This offering is the first of Kate Elliott’s latest world – and if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll know that she is one of the leading talents in the field. She is excellent at providing interesting, multi-layered worlds and is also adept at producing satisfying complex characters – a combination that doesn’t always go together. However, there is a major shift in this series – Elliott tells the story in Cold Magic in first person POV throughout. Up to now, she has shown herself very capable of fielding a large cast of characters without overwhelming her readers or losing any momentum. Can she manage to convey the full richness of her world through this single character’s viewpoint?
As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule.
Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood and old feuds, Cat is forced to marry a Cold Mage. As she is carried away to live a new life, fresh dangers threaten her every move and secrets form a language she cannot read. At least, not yet. But both cousins carry their own hidden gifts and these will shape great changes to come. For in the depths of this treacherous world, the Wild Hunt stirs in darkness and dragons are waking from their sleep.
And, make no mistake, this is a rich and interesting world. Elliott herself describes it 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.” So do we gain a sense of the full layered intricacy of this world through Cat’s eyes? The answer has to be – no, we don’t. Not even after reading the second book in the series, Cold Fire, do I get a sense that I’ve done more than graze the surface of this fascinating world. Am I bothered? Not, particularly, no. This might be a world that Elliott may well revisit with another series – the trolls, actually descended from dinosaurs, only play a walk-on part in this Cat-centred adventure and I’d love to read more about them. But even if Elliott doesn’t decide to use this world again, I’m still not going to lose much sleep over it. If she chooses to roll out a world of this richness and then only play in a corner of it, that’s hardly going to impact on my reading pleasure – unless she doesn’t produce a sufficiently interesting storyline with a convincingly complex cast of characters. And she does.
For starters, Cat is completely believable as a twenty year old. I get more than a tad fed up with ‘young’ characters who when confronted with difficult situations suddenly produce the wisdom and finesse of a fifty-something. Cat is impetuous, a bit of an airhead who loves teasing her cousin, and is very interested in clothes. Always. The driving relationship within this book is her attachment with Bee, her cousin and best friend. The romantic storyline is a lot stronger in Cold Fire, where Cat’s relationship with Andevai, her husband, is examined in more detail – along with the unfolding plotline about exactly who is her father.
Like Elliott’s world, this tale is something of a mash-up. There are elements easily recognisable from epic Fantasy – a power struggle involving scary magic users and super-talented individuals with a Destiny; but there is also a fairly strong romantic element and some of Cat’s character traits wouldn’t be out of place in an urban fantasy. However, one of the main engines driving the book is the political unrest coming from the bottom up – the fact that the population are increasingly unhappy at the way the Mages have stepped into the power vacuum left once the Romans retreated, which has echoes of Julia E. McKenna’s Lescari Revolution series. This is a sign that the Fantasy genre is all grown up and fully mature, when its most capable authors are able to play these sorts of games with the sub-genres. I’m really hoping the fans will prove to be as flexible.
A thoroughly enjoyable read by an accomplished writer at the height of her powers, I’m very much looking forward to reading the last book in the series and recommend you track down this gem.