BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Cat seeks to rescue her lost husband and her cousin Bee seeks to bring revolution to Europa.
PROS: Very satisfying denouements of character and theme; gorgeous cover.
CONS: Slightly too many coincidences; some plotting/pacing issues and some resolutions aren’t quite set up as well as they could be.
BOTTOM LINE: A satisfying and strong conclusion to the Spiritwalker trilogy
The history of the world in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwwalker trilogy begins in ice and will end in ice. Catherine Bell Barahal, after the events of the Hallows Night in the Caribbean City of Expedition, has a number of problems. Her husband Andevai is now a prisoner of her father, the inhuman Master of the Wild Hunt. A key death in the Taino Kingdom is, if not her fault, a result of her actions, and the Taino Kingdom will not stand for that. Exiled general Camjata is seeking to use both her and her cousin Beatrice for his planned triumphal return to Europa. A fire mage both infuriated and smited with Catherine remains more than just a smouldering threat. And the spirit world itself seems to be arrayed against her. Cat and Bee have a lot of work ahead of them.
Cold Steel is the third novel in the Spiritwalker series from Kate Elliott, following Cold Magic and Cold Fire. It is set in an alternate magical history, where the world is far more glaciated, where history has gone on similar tracks but has let Phoenician, Mali and Celtic cultures survive and intermingle along with the untrustworthy Romans; where dinosaur-descended intelligent bipeds called trolls live on the North American continent, and export their technophilic ways to Europe; where the daughter of the Master of the Wild Hunt, and a woman who can walk in the dreams of dragons will influence the course of the world. There is much to love in the Spiritwalker series. Shall I describe the rich and deep worldbuilding, with cold magic, fire magic, a map whose place names feel authentic and new for not all sounding Latinate because of the changes to Roman history? Or spirit worlds with dragons, strange creatures, tides of change, Opia, and tons more that all fit together?
In the end, much of what to love lies at the feet of the characters, their relationships and how those relationships and conflicts drive the plot: Cat’s wrangling with her father over Andevai; James Drake, you magnificent bastard, the real villain of the piece in a way I couldn’t imagine, but now see; Andevai, the Cold Mage who shows unexpected depths and growth as he struggles with new beliefs, old traditions and the ties of family; Bee, beautiful Bee, who really undergoes a lot of character growth; Rory, half-brother to Cat, and far more feral and interesting because of that feralness. And then there are the minor characters and secondary characters and their webs of contacts. The relationships are what make this book work. Especially when those relationships are imperfect, and the imperfections and flaws in those relationships help drive plot and character.
The other thing to highlight in this book, and in the series in general, is the unusual use of voice and perspective. Nearly every epic fantasy out there runs to third person perspective. Sometimes, the number of perspectives is relatively few, such as with Daniel Abraham’s Dragon’s Path series. Sometimes, the number of point of view characters, such as in the work of Steven Erikson or George R. R. Martin can be intimidating. In contrast, though, Elliott has managed to write an epic fantasy trilogy where the perspective and point of view is first person, singular. Aside from an optional story available on her website, the author has managed to tell an epic fantasy entirely from one, close perspective: Cat’s. We spend all of our time in her head. It’s an interesting choice, with intriguing consequences for the plot characters. It’s a trick that few authors dare to try (N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms comes to mind) but the author pulls it off very well indeed.
There seems to be a theme in the series which, in this final volume, seems to have been somewhat discarded, and that is a disappointment. The first book, and to a lesser extent the second, seemed to explore the conflict between science, technology and cold magic. The two seemed inimical, not only in the sense that cold mages extinguish fires in their presence, but active distrust among their proponents. Save for a few lines here and there, the personal conflict between the two seems to have been lost entirely. I am not sure if this is a case that the author didn’t recognize the theme she was working with, or decided there were more interesting themes and ideas to explore. I do feel it is a shame that this thread does not get much play in this third novel. Otherwise, the themes of the series play out very well indeed, and satisfactorily.
Beyond questions of theme, there are a couple of character and plot resolutions that didn’t quite work for me as well as they might have. I hesitate to discuss them in depth for obvious reasons, but there is a character death I think could have been freighted a little better, and the denouement of Cat’s cunning plan in the climax of her story could have been explicated a little more. It’s a brilliant answer to the problem she was facing, but I think it needed just a bit more fleshing out. There are a couple of coincidences which allow for some resolutions, but they felt a little out of place and a little too manipulative on the author’s part to make happen.
Oh, and while the maps are one of the most wonderful things in the series — and I love them to pieces — what this book and series also needs is a glossary or a dramatis personae.
Overall, however, this is a very satisfactory end to the Spiritwalker series. I am sad to see it end. I want to know much more about the world beyond the maps and what we have seen. (There is a throwaway line about China that just begs for story material to explore.) Ultimately, Cold Magic leaves readers satisfied because it immerses readers into a compelling web of characters, world building and high fantasy.