I feel like I’ve been waiting a very long time to read and comment on this book, not only because it was recommended to me ages ago, but because it contained everything I love in a novel (which have been missing from various other books on my reading list for quite a while). Not only a complex and appealing female lead, but also a strong bond between two women which makes up the emotional centre of the narrative, solid and fascinating world-building, political intrigue on a wide scale, an emphasis on the female gaze, beautiful prose, lots of diversity, a dash of steampunk and plenty of witty insights strewn throughout its significant length.
That’s the perfect recipe for a great book.
Admittedly a little slow to start with, the reader is introduced to Catherine Hassi Barahal, a young orphaned teenager living with her aunt, uncle and extended family in modest dwellings, who attends university alongside her beloved friend-and-cousin Beatrice and is generally happy with her lot in life. Poring over her late father’s travel journals and recollecting her mother’s words to her about keeping her magical gift a secret are the only real connection she has to her late parents, but she’s proud of her heritage and family name.
Though the two cousins are more interested in handsome university students, the world around them is crawling with political upheaval and rumours of impending war. Great airships are taking to the skies for the first time, and the Industrial Revolution seems just around the corner, but such things are considered a threat to the Cold Mages and their powerful Houses. Conflict is imminent, but Cat is only vaguely aware of the clues that suggest she may become personally involved.
If you want to come into this book completely cold (excuse the pun), then I recommend skipping this next paragraph… (highlight it if you want to read it)
Out of nowhere a stranger arrives from the Four Moons House and in a matter of seconds Cat finds herself not only married to him, but whisked away in his carriage to a new life awaiting her many miles from home. Now in the possession of a Cold Mage by dint of a mysterious contract that her family committed to years ago, Cat concentrates on staying alive and figuring out just how to escape her new circumstances.
Blending an unfolding mystery with dramatic action sequences that follow an escape-and-evade pattern across townships, the countryside and the spirit world, Cold Magic continued to surpass my expectations. Every time I thought Cat was heading for a break, something else would emerge that complicated matters further, forcing her to use every resource at her disposal to outwit her pursuers.
The story takes place in an alternative history, one in which the Roman Empire seems to have lasted much longer than it did in ours, and where various principalities, dukedoms, city-states and tribes make up the continent of Europa. Furthermore, this is a world in which magic, spirits and creatures known as trolls and goblins co-exist alongside humans, where the threads that bind together the mortal and spirit worlds can be manipulated by those with the gift, and where those with the knowhow can actually pass through from one plane of existence to the other. Most of the action takes place in Brigantia (or Britain) but there are multiple mentions of political and social turmoil overseas, giving the whole book an expansive air.
The world-building can get a little cluttered at times, with swaths of exposition in unusual places (running for one’s life is perhaps not the best time to give us the low-down on the culture you’re running from), but the narrative voice is so strong and the world itself so fascinating that I could easily handwave some unnecessarily complexity. At times it reminded me a little of Philip Pullman‘s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, or Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY series —not so much for the content, but the way in which both writers throw you headfirst into an exciting, intricate world and expect you to sink or swim in it. For those so inclined to such things, it’s an exhilarating experience.
Likewise is Elliott’s use of magic, which is very much based on wielding control over vision and temperature. As their name implies, the power of the Cold Mages is based in their ability to lower heat levels, not only in the atmosphere but also in a person. As they walk down the street the gas lamps flicker; when they enter a house the fires burn low. It may not sound like much at first, but once taken into consideration it should be abundantly clear why they pose such a dangerous threat. Cat’s entire journey could be described as fleeing acres of cold for tiny pockets of warmth.
Elliott also does beautiful things with her concept of the spirit world running parallel to that of mortals. In my favourite sequence, Cat is riding in a carriage with windows in either door. On one side she looks out onto the grey, cold, wintry countryside, on the other she sees a bright autumnal landscape filled with falling leaves and red deer. Beautiful.
And of course, Catherine herself. At different points, depending on her situation, she can be brave or terrified, flawed or virtuous, strong or vulnerable, kind or cruel. Sometimes she demonstrates a cutting wit and at other times is lost for words. Sometimes she filled with drive and energy, other times she’s just had enough. In her moment of greatest peril and most desperate need, she thinks to herself: “I would not die for their convenience” and goes about saving herself. I loved her. She’s a real person, and that’s what I want most from my female characters.
That said, I am by no means a fan of romances that involve heroines falling in love with cold, rude, aristocratic but exceedingly handsome young men, though that’s exactly what happens here (or at least begins to). Yet even in this regard Elliott managed to win me over thanks to a steady unfolding of Andevai’s background and motivations, and Cat’s own infuriation at her attraction to him. Rest assured this isn’t one of those awful romances where a girl throws her integrity away in order to be with a jerk, or who is delighted at the thought that she’s the only person in the entire world that he’ll open up to, thus rendering her precious and sacred in the eyes of the narrative (in real life, this sense of privilege only lasts about three months, tops).
Other characters are equally well drawn, including the endearingly (and obliviously) arrogant Rory and the firecracker of a cousin that Cat calls Beatrice. Her love for them, and theirs for her, makes up the emotional centre of the book, and it was so refreshing to read about strong platonic bonds between devoted family members.
I suppose I better wrap this up, so I’ll just mention in passing the book’s great diversity (so much diversity, including in its lead character!), its intriguing theme of technology versus magic (rare in fantasy), and its flowing prose, where almost every paragraph is a blend of exposition, characterization and action. It sounds a mess, but somehow a balance is struck and the pacing plummets onwards.
Thank you Kate Elliott for writing this book. I’ve already started the next one: Cold Fire.