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cover for Cold Steel


Trouble, treachery, and magic just won't stop plaguing Cat Barahal. The Master of the Wild Hunt has stolen her husband Andevai. The ruler of the Taino kingdom blames her for his mother's murder. The infamous General Camjiata insists she join his army to help defeat the cold mages who rule Europa. An enraged fire mage wants to kill her. And Cat, her cousin Bee, and her half-brother Rory, aren't even back in Europa yet, where revolution is burning up the streets.

Revolutions to plot. Enemies to crush. Handsome men to rescue.

Cat and Bee have their work cut out for them. (source)


Spoilers.

KJ: So I have start by thanking Renay for recommending this series to me so strongly, because otherwise I would not have picked it up. And that would have been a shame. Kate Elliott has long been on my list of "authors to check out someday, perhaps", but I'd never received a rec for any particular title. Since that list is very, very long, I doubt she would have moved to the top otherwise. Now I feel a burning need to at least take a look at everything else she has ever written.

Renay: By "strongly" you mean climbing the walls and going "READ IT OMG READ IT OR ELSE" and freaking you out so much that it became self-preservation, right? ;) I'm the best handseller, clearly. Count yourself lucky we live half a country apart, otherwise I would've taped the book to my face and done a backward crab crawl at you down a dark hall. WOULDN'T YOU HAVE BEEN CONVINCED?

I have Jaran, which Phil sent me with the (signed! omg!) copies of her other books from an event in a city that has a literary culture, unlike here, which will be the next book of hers I read since unless I get to the The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal first, which she collaborated on with Julie Dillon, one of my favorite artists. Probably you should put that on your list, too. We're fans! Fans are completists.

KJ: Are you serious? That's a thing that exists in the world? You bet that is going on my list post-haste. Because Beatrice. She is such a great character, both in and of herself and in her friendship with Cat, and I love the idea of getting a little more into her head. Not that she holds back much from Cat, but so many key events happen from her point of view, and I do wonder, sometimes, how Bee really feels about the goings on.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. What should we talk about first?

Renay: BEE.

I think what I love about Bee is that it's very clear throughout the book that although her story crosses and intersects with Cat's and we don't see much of it except in reflection, she still has a rich, complicated storyline of her own. She has her own power, both magical and political, her own connections, her own, distinct experiences that the narrative acknowledges again and again. She's having adventures on her own, she's meeting people, she's following the call of politics and using her own talents just like Cat. We only see pieces of it in the intersections, but it's perfect. And it's not just side story; you have to pay attention to what's happening to Bee to fully understand what's also happening to Cat, and how it impacts their friendship. Maybe it's just me, but that's so rare given the type of media I've been into lately, to see a female friendship be integral to character development and the overall plot of the story. It's so rare to have the emotional core of a fantasy series be not the romance (which is also important, sure) but instead the platonic, familial love of two women who want each other to succeed and be happy and fulfilled.

KJ: Yes, and it's one of the things I love the most about this story. After the events of the first book, when Cat is betrayed by her aunt and uncle, when she learns they sacrificed her to the cold mages to protect Bee, it would have been understandable for her to turn on Bee, too. Instead, her love and trust of Bee never fails, not even at those times when they are acting somewhat at cross-purposes to one another. Her first priority, always, is protecting Bee and keeping her safe, just as Bee's top priority is Cat. Although I get the sense that Bee doesn't always know how much danger Cat is in — one of the ways in which Cat tries to protect Bee is by keeping the whole truth from her. Which also leads me to wonder whether Bee is also keeping more secrets than we know.

And yes, I can't remember the last time I read a story with an important romance when a familial relationship, between sisters, was painted as more central to the characters and plot. (Bee and Cat may be adoptive cousins, but let's be real: that's a sisterly bond, there, sisters and BFF.) Not that Cat doesn't love Andevai, and prioritize his safety and well-being as well, but when it comes down to it, Bee is first, and that's a good thing.

