Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Book One of The Spiritwalker Trilogy

Published by Orbit Books, October 2010
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford


Kate Elliott, if not the same brand recognition in the genre as George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan, is at the top of that next level of writers of Epic stories.  Her Crown of Stars saga was a popular seven-book series whose first volume, King’s Dragon, was shortlisted for the Nebula award for best novel.  Her SF saga Jaran is highly acclaimed and she just finished off the three book Crossroads trilogy to acclaim.  With a publisher switch (here in the US), Kate Elliott kicks off a new trilogy, The Spiritwalker Trilogy, with Cold Magic.

Set in a world similar to our own during the 19th Century, magic is real and conflicts with science in many ways, while the world is experiencing something of an ice age.  The history of the world is different as well; Rome held its power far longer than in our world and Carthaginian Empire ruled under women, Europe is more fractured with nation-states comprising the majority of the diversity. The magic is infused in this alternate Europe by – Cold Mages – the descendents of Druids Africans who left the Dark Continent for Europe many years previous to the events of the novel. Britain, as a result of the cold temperatures, is locked with North America which is populated by Trolls who ally themselves with the humans who oppose those in power.

In this strange world, Elliott tells her story through the voice of Catherine – Cat, a young girl taken from her family through a blood pact as part of a marriage contract with a more powerful family. Two major problems come to light early in the novel – a zeppelin from the Caribbean crashes which is seemingly connected to Cat’s new husband Andevai.  Soon after, Cat’s new ‘family’ come to realize Andevai married the wrong girl, for Cat is not the eldest girl in her house, her cousin Bee is and Andevai was tricked into taking Cat as his wife.

Much of the plot is told through Cat’s voice and is concerned with Cat coming to know who she truly is, the journey is fairly entertaining.  More importantly, the world-building behind the novel told through Cat’s mind and her interactions with others is quite possibly the strong point of the novel.  The world seems familiar since it is so heavily based upon the world in which we live, but the combination of magic and science, as well as the intermingling of different nations and the intelligent trolls proves for a great original balance to those familiar elements.  I found myself liking Cat and more so as her story unfolded, as well as her ‘husband’ Andevai. Their interactions were quite tense early in the novel, but as their stories evolved they soon found themselves less at odds. 

One of my primary issues with the novel was the limitations naturally inherit with a first-person novel.  That is, the entirety of the story is told through the protagonist’s eyes and voice.  At times, this seemed a rather limiting factor in the story Elliott was trying to tell.  Cat, for a number of consecutive scenes it seemed, found herself either in the shadows where an plot-important discussion was being held, or she happened to be just outside the door of where another equally important interaction between supporting characters was being held.

I came to this novel as a fan of Elliott’s Crown of Stars saga, despite having yet to read all seven books.  I had very high hopes and though I enjoyed the novel considerably, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would and found it to be a bit uneven in its pacing.  The climax of the novel; however, was gripping and Elliott pulled off a terrific “Crowning Moment of Awesome” for a character that had me grinning, despite it  being mildly predictable. 

In the end, I enjoyed the novel, find it a great example of world building and think it a solid start to what could potentially be a very good series. 

Recommended with noted reservations.

© 2010 Rob H. Bedford

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