'd never heard of before. In short order, she finds herself married by magic and carried away by a strange man who appears to hold her in contempt, left only with instructions from her aunt and uncle to obey.

Cold Magic starts out looking like it's going to be steampunk with magic. Cat and Bee's world feels very Victorian, with gender segregation, an emphasis on clothing, and servants as a mandatory aspect of life for anyone who even pretends to acceptability. But this world feels less and less like typical steampunk as the story goes on. There's some serious world-building work below the surface.

Relative to our world, Cat's is in an ice age, with a land bridge between what we would call England and France. The ice to the north is the domain of fairy, and thus is even more treacherous than is in our world. Politics are divided between feudal lords, local princes (the formation of modern nation-states appears to have been delayed in this world), and the incredibly powerful cold mages. Technology is on the rise, but the cold mages, with some help from the entrenched nobility, are doing what they can to suppress it. Sometimes literally: fires, and therefore a lot of steam-driven machinery, die in the presence of a sufficiently powerful cold mage. The resulting political world is multi-faceted and complicated even before the wildcard of fairy is thrown into the mix.

On top of the magical politics, Elliott does some interesting work with alternate history. Cat and Bee are Kena'ani (Phoenicians, as the hated Romans call them), which in this world have a marginal social role somewhat like that of Jews in our world. When they were driven from their historical cities (by the Persians here, not the Romans), the Kena'ani became the trading backbone of the European world. That, in turn, led to them becoming the spymasters and information brokers, and therefore both necessary and disreputable among the elites. Those elites are a mix of Celts and Mande, the latter bringing their powerful magic to Europe in a diaspora from North Africa in the aftermath of the salt plague and the rise of ghouls.

My one-sentence summary of Elliott's alternate history is "what if most major historical conflicts were fought to a draw." The Roman Empire still exists towards the east, but never managed to completely defeat Carthage. The Celts were never driven out to the margins of Europe. Mande speakers are a major political force. I really liked this world: it's fascinatingly different in a way that feels lived-in, and Elliott wisely avoids getting into the specifics of divergent events. The one thing that did raise an eyebrow is that North America is the home of a parallel intelligent race Cat's people call "trolls" but which are actually bipedal birds (evolved from dinosaurs). They're interesting (and very likable) characters in the story, and full equals of the humans, but making the natives of North America exotic and literally non-human does not have a great history.

Cold Magic is in shape a fairy story. Cat is suddenly forced into a world with elaborate and very dangerous rules, of which she knows nothing, and has to learn on her feet before she dies. For about half of the book, she's dragged along behind Andevai, an arrogant ass who gets furious at her for every rule she accidentally breaks. For much of the rest, she's making her own way across unfamiliar territory and cultures, constantly struggling to learn enough to avoid disaster. This could be frustrating to read, but Elliott pulls it off by giving Cat a temper, a clear understanding of how unfair this is, and an over-sized dose of audacious determination. She absolutely refuses to be cowed, even when she's apparently alone and without allies, which makes this far more rewarding to read than it would be otherwise.

It helps that the pacing is excellent. Elliott lingers a bit too long on Cat's angst in a few places, but otherwise this 500 page book keeps moving. We get a new encounter, a new bit of world-building, a magical confrontation, or a new bit of political complexity every few pages, and yet the story never feels out of control. Cat's has a strong first-person voice and, despite her angst, stays clear on her immediate goals and her unwillingness to become a pawn. I liked her and had no trouble rooting for her throughout. Also appealing is the deep undercurrent of revolution and change throughout the story, an undercurrent that is happening independently of the main characters and creates the feeling of a deeper political history in the world. (Including, intriguingly, this world's analogue of Napoleon, who seems much more likable than our version.)

Also, while I won't say more to avoid spoilers, I loved the cats. That was my favorite scene in the story.

Cold Magic is not as tight and crisp as it could be. It sprawls a bit, occasionally belabors Cat's emotional and identity crises, and is the first book of a trilogy in a way that means it falls short of a satisfying conclusion. It also becomes obvious by the end of the book that the forced marriage is going to turn into a romance, and while Elliott does quite a lot to redeem Andevai over the course of the book, I would have preferred to not have that subplot. Cat deserves a lot better, even apart from the violation of consent at the start. But I had so much fun with this book. It kept me up late several nights and pulled me away from other entertainment to read just one more chapter, and maybe that's what matters the most.

Recommended. I'm definitely reading the rest of this series.

Followed by Cold Fire.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-02-26

Last modified and spun 2019-02-27