Renay: I'm sure there are things Bee kept from Cat to keep Cat from going full on rage blackout. I'm thinking of Bee's marriage to Caonabo and all the parts of the courtship, the marriage, and the aftermath of Bee's decision to lie to him we didn't see and that Bee didn't talk about.

Speaking of Caonabo, there were a lot of things going on with that political and familial storyline I failed to retain because I was more interested in Cat and Cat's plan to get Andevai back. However, the opening of the book, where Caonabo attempts to put Cat on trial for the murder of his mother, Anacaona, went somewhere I never, ever expected. In fact, if I chose a favorite supporting character, Anacaona would be at the top of the list, and the relationship she develops with Cat and Bee was fantastic. It was the neatest and most clever twist on the "wise old mentor" trope I've read in awhile. Out of all the figures of power in the book, she was my favorite. Was she yours, or were the others in this book that pulled at you more? Because this book really shook up our understanding of some of them, like the Master of the Wild Hunt, the dragons, the mansa, etc., there's so many really fascinating side characters to appreciate.

KJ: No, I agree, Anacaona was an amazing character, one who became more important to the story than I would have expected — from mystical figure to antagonist to a mentor of sorts. But you're right that this is a crowded field. I would also include the headmaster and Bee's parents, especially her mother. I wish we had spent more time with Aunt Tilly, in particular, and gotten to know more about her motivations, because I got the sense she was genuinely regretful about selling Cat down the river to protect Bee. I don't know if she counts as a figure of power, exactly, but there's also Andevai's grandmother, who doesn't appear in this book but is important enough overall that I feel like she rates a mention.

But I don't think we can talk about important side characters, or figures of power, or fascinating or unexpected portrayals, without talking about Camjiata.

When he first came on the scene, as a shadowy background figure who had been exiled for his part in starting a war across Europe, my first thought was "oh, here's our AU Napoleon". And there are elements of that in his character, but my expectations were also subverted. I could never quite decide whether to see him as an ally or an antagonist, because Cat was put into a similar position by his actions.

Renay: Camjiata was multifaceted. He made kind decisions but also callous ones. He fanned the flames of James Drake's anger as it suited him but then let him loose to wreak havoc once he arrived in Europe. He tricked Bee, and he tricked Cat, and he did much of it for power. But then when he and Cat were together in this book, I felt a lot of sympathy for him — his losses, his political maneuvering that often he lost control of to circumstances beyond his control. He was contemptible for how he used people, but every time he and Cat got together I often just ended up feeling sorry for him. Even at the end I couldn't decide whether, if he and Cat ever meet again, whether they would do so on good terms or not.

For such a figure of power in the narrative itself, for me he was often dwarfed by Cat's determination and Bee's boisterous ability to unite people with her voice and her words, which he's good at...but then I always got the feeling that soon Bee would outstrip him in this, as well. It's very weird to feel that way when the character in question is infamous in the world in which he's moving and influencing events. His war and his push to erode the old ways feels old, like the time he has to make the changes he wants is dwindling, and the power that Cat and Bee wield with their minds alone is the next shining star. In the first two books he felt larger than life, but here in the third book his power, although his presence commanded respect and attention, was often pushed aside whenever he shared a scene with Cat. I don't know what to make of my reading of him in this book, and I wonder about his future beyond the ending of the series. Does he gain the power and control he wants? Does he create a better world? Or is it too late for him and his plans?

KJ: Those are good questions, and I think the book leaves the answers vague on purpose. In the end, I don't think Cat cares that much about whether Camjiata gets exactly the future he was looking for, as long as she can manipulate the outcome toward ending the clientage system. Cat and Bee have their own priorities, and that becomes more and more clear as the book progresses. You know, I think a lot of authors would have decided that Camjiata was the central figure of this age and focused on his story, rather than Cat and Bee's. It makes me wonder what the history books in this universe will say.

There's also that prophecy left hanging: Helene says that Cat will be the agent of Camjiata's death. I expected that to somehow come to fruition in this book, and I'm really interested that it didn't. Do they have a reckoning still to come? Or is it something that Cat has already done, setting the wheels in motion that will lead to his demise?

