PROS: The strengths of Cold Magic are kept, and we get good character development and even more worldbuilding with the change in venue.
CONS: Maybe a couple of coincidences too many to bring the characters to the same locale; plotting feels slightly off compared to the previous novel.
VERDICT: Elliott, no stranger to writing series, avoids most of the mid series book pitfalls and continues to develop her characters and world.
In Cold Magic, Kate Elliott introduced a fantasy/alternate world much more in the grips of an Ice Age than ours, where Rome and Carthage fought to a standstill and both are powers still, with Celts, and a mix of expatriate Malis fleeing a zombie plague forming Mage Houses. Oh, and “Trolls”, intelligent descendants of Troodons. And magic based on cold. And Steampunk elements. And… You get the idea.
Cold Fire’s first chapter overlaps the last chapter of Cold Magic. The action quickly moves ahead, though, as the efforts of Barahal cousins Cat and Bee to find an independent life for themselves, away from grasping Mage Houses, exiled generals and anyone else go awry. The cousins are separated (as is Rory, Cat’s fae brother), and Cat is by turns introduced to her true father,magically bound to him, and subsequently dumped in the most unlikely place: The West Indies. Friends and enemies soon turn up, and also that annoying Mage to whom she is still married. The circumstances of her magical binding includes a task, too: find a suitable sacrifice for Hallows Night (Halloween Night), or else Bee is going to be the chosen target of the Wild Hunt, which hates all things Draconic.
Setting remains one of the things I love the best about the Spiritwalker universe. We get to see a piece of a completely different hemisphere; we get a view of a brand new culture, a new magic system and the city of Expedition. The world is rich and I am certain there are more surprises yet to come in this series, more development to be done. This is how you world build, kids.
Cat remains an engaging heroine. We get in he head and stay in. Her conflicts, weaknesses, and strengths are all balanced nicely. Elliott keeps her a believable and plausible heroine whose actions may not always be wise, or best, but they make sense given the characterization. Andevai, especially, gets a ton of needed and welcome character development. Is he still the powerful cold mage from the first book? You bet. But he shows unexpected depth and even growth of character through Cold Fire. This series could have been written from his point of view, but Elliot makes the story more interesting by portraying him solely through Cat; so we never fully get into his head except for a deleted scene the author has since posted on her website, which is written from his point of view. Of the other characters from the first novel, there is less development, although we get to meet a suite of new characters who mostly come alive on the page very well.
Elliott as usual writes well, cleanly and engagingly. Due to the circumstances of the binding, at one point, Cat’s manner of speaking changes. Elliott never abuses this, but rather uses it to illuminate frustration, humor and more. For example:
“And burn up,” I finished. Yet I had felt his magic not as fire but as tendrils snaking through me, drawing my desire out of its innocent sleep.
“And burn up. I wish you would not interrupt me.”
“You have no catch-fire?” “Who would volunteer to be my catch-fire? Would you?”
My fingers tightened on the railing. “Wouldn’t it be an awful way to die?”
“To burn to death? I don’t intend to find out. Anyway, in Expedition Territory, it is forbidden by law for any fire mage to employ or enslave a person as a catch-fire.”
“Is the prince’s catch-fire a slave?”
“No, he is a cousin. That is his family duty. Among the Taino, catch-fires are honored. If they die, as they often do, they become a god–as we might say–and their skull–if a skull is left–is woven into a figure of power which the Taino call a cemi.”
I lowered my gaze to the gleam of my sword. “Prince Caonabo said my sword was a cemi.”
“That’s probably why he came to talk to you. If he considers it a cemi, then you carrying it would make you seem a person of consequence, with powerful ancestors.”
“How do you know this is a sword?”
He glanced away as if thinking someone else must have spoken. “Because it is one. Now. Where is Abby?”
The question popped out unbidden. “Why do you think I know?”
Raising the lamp, he frowned as if genuinely puzzled. “Are you angry at me?”
I fisted my hands, suddenly furious at myself. Wouldn’t it be better to be honest about my anger instead of making all these petty retorts and always answering questions with questions? The thought stunned me into muteness. Answering questions with questions?
A couple of things niggled at me and they mainly revolve around plot. The chain of coincidences and events to bring Vai, Bea, and ultimately Rory all to Expedition seemed a little improbable. Elliott strictly keeps the point of view on Cat which makes for a clear narrative voice, but I was surprised at the reasons for the various reunions. Rory in particular seems to have ended up in Expedition because that’s what the author wanted to have happen. The troll characters in this novel, as opposed to Cold Magic, didn’t quite come alive for me either. I also think the first part of the book feels a bit rough with that overlap. The novel only hits its stride once Cat and Bee are fully on the run (and then they are soon separated). And why the change in setting to the Caribbean? Sure, the Caribbean in this world is cool and interesting; we learn more about the salt zombies, fire mages and other things. Rice and peas! Batey! Troll Mirror Mazes! But exactly why Cat winds up there and everyone else for that matter too seemed a bit arbitrary.
I’m still waiting for Cat to really blossom into her full abilities, especially since it seems that off screen her cousin Bee has managed to do so and that Cat seemed to not quite have the agency and verve in the first book. Maybe not having the Four Moons House on her heels in this book was a bad thing for her, character-wise? Hopefully we will see a fully unleashed Cat in book three, especially given now that she has a couple of targets to point at given the final chapters of the book. Despite these weaknesses of Cold Fire, I am still very much invested in Cat, Andevai and the world she is building. I eagerly wait and see…