Cold Magic is the first book in the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott. On the author’s website, the series is described as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.” The second book, Cold Fire, is scheduled for release on September 1 in the UK and September 26 in the US. There is not yet a release date for Cold Steel, the third book.
When she was just a little girl, both of Cat Barahal’s parents died. Ever since then, Cat has lived with her aunt and uncle’s family, and she remembers her father as much as possible by reading his journals over and over again. She and her cousin Bee, who are almost exactly the same age, grew up together, became best friends, and now both study at the academy. On the surface, they’re two fairly normal young women, even if they do have a penchant for stirring up minor mischief during lectures. Yet Cat knows there are family secrets hiding beneath the surface even if she’s not in the know about the details. It turns out she also has some secrets of their own – some magical gifts that her mother warned her never to divulge to anyone.
It comes as a surprise to Cat when a cold mage appears at the door one evening, claiming the oldest of the Barahal daughters according to the contract the cold mages made with the Barahal family. Fearing her cousin is in danger, Cat immediately steps forward and makes it known that she is the older of the two. Her statement that she is the oldest is tested and proves accurate, and she suddenly finds herself in a magically binding marriage with this mysterious man. That very night she is forced to leave her home and Bee behind with no explanation to face a new life with this cold, arrogant stranger, leaving Cat to wonder: What secrets has her family been hiding and what do the cold mages have to do with them?
Cold Magic is a delightful, enjoyable story that left me excited about reading the next book. However, in spite of the fact that Cat’s voice captured me from page one, it did take a little while for it to fully engage me and get to that point. The beginning with Cat and Bee attending school lectures was a bit slow, and there are some other parts where the pace is slow as well. The second half was so compelling that I’d find my reading of “one last chapter” turning into more than that because I just had to know what happened next, though. By the time it ended, I was glad I didn’t have long to wait for the next installment.
This is one of those books that’s about an alternate earth with a rewritten history and magic. Yet this world is so foreign that it feels like secondary world fantasy in spite of that. There are mentions of Romans and Celts and Africa, but most of the time it’s easy to forget this has any resemblance to our earth with the airships, the cold mages, the different houses, the spirit world, and the trolls who inhabit the distant Amerike. The shape of the land mass on the map is the same and some of the general peoples are the same, but there’s generally so few specific similarities to our world that it rarely felt like earth to me. It is very different indeed and felt like a whole new world.
The setting is the most unique characteristic of the novel. The story was not complex and there were some very traditional fantasy tropes – but this is a case of traditional fantasy tropes done well, both because of the author’s storytelling ability and the strength of the world. It was at its heart about a fairly young person with some mysterious magical abilities and a background shrouded in mystery. Cat is thrust into a magical world that she has no real prior in-depth knowledge of and is a bit out of her element. She has to unravel the secret of her identity, what is going on, and why this happened to her. From time to time she is fed obscure bits of knowledge and given convenient aid when it’s needed. However, watching how it all unfolds still remains riveting, even if certain parts were rather predictable. Partly, this is getting to see everything through Cat’s eyes.
My first impression was that Cat wasn’t a very deep character. After giving it some thought, I still believe that since she doesn’t have complex nuances of personality or undergo any major personal growth through the story. However, I also think that in many ways she’s a very well-done character. She does have a certain simplicity, but it’s not a bad thing since she has plenty of other qualities that round her out. For one, she had an engaging narrative voice that made me take notice from the very first lines:
The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.
Or at least, that’s how the dawn chill felt in the bedchamber as I shrugged out from beneath the cozy feather comforter under which my cousin and I slept. I winced as I set my feet on the brutally cold wood floor. Any warmth from last evening’s fire was long gone. At this early hour, Cook would just be getting the kitchen’s stove going again, two floors below. But last night I had slipped a book out of my uncle’s parlor and brought it to read in my bedchamber by candlelight, even though we were expressly forbidden from doing so. He had even made us sign a little contract stating that we had permission to read my father’s journals and the other books in the parlor as long as we stayed in the parlor and did not waste expensive candlelight to do so. I had to put the book back before he noticed it was gone, or the cold would be the least of my troubles. [pp. 1]
Perhaps it’s the fact that in this short excerpt I could already identify with her as a heroine who loved to read so much that here she was getting up early and braving the freezing cold to put back her forbidden book before it got her in trouble – but I read this and just knew I had to read this book.
In addition to her narrative, Cat worked so well because she was a realistic young woman who does what you would expect of one. She and Bee attend classes together and gossip about young men, although the latter is more for Bee’s benefit. Cat can be a bit impulsive, but in minor ways, and a lot of it stems from her willingness to do anything for her best friend: she is intensely loyal and the type of person you’d want to be friends with. Later, the way she reacts to her situation also shows an independent woman with a strong survival instinct. She can wield a sword and hold her own in a fight, but she doesn’t cross the line into being a woman whose first instinct is to jump in with her sword drawn. She strikes the right balance between being the equal of any character in the book but not being so incredibly extraordinary that she’s too amazing to be someone that one can relate to.
Other than Cat, I did think most of the characters were rather one dimensional and underdeveloped, although most of the important ones were decently developed even if not particularly complex either. I did enjoy Andevai’s character very much as it became clear that he was not who he first appeared and there were reasons why he acted like such a prideful bastard. Bee also had a decent amount of development as she came to life through her conversations with Cat. I loved the emphasis on the friendship between the two and the way the two interacted. Cat and Bee are fiercely devoted to each other, and I think it’s a pleasant change to see a book where a good part of the focus on relationships is on a true friendship instead of a romance (although there is a little bit of that too!). Other than these three, it didn’t seem that we really got to know any of the characters on more than a surface level, though.
Cold Magic is a very enjoyable book that made me eager to read the rest of the series in spite of some slow pacing. There are some often utilized fantasy cliches, but they don’t detract from this particular book. For one thing, the setting gives it a uniqueness that sets it apart. In addition, Kate Elliott has the storytelling ability to keep it very readable and has created a main character with realistic qualities and a strong narrative voice. I’m definitely planning to read the sequel and am looking forward to Cold Fire!
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.