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REVIEW: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate 19th century world, a young woman’s forced marriage to a Cold Mage slowly reveals the secrets, lies and plots swirling around her, her family and the world.


PROS: Entertaining mix of adventure, fantastic elements and even elements of romance; strong, clear writing; interesting world building.
CONS: The world building; some of the borrowings from our own history just did not ring true.
VERDICT: The world may end in ice, but this series has only begun and Elliott is just warming up showing us these characters and this world.


I haven’t much time. I’m late already” said the personage in the very same arrogant voice I had heard earlier today in the headmaster’s library.

I was sure it was the same voice–had to get quite that much biting pride into otherwise innocuous words-but his clothes were less traditional and more fashionable. Because I hadn’t seen his face in the library, I examined him dubiously. It seemed unlikely in the extreme that a magister, scion of a prominent mage House, would have entered the very academy of natural historians and scholarly philosophers that the cold mages were known to scorn and distrust.

My expression, meant to be disdainful, must have impressed him, if not in a good way.

She is the eldest Hassi Barahal girl?” he asked, indicating me. How he stared!

“She is the eldest of the girls” agreed Aunt, indicating me.

Uncle puffed up beside her, looking as enflamed with anger as Bee, and at these words he cast such a look at Aunt that I knew something was up. Something bad. Something very , very wrong.”

Kate Elliott, in a economical way, describes the Spiritwalker series, and Cold Magic in particular as “An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.”

That’s quite a lot to unpack, and unpack it she does in this first volume of her series. In it, Catherine Hassi Barahal and her cousin Beatrice (Cat and Bee) live in the city of Adurnam, in what we would call the south coast of England. They attend College; the Industrial Revolution is getting itself underway — it’s 1800 years since the days of Caesar Augustus. A powerful general who attempted to conquer Europe has been banished to an Island prison.

But this not Earth, or at least the Earth as we know it. This is a more glaciated world, with ice sheets starting at 55 degrees north. As a result of this colder world, the English channel has a permanent land bridge, coastlines are different (The site of Adurnam in our world would be underwater), Scandinavia and the Alps are covered in glaciers. This harsher climate has resulted in allowing megafauna to still survive to the present as well. All this has helped to shape and alter history, as Cato’s dictum of Carthago Delenda Est never quite worked out, and there is a strong heritage from the lost kingdom of Mali as well into the polities and peoples. Afro-Celtic fusion culture, indeed, and they mix well.

That’s quite a rich alternate geography and history, and Elliott goes further. There is magic in this world, a sorcery of ice, and family “Houses” who employ those talents. These Cold Mages react badly to the very presence of technology or even open flame. So the budding industrial revolution has a very powerful and real stratum of society opposing its advances, adding to the tensions and layers within the book.

And one more bit. There are “trolls” in this universe, too, visitors from what we would call the North American continent. But rather than being the hulking bipeds you’d expect, these trolls are feathered, intelligent and technologically advanced. Yep, they are the descendants of dinosaurs. Troodons.

So onto this very complicated stage, our heroine, Cat, is quickly married to a visiting Cold Mage, who demands the marriage as part of an old contract between the Barahals and Four Moons House. Ripped from her family’s home and the companionship of her friend and confidant, cousin Bee, Cat’s journey to the Four Moons House reveals to her (and to the reader) that things are not what they seem. Or what anyone seems, as the anti-technological agenda of the Mages faces fierce resistance, and Cat herself is not who she appears to be, either. More than even Cat herself knows. It’s a coming of age story, as the heroine learns truths about herself, her lost parents, the Barahals, and more.

With a first person narrative, we are firmly and strongly in her head, feel her emotions, and get an excellent sense of her viewpoint, values and loyalties. And they change and evolve, too. She’s a well drawn, active character who grows up, in a believable way. Elliott also does a relatively good job of avoiding infodumping. There isn’t a lot of “as you know, jane” moments, but there is the occasional bit to help explain the world the reader has fallen into.

At the same time, Cold Magic is also a romance story, a romance that this reader didn’t even see coming until the end of the book. I bet romance readers would do a lot better at picking things up, although it must be said, Cat herself, as first person narrator, took time to figure out her own reactions and feelings as well. It wasn’t a strong theme to me, and readers who don’t want to get the peanut butter of “romance” in their fantasy chocolate will not be unduly put off. That said, these elements are becoming more and more common in mainstream fantasy, as the paranormal romance genre overlaps with fantasy more and more.

Cold Magic is, best of all to this reader, a fantastic exploration of an alternate world, complete with a spirit world, Mages, an alternate geography, an alternate history, and lots and lots of cool ideas. Elliott uses language well, borrowing words from our world you wouldn’t expect or even likely now, and inventing terms of her own. “Dido”, for example, is her word that means a Queen. Given the Carthage, I mean, Qart Hadast, origins of Cat’s people, this makes perfect sense to me and feels like a parallel to “Ceasar” as a title and noun.

And there is plenty of stuff hinted and talked about, unseen that is just waiting for Elliott to explore. What is the Wild Hunt, really? What is the true implications of Cat’s origins, Bea’s abilities and the reasons why Four Moon Houses were after them? And much more. There are hints of things on the map and the text I would love to see: a kingdom of Egypt that never fell; an expansionist Persia; the rump Roman Empire; and there is even a mention of zombies.

The only real weakness to me might be idiosyncratic to me and not really a weakness at all. Its some of the historical background that Elliott uses, some of the referenced historical events in her world did not ring true. For example, she has the Carthaginians fight the Romans to a standstill at the Battle of Zama and leave both powers alive and kicking. A part of me wonders how realistic this is, given what I know about the Roman Republic and its single-minded approach to its opponents. Pyrrhus of Epirus, for example, learned that aspect of Roman character all too well. So what if the Romans had an army annihilated at Carthage? They’d send another and another until Carthage was good and stopped. Too, there is a mention of Hannibal having crossed the Alps in this world, too. However, the Alps in this world have a glacier sitting on top of them. And worse, a mention in the book of a recent expedition to the ice cap at the Alps ended in failure. So how did Hannibal get over those glaciated mountains, elephants or no?

Overall, what do I think? The historical niggles are mostly in the background, and ultimately they don’t get in the way of Elliott telling a good story. I suspect nearly any other reader is not going to care about the historical implausibilities. And the whole idea of historical implausibilities is not a clear cut topic, anyway. Or perhaps this reviewer is too much of a Romanophile for his own good. Besides that, I was fascinated with everything Elliott introduces, from a spirit world, to the trolls, to Mage Houses that make Slytherin look like pikers. And there are still mysteries to solve regarding Cat, Bee and their place in future events. The virtues of the book far and away outweigh my concerns.

The next book, Cold Fire, promises with its map to take Cat and company across the ocean to what we call the American continents. Are there native American civilizations there at all, or is it all Trolls? What else might be lurking there? I am definitely primed to find out.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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