Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Published by Orbit, September 2010 (Review copy received)

ISBN: 9780316080859

544 pages

(NOTE: This book has also been reviewed by Rob Bedford: REVIEW HERE.)


Review by Mark Yon


The cynical amongst you will recognise many aspects of Kate Ellliott’s new series – strong heroine, rite of passage events, quest for knowledge and so on.

The first few pages quickly add to this list – steampunk, pseudo-Victorian society, orphan, airships.

The heroine of our tale is Catherine Hassi Barahal (Cat), an orphan whose parents were explorers, now lost. She begins the tale living with Beatrice (Bee) and her Aunt and Uncle, who are Phoenician (also known as the Kena’ani.)

We quickly realise that this is not a world that is our own, though there are similarities. The Roman Empire ‘s demise is different to ours, and the role of the Kena’ani throughout history seems to have been as couriers and secret messengers. At the time of this novel it is 1837, a time of Industrial Revolution in Europa, somewhat similar to Victorian England but more divided.

After an initial setting up of the characters and their world, things change with rather undue haste. As a coming-of-age novel we find events suddenly alter. As Cat nears her twentieth birthday (her coming of age date), she is summarily married (in a matter of minutes!) as part of an ancient blood pact agreement to Andevai, a member of the Four Moons House, one of a group of Mage Houses who seem to run things.

Before the reader can collect their breath, Cat is whisked away to meet the mansa of the Four Moons House. Her new ‘husband’ appears haughty, aloof and cold, and the instigator of the destruction of an airship over the city of Adurnam, something which Cat, having a mechanical bent, seems very interested in.  

Further complications ensue when it is discovered that Cat is not the person Andevai should have married. A decree to kill her, as a result, leads her to flee back to her family in order to save Bee, who Andevai should have married.

As you might expect from her previous novels, Kate writes an increasingly engrossing tale with strong (if a little caricaturist) characters and great settings. There’s action and romance, built on solid plot foundations. It’s like a nice warm bath after vigorous exercise on a cold day – you know what to expect, the tale follows logical paths and there are not too many nasty shocks lurking around the corner. Consequently the pages turn nicely.

Kate, being the author she is, manages to put her own stamp on the tropes. We find that Andevai is not who we expect, both in personality as well as background, and also that Cat’s background is similarly murky. Although it is Bee that is seen as important, Cat is found to have the ability to move between the mortal world and the supernatural realm and this has consequences for events in the tale.

Some elements are a little overdone for my tastes, though there are significant positives as well. Much of the book, especially in the middle, seems to be racing from one place to the next, to the point where there’s too much journey and not enough intent. Secondly, lots of the events seem to appear again and again offstage, with Cat conveniently hiding, creeping or eavesdropping. As the tales told in the first person, this is clearly a necessity for the broader plot to be uncovered, but for me this did come across as extremely opportune, to the point of almost unhinging my sense of disbelief.   

On the positive side, the world-building (or perhaps worlds-building) is good and the characterisation engaging, although at one point in the middle of the book I was beginning to despair of the bright, lively, enthusiastic teenager who became the miserable, whiny, self-obsessed adolescent. This is rectified a little towards the end.

The ending is as you might expect. There is a showdown and things are set up nicely for the next novel in the series.  

Looking back, there are general similarities to Phillip Pullman’s Lyra series, which will no doubt be mentioned by others, though the setting is scarcely original there. However it is good to read a writer of Kate’s quality taking a run through this type of world with her own take on it. I was disappointed that there was less about airships and dragons than I had hoped here, as the blurb had suggested to me that both would be here. (They are here, but barely.)

Overall, this is an entertaining read, for those willing to be taken onboard. It’s well written, even if the plot is nothing really new and a little bloated. And as it is the first in a trilogy, we get the usual cliffhanger ending. 


Mark Yon, August/September 2010. 

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