Renay: You're making me want someone to write piece of fic, set maybe 70 - 100 years after Camjiata's death, framed as a series of excerpts from various historical texts about the second war and Camjiata's influence. Imagine how perfect that would be. Historians argue like super pissed off cats, can you imagine the infighting and condescension? Then the Barahal scholars get interviewed and turn everything all the other historians and critics are saying upside down, and the Camjiata scholars get all hot under the collar about the Barahal scholarship. There could be an entire section devoted to whether or not Camjiata was assassinated or died naturally, with lots of rumors, etc. And the whole thing could end with a flashback, actual narrative: Cat and Camjiata meeting as equals sometime in their own future, either as friends or enemies, and musing over what history will say about them. KJ, I REALLY NEED THIS NOW, LOOK AT WHAT YOU'VE DONE.

KJ: And then she pulls out a knife and calmly murders him.

Can't deny prophecy, right? ;)

But in all seriousness, yes, that would be amazing. Fic writers of the world, get on that.

And now, for an abrupt subject change! I find it interesting that we've talked so little about Andevai so far, given that his marriage to Cat kickstarts the plot and remains a major driver throughout. I was really worried about that relationship at first, given how often I've rolled my eyes at bad "I hate you means I love you/forced marriage becomes instant true love" romances. But in this case, it works, because the journey they undertake in the first book, and all we learn about Andevai, makes the evolution believable.

I'm also struck in many ways by the contrasts between Andevai and James Drake. I could say a lot of cliche things about ice and fire here, about Andevai's calculating nature and ability to shut down his emotions, while James seems more passionate and impulsive. If they'd found a way to be allies instead of rivals, I have a feeling they would have been unstoppable. Given how we were introduced to James, I'm not, overall, sorry that he was an unsympathetic character. But I still wonder.

Renay: Wow, I completely missed the very obvious ice and fire metaphors! I thought the book — especially Cold Steel — was making a point about extreme hypermasculinity. The reading I took away was about how destructive it is when compared to the emotional journey we see Andevai take via compassion, empathy, and opening himself up to Cat emotionally by listening to her concerns and fears. Listening is something James Drake never seems to do to anyone but Camjiata and even that falls apart in the end. Looking at it from a perspective of a critique of hypermasculinity, I'm not sure they could have ever been allies, because it doesn't allow for a full range of human emotion and the ability to understand the emotions of others, which is the biggest gift Cat gives to Andevai throughout the series. AM I MAKING THINGS UP BECAUSE I HATED DRAKE and wanted him far far away from Cat? >.>

KJ: No, I agree with that reading. Because there are times when Andevai starts to fall into that trap, too, especially when he's competing with James or trying to impress the leaders of Four Moons House. But he always pulls back from it, in part because of his own personality and also because of Cat's influence.

Renay: Also, as James and Andevai grow into their power more and use their skills, they're both on particular sorts of emotional journeys. I don't think it can be overstated just how important Cat and Andevai's connection — not just their marriage with its spiritual roots but the emotional connection they build together in Cold Fire — shapes Andevai's use of his power and privilege later. Meanwhile, James is sparking all over the place, festering in hatred and jealousy. He may be powerful, but he has no one to temper him, and Camjiata uses him like a tool until he's uncontrollable. In the end, James lets his power control him. Andevai could have gone that way. Maybe he would have! But I like to think the book is arguing that power and privilege is only sustainable when it's used to protect and create, rather than destroy.

KJ: Me too. I think there is a strong argument for that, given that the people with power who "win" — Cat, Bee, Andevai, their true allies — are all the ones who have that kind of agenda.

I also agree that Andevai could have gone the same way as James, but it would have looked different. To belabor the ice and fire metaphors again, and thinking back to what Andevai was like when we first met him, he was closed off and imperious. Without Cat to coax him away from that, he would have turned out just like his masters: cold, haughty, indifferent to human suffering. Cat doesn't just save him from the ice mages who would have used him, she saves him from turning into one of them.

