Cold Magic is the first book in the new Spirit Walker trilogy by Kate Elliott, established author of both the Crown of Stars and the Crossroads series. As the result of a family obligation, Catherine Hassi Barahal is forced into an arranged marriage to a young noble, an enigmatic cold mage. She is immediately torn away from her home and her education in the technology of the impending industrial age, only to find that marriage into a mage house is far from safe or secure. Cat is thrust into a world where magic and science naturally conflict, and the mysteries of her family’s past tie her to the forces of revolution.
A (surprisingly) likeable protagonist
I was concerned that I wouldn’t connect with Cat, Cold Magic’s young, female protagonist. Fortunately, Elliott’s delightful storytelling effortlessly breached my cynicism. Cat is a vulnerable and conflicted heroine who is able to find the strength to endure her circumstances—she is not the typical strong female with token weaknesses. This distinction is vital because Cold Magic is essentially a coming of age story. There is uncertainty over the motives of Cat’s deceased father, and she is confused about her unusual link with the spirit world and what implications that bears upon her heritage. Cat’s growing understanding of her identity is intricately tied to the epic and world-shaping events that unfold as the story continues.
As in many fantasy tales, our heroine is initially aware of the forces that exist in her world, but is in no way enmeshed in them. After a few chapters, the scale of events and the sense of urgency in the narrative ramps up drastically, but it makes sense! Cat’s transition from student to endangered heroine happens rapidly and unpredictably, but still believably. I was hooked. Other characters display similarly genuine motivations, and relationships endure realistic complications with no convenient resolution of fractures.
A certain level of quality
Cold Magic is undoubtedly a book produced by an experienced and professional author at the top of her game. Elliott makes subtle use of fantasy tropes to create red herrings which probably exist as much in the mind of the reader as on the page. The layering of the narrative is so clever that even those who feel that the story best suits young adult readers will be sucked in by the quality of the story telling. The complications that propel Cat into high stakes events frequently caught me off guard. In fact, I regularly had my expectations overturned by Cold Magic’s intertwining mysteries.
A touch of the historical
Elliott effortlessly builds a detailed alternate history through the action and characters without ever resorting to tedious information dumps. The point of historical divergence is Rome’s failure to defeat the Carthaginians at Zama, coupled with a prolonged ice age. This event has genuine geo-political ramifications. The world doesn’t continue on otherwise untouched, and other events that bear similarities to our history also play out differently. The Roman Empire lasted hundreds of years longer and is still influential in Cold Magic’s 19th Century setting. There was no real Dark Age, presumably due to ongoing empire and the existence of magic. The eponymous ‘cold magic’ derives from a mysterious combination of Celtic druidism and African shamanism, brought to Europa with the refugees from a ‘ghoul plague’ in North Africa. By the time Cold Magic begins, Europa is itself recovering from an attempted revolution led by the general Camjiata.
Taking steampunk to the next level
One of the major themes of Cold Magic is the clash of industry and magic. Technological advancement, theoretically irrelevant in a world with magic, exists because the cold mages aren’t particularly eager to share their gift. In fact, the Mage Houses lord it over the people. The cold mages actively seek to cripple and hold back industrial revolution. Elliott brilliantly sets these forces up as diametric opposites – cold mages literally extinguish fires, including those of industrial furnaces, by their mere presence. The imagery is simple but powerful.
Why should you read this book?
Cold Magic is a fun and engaging tale from a great storyteller. As a teacher, I would happily recommend Cold Magic to my school librarian. I would also recommend it to my 30 year old friends with equal confidence. With the book available in paperback and the sequel due in weeks, treat yourself to a delightful tale.