As a reader, I enjoy finishing a book and knowing that the author has done something truly innovative or that the story has somehow changed my perspective on reading. Cold Magic, the first installment of the Spirit Walker trilogy, was such a book. Kate Elliott laid a tremendous foundation to build upon in Cold Fire, but rather than playing it safe and just providing more of the same, Elliott has taken risks in her storytelling. Some readers may feel frustrated by an unexpected change of direction, but more will appreciate seeing something they haven’t seen before.
Revolution is brewing in Europa, and Catherine Hassi Barahal is caught between warring factions who believe she and her cousin Bee hold the key to the impending war. As the conflict grows in her home city of Adurnam and the forces loyal to the Cold Mages pursue her, Cat escapes through the spirit world. The journey provides Cat with answers about her heritage and purpose, but a deeper peril emerges for those she loves as the Wild Hunt chooses its prey.
*Sigh* They grow up so fast
To my mind, Cold Magic was very much a coming-of-age story, as Cat came to terms with the realities of her world and recognized that she could have influence in it. In Cold Fire, Cat begins to exert her influence on the conflict involving the revolutionary general Camjiata and the Cold Mage Houses, as she is seemingly fated to do.
Until I gained a sense of where Elliott was heading with Cat’s development, I was struggling to appreciate her in the same way I had in Cold Magic. She was always intelligent and observant, but the charmingly naïve and fearful Cat is essentially gone. Her sense of self was always strong, but has been further tempered by the emotional and physical challenges she faced in Cold Magic. Cat is different, and although it took me a while, I can see the logical growth in the young woman whose world was upended. Her confidence allows her to hold her own in the company of powerful people. She is unwilling to compromise. She’s entitled to a little bitterness. She’s steeled. Even when she makes a decision in a moment of immense weakness that will have readers wanting to scream at her, she recovers quickly and moves on. She is willing to take challenges on herself, rather than sharing her burden… because she can’t.
Love is a battlefield
The reality is that nobody shares Cat’s one driving goal: to protect her cousin, Bee. This goal, coupled with a magical glamour that prevents her divulging important secrets, can make Cat seem unreasonably stubborn at times—until the reader recognizes that she is making the best of her limitations and constant uncertainty about the motives of those around her. This includes, of course, the man you wish she would hurry up and let herself love. But Elliott is not one to let an artificially resolved romance get in the way of a good story. Her characters are magical yet utterly and painfully human.
The romance between Cat and Vai is thoroughly and skilfully tied into the intrigue. Our main characters cannot resolve their feelings for each other until they can be clear about one another’s motives. There is so much at stake and so many demands pulling at them, and Vai in particular, that clarity doesn’t come easily. The political intrigue itself is well-developed, its culmination works in that surprising-yet-inevitable way, and it illustrates a principle many epic fantasy writers ignore—you don’t need an infinite cast of characters in order to create uncertainty for the reader.
The intimate moments
Elliott took Cat into the spirit world in Cold Magic, but it felt like a tangent away from the true conflict in the real world. The first half of Cold Fire is dominated by Cat’s second exodus into the spirit world and her need to resolve the truth about her heritage. Elliott strips the story down to Cat, her need to understand herself and her concern over those she cares about most. It’s intimate and powerful, and it becomes clear that there is in fact a single narrative which ties the two worlds together. Cat’s challenges in the spirit world spill over and become intertwined with her problems in the real world—the personal conflict and the world-spanning conflict are inseparable.
Why should you read this book?
Fantasy readers like myself, who’ve been raised on a steady diet of Tolkien (and recent authors too), should take the opportunity to enjoy the story of a young woman who is able to greatly influence her world without ever needing to squeeze into leather pants.
received a review copy of Cold Fire courtesy of Kate Elliott.