Renay: Yes! The way the power corrupts is specific to the mage, and it breaks my heart to imagine Andevai in Cold Steel like the mansa from Four Moons House. Even the Andevai in Cold Magic, haughty and condescending and thoughtlessly cruel had nothing on that guy, although we don't see the ways they're different until later. But wasn't it fascinating how the mansa flopped around at the end of Cold Steel? I found that affecting, that he went from such a powerful, imposing figure to humanized — although he complained a lot, what a whiner — and helping Cat in her quest to recover Andevai from Drake. I can say I didn't expect that!

KJ: I could have seen it going either way, really. Andevai is a threat to the mansa, because of his power and his agenda to end the clientage system, but the mansa also needs him, because of that same power. His house can't survive without Andevai, and he knows it. So although there might be some argument for letting the Drake or the Wild Hunt have him, I doubt he saw much choice.

Speaking of how the mansa was humanized, are there any significant power figures that don't go through some sort of process like that? Anacaona, Camjiata, the headmaster, even the Master of the Wild Hunt, who starts out as alien, frightening, strange, the biggest threat to Cat, her future, and her loved ones, turns out to be fighting his own battle, one that he needs Cat's help to win. It seems to me that Cat starts out in a position of always distrusting anyone with power over her, and one of the ways in which she grows is not so much losing that distrust, but learning better how to make a connection with them and turn that into a way for them to work together. Ultimately, I would say that strategy was effective with everyone but James Drake, who ruined his chance by lying to and taking advantage of her when they first met.

A drake is a kind of dragon, by the way. I don't know if it Means anything. But I kept noticing it, so I thought I would point that out.

Renay: It's amazing how all the characters that Cat distrusts, over time, change as she starts to see their perspectives. It's not that she comes to agree with them all (thinking of Camjiata here, who she repeatedly calls out for actual/perceived manipulation) but that she starts to see the depth of their experiences and motivations, and begins to judge them accordingly. The best developments for me were with Anacaona — such a great thing to see the wise mentor being a woman and still really powerful even as a head — and the Master of the Wild Hunt. I would never have predicted that his story would end in such a way.

I totally didn't catch the drake thing, but surely it means something! Names are never accidental in a story like this! I wonder if we're meant to see the characterizations of the cold mages and fire mages and compare them to Dragons and Courts — are there meant to be parallels?

KJ: It's certainly true that the fire mages don't have as strict a hierarchy as the cold mages, at least not from the limited examples we see. Not that Anacaona's people have no structure — they have a ruling class and an underclass in the form of catchfires, but it doesn't seem to be the all-out feudalism system we see among the cold mages in Europe. Which lines up well with the loose structure of the dragons versus the rigid hierarchy of the Courts.

Renay: The distinctions between the Dragons and the Courts was one of the most complicated aspects of the world building for me, and the thing it took me the longest to get my head around, as well! I'm still not sure I understand all the intricacies. But at the end of trilogy, it really felt like the book was coming down hard on absolute power.

KJ: And here is where we get into trouble with reviewing a book I finished a good six months ago, because I'm sure I had more opinions about the Dragons versus the Courts at the time, but I can't remember what they were. Oops? I knew I should have taken notes.

But hey, since you've mentioned world building: let's talk about the world building! I can't quite believe that it's taken us this long to get to that subject, since the awesomeness of the world building is the first thing I mention whenever I try to convince people to read the trilogy. Maybe because it's more important in the first two books — by the time we get to Cold Steel, most of the important aspects of the world are already established, with the exception of the Courts and other things we discover in the Spirit world. But still, I think there's plenty to talk about.

