Kate Elliott is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated Fantasy authors writing today. Her Crossroads series in particular (a trilogy so far, but apparently there are a standalone novel and another trilogy to follow) is Epic Fantasy done right – here is someone who not only has excellent command over the usual Fantasy world-building tools and who writes beautiful prose, but who also has thought long and hard about the clichés of the genre, what they are, what they imply and what to do about them. As an example of just how awesome Kate Elliott is, I recommend this article on the male gaze.
Cold Magic is the first volume in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy and it falls roughly into the same sub-genre as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel which I wrote about recently (the actual reading of the two novels is several months apart, however – I am still trying to catch up), namely Historical Fantasy, and even the sub-sub-genre of “Regency with Magic”. But the Regency in Cold Magic is very far removed from ours (it does not even have a Prince Regent), and is not that easily recognisable as a version of ours – the Ice Age never ended in this world, and the conflict between Rome and Carthage ended in a stalemate, as a result of which Cat, the novel’s protagonist and first person narrator is of Afro-Celtic origin and lives in a cold version of England. But it is still a period of accelerated technical innovation, a period of social and political unrest and there even is a Napoleon-like figure who just recently failed in conquering Europe and has been exiled to a small island…
In Kate Elliott’s own words on her website the Spiritwalker trilogy is “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” – which actually does sum it up rather nicely. From this, I think it is clear that the world in which the trilogy is set is utterly fascinating, and exploring this creation alone might make the novel worthwhile reading for many.
For my part, while I enjoy a well-invented world, that alone is not enough to make a good fantasy novel, for this, you need at the very least interesting characters and a good story certainly does not harm either. Thankfully, Kate Elliott does not let her readers down in either of those categories, and while the Spiritwalker trilogy might not climb quite the heights of complexity Crossroads did, it still is a fascinating and very fun read. It has to be said, however, that it takes Cold Magic a while to settle into a comfortable rhythm – I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for it, but pacing seems a bit awkward for the first third or so of the novel and at times I really had to struggle to keep going. Eventually, however, what started out as a bumpy ride becomes smooth going and the novel moves along at a steady but never rushed pace, taking several surprise twists along the road, until Cat ends (apparently) up right where she started. But of course a lot has happened in the meantime, and all of it will have consequences for herself and for the fate of Europe. Cold Magic is a highly enjoyable novel, with a likeable heroine, a hero who at first is not very likeable at all (until we get to know him better), a fascinating world full of original ideas, and generally approaches the Fantasy novel from an original angle and leads it down very unusual but highly entertaining places. I was glad that I had waited with reading this until all three volumes of the trilogy had been released, so that I did not have to wait to tackle the second volume.