Cold Steel

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Series: Spiritwalker #3
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: June 2013
ISBN: 0-316-21515-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 597

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Cold Steel is the third book in the closely-linked Spiritwalker trilogy. This is one long, sprawling story rather than separable books. If you want to read it, start with Cold Magic, and beware of spoilers for Cold Fire in even cursory descriptions of Cold Steel.

Cold Steel opens with Cat in the hot Caribbean, where most of Cold Fire was set, but does not stay there. This is a proper end to the trilogy and wraps up all the loose ends: the peril Andevai was left in after the semi-cliffhanger ending of Cold Fire, the conflict over governance in Europe, the power of the cold mage Houses, the politics of the radicals, the conflict between cold and fire magic, Bee's entanglements in the Caribbean, Camjiata's war of conquest, and of course the Wild Hunt. There's a lot of plot to finish.

Somewhat unfortunately, what Cold Steel also contains in large quantity is Andevai being an idiot, Cat and Andevai failing to communicate for new (but dumb) reasons, and one of the characters developing into a full-blown arch-villain.

This is a series with a fascinating premise (a very complex alternate history with dragons, magic, humanoid dinosaurs, and a very odd sort of elven court) that I wanted to be a political drama but that the author wrote primarily as a romance. This is not entirely the author's fault; it's a serviceable romance if you enjoy two vastly stubborn people butting heads, falling in love, discovering that being in love doesn't prevent them from butting heads, and finally reaching some hard-fought compromises. But I thought the romance was the least interesting (and least original) thing that was happening in this series and wanted to get it over with so that the series could move on to the more interesting bits, and that opinion was not shared by the author.

The part that caught my attention, as noted in my review of Cold Fire, is the political cause of radicalism and egalitarianism. The history varies wildly from ours, but the politics are clearly late French Revolution writ large (without the church, which is interesting): princes and cold mages colluding to maintain an aristocratic, almost feudal order, resented by laborers and political radicals who are trying to form new governments of equality and to undermine historical privilege and systems of indenture. Into that mix, Elliott drops Camjiata, a brilliantly ambiguous figure who is this world's Napoleon. He uses the radicals, speaks on their terms, and claims to fight for equality, but he personally wants to conquer Europe and bring back the glories of the Roman Empire. He's a strategic genius, one of the smartest people in the book (that's a difficult characterization to write well and Elliott does a good job), but his agenda isn't that of the protagonists or, really, anyone else. Elliott gives the impression of Camjiata as something that happens to Europe more than a force that comes out of the politics everyone else cares about, which I found intriguing throughout the series.

Unfortunately, despite radicalism's central role in the plot and despite Cat's sister Bee finding an unexpected but believable place for herself as a leader, the politics don't go anywhere satisfying. There is little resolution for Europe here, just some personal impact for Andevai and Cat and a parallel mythical plot line with the Wild Hunt that I thought was a bit too obvious (although the resolution of it is satisfying). A series that wrestled with the political complexities of defining radicalism as a constructive form of government instead of an opposition resistance force (the shoal that, to simplify greatly, the real French Revolution ran aground on) would have been messy and challenging to write, but that was the book I wanted to read. Cold Steel alas turns somewhat away from that to personalize the problems and solve them primarily in the realms of magic and romance.

The other difficulty with this final book is that it's structurally a mess. There are too many loose ends to weave together, which results in some odd pacing and story structure. The book starts as a continuation of Cold Fire, involving Caribbean politics and magic, and builds up to a climax with the fairy world a third of the way into the book. Then comes a quiet interlude with Cat and Andevai that stumbles into a pacing gap where Cat is unhappy but not communicating, Andevai is ignoring her, no forward progress is made on the major plots of the novel, and there is a lot of frustrating talking. Pacing for the rest of the book comes in fits and starts, building up to a weirdly unsatisfying war and turning the broader politics of the series into a too-simplistic arc of personal animus, mustache-twirling evil, and magical penis-measuring. Even the ending, although eventually satisfying, provides another excuse for Cat to not talk to people about things that are important.

I'm probably making this sound worse than it is. I am glad I read the whole series. It's hugely ambitious and succeeds in being something different than the typical fantasy trilogy. The world background is one of the most creative I've seen, and if I found the politics unsatisfying in the end, that's only because Elliott attempted something far more ambitious and radical than most fantasy will go near. I think the first book was the strongest and the series sputtered to a conclusion, but it is a proper and satisfying conclusion and both Cat and Andevai, by the end of the series, are characters I enjoy spending time with.

Cold Steel by itself is a bit of a mess, but I still recommend the series as a whole, as long as you're in the mood for something long and complicated and not completely successful.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-11-04

Last modified and spun 2019-11-05