Renay: Probably my favorite part was the dedication and care given to fleshing out the alternate history of the world. When I was younger I was really into fantastical alternate history, but I drifted away eventually because so much of it was doing the exact same thing and not exploring the consequences of changing things, whether they were drastic changes or otherwise. The alternate history was a nice conceit in order to move on and do other neat things with whatever was extrapolated from the change. But here all the changes are almost always front and center because it's directly tied to Cat and Bee's family life, their heritage, and although the covers of the book don't help with this: our main characters aren't white and the text makes it really clear they aren't, and gives them all power and quests that I personally associate with white male heroes. It's so fantastic.

KJ: Yes, that was really amazing. Unfortunately, because of the bad cover art and my lack of knowledge of the ancient world, it took me longer than it should have to figure this out. Note to publishers of the world: stop whitewashing cover art please and thank you. But once I caught on, it only added to the fabulousness of the story.

As for my favorite part of the world building, what I keep coming back to is how fully she thought out the geologic differences created by the extended Ice Age, and how that would affect the history of the world. For example: The glaciers don't recede means no Bering Strait land bridge means no human migration into the Americas means dinosaurs evolve into a sentient race. There are many examples; that's just the one that comes to mind, in part because I love the trolls. Their society is impressive, and I wish we'd learned more about it. I enjoyed Cat's relationship with the radical lawyers. Look, another example of how Cat's ability to build connections with people comes back to help her in the end!

Renay: HA HA DON'T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT THESE COVERS. I expect so much better from Orbit in cover art that I think about the covers for these books and want to punch walls. I remember reading the first book and flipping back and forth from the book to the cover, and going ?!?!?!?!.

I would read an entire novel about the trolls and their culture. Looking back over the series as a whole now, so much of the world building to flesh out the world was so well done that you can't help but want more context, more backstory, and more interaction between the elements that made the world Cat moves through so rich and deep. I'm 100% sure that if I were a better history student — if I hadn't spent all my time taking American history courses and dived into the European and African courses — this novel would continue to get better and better, because the thought put into the world Cat lives in and the worlds she eventually visits are so thoughtfully considered. I can tell but I don't have the historical context or tools to fully see it. REGRETS.

I'm bad at fantasy novels, magic systems, and similar, so I measure fantasy by how often I have to take notes to keep track of what's happening. I'm always in "explain this to me like I'm five" mode with fantasy authors. I never took notes with this series, just gobbled it up and kept wanting more (I still want more; I'm REALLY GLAD Bee's journal exists as a thing I can buy). I LOVE THIS SERIES SO MUCH. Everyone should buy all the books and read them one after the other, and that's my 100% professional opinion.

KJ: I feel the same way about wishing I had enough background in history to have a better understanding of all the implications. I did spent a little time brushing up on the Phoenicians, and not only was it compelling in and of itself, it gave me more context to understanding Cat and Bee and their family relationships. Imagine how much more I would have gotten out of it if I had better than a US public education of world history?

As for the unabashed love of the series, I'm right there with you. I started recc'ing it to everyone I know even before I'd finished the first book. It's funny: I know I had some minor criticisms of the story as I was reading it, but now I can't even remember what they were; the awesomeness of everything else has just pushed all of that all of my brain, leaving only excitement and warm fuzzy feelings.

Renay: I've recommended it to a lot of people who know way more about Rome than I do who've loved it, too. :P Good literature: making you regret your life choices re: not spending weekends inside a library to compensate for crappy education.

Although this series is over, I do hold out hope that Elliott will continue releasing short pieces set in the world (PS she could also write the above Cat & Camjiata piece, I WOULD NOT SAY NO, PLEASE TAKE MY MONEY), but she does have some other stuff coming up. The Very Best of Kate Elliott will collect some of her short fiction together, and she has a YA novel coming out in June 2015, titled Court of Fives. There's also an epic fantasy in the works, Black Wolves, which is still being written. So, even though it's not Spiritwalker-verse, there's tons of stuff to look forward to over the next year. :D




"The ideal is a story in which women are present all the way from the protagonist to multiple secondary and minor characters, and that their interactions with each other are as important as their interactions with men." — Kate Elliott, Author Interview, The Book Wars





Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Fantasy Cafe, Liