Cold Fire

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Series: Spiritwalker #2
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: September 2011
ISBN: 0-316-19635-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 512

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Cold Fire is the sequel to Cold Magic and picks up directly where the last book left off. Elliott does a good job reminding the reader of the events in the previous book, but as the second book in a series with strong trilogy structure, it's not a good place to start.

The story opens with more political intrigue. Cat, Bea, and Rory meet, somewhat more formally, the force behind the political radicals, who comes complete with intimidating prophecies about the role of Cat and Bea in upcoming political upheavals. This is followed by some startling revelations about the headmaster of the school Cat and Bea were attending at the start of Cold Magic, which cast the politics of this series in a new and more complicated light. But before long, Cat is thrown into the spirit world for a frightening, revealing, and ominous confrontation with an entirely different power, and from there to literally the other side of the world.

The challenge of a trilogy is always what to do in the second book. The first book introduces the characters and lays the groundwork of the story, and the third book is the conclusion towards which the whole series builds. The second book is... awkward. The plot needs to move forward to keep the reader engaged, so it needs some intermediate climax, but it can't resolve the central conflict of the series. The problem is particularly acute when the trilogy is telling a single story split across three books, as is the case here. Elliott takes one of the limited choices: throw the protagonist into an entirely different side quest that can have its own climax without resolving the main plot.

That side quest involves this world's version of the Caribbean, an introduction to a much different type of magic than the two (or arguably three) seen so far, and the salt plague. Cat washes up with little but the clothes on her back, in the worst possible location, and has to navigate a new social structure, a new set of political complexities, and an entirely foreign culture, all while caught in a magical geas. The characters from the first book do slowly filter back into the story, but Cat has to rely primarily on her own ingenuity and her own abilities.

I know very little about the region and therefore am not the reviewer to comment on Elliott's Caribbean, although I do think she was wise (as she mentions in the book) to invent an entirely fictional patois rather than trying to adopt one from our world. I can say that the political situation follows the overall trend of this series: what if no one ever decisively won a war, and every culture remained in an uneasy standoff? This story takes place in Expedition (referred to a few times in the first book): a carved-out enclave of independent local rule that serves as a buffer between traders from Cat's Europe and a powerful local civilization built on substantial fire magic. The trolls are here too and play a significant role, although this is not their home. The careful balance of power, and the lack of conquest or significant colonialism, feel refreshingly different. Elliott manages to pull off combining that world with the threat of a version of the Napoleonic Wars without too much cognitive dissonance, at least for me.

The strength of this book is its ability to portray the simmering anger and hope of rebellion and radicalism. The background politics are clearly inspired by the French Revolution and the subsequent popular uprisings such as the June Rebellion (known in the US primarily due to Les Miserables), and they feel right to me. Society is fractured along class fault lines, people are careful about what they say and to whom, radicals meet semi-openly but not too openly, and the powers-that-be periodically try to crush them and re-establish dominance. But beneath the anger and energy is an excited, soaring optimism, a glimpse at a possible better world to fight for, that I enjoyed as an emotional backdrop to Cat's story.

That said, none of this moves the plot of the first book forward very far, which is a little unsatisfying. We're given some significant revelations about the world at the very start of this book, and pick up the fraught political maneuverings and multi-sided magical conflict at the end of the book, but the middle is mostly Cat navigating friendships and social judgment. Oh, and romantic tensions.

It was obvious from the first book that this was going to turn into a romance of the "bicker until they fall in love" variety. I'm somewhat glad Elliott didn't drag that out into the third book, since I find the intermediate stages of those romances irritating. But that means there's a lot of conflicted feelings and people refusing to talk to each other and miscommunication and misunderstanding and apparent betrayal in this book. It's all very dramatic in a way that I found a little eye-roll-inducing, and I would have preferred to do without some of the nastier periods of blatant miscommunication. But Elliott does even more work to redeem Andevai, and I continue to like Cat even when she's being an idiot. She has the substantial merits of erring on the side of fighting for what she believes and being unable to stay quiet when she probably should.

I think this was a bit weaker than Cold Magic for primarily structural reasons, and it ran into a few of my personal dislikes, but if you liked the first book, I think you'll like this as well. Both Cat and Bea have grown and changed substantially since the first book, and are entering the final book with new-found confidence and power. I'm looking forward to the conclusion.

Followed by Cold Steel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-05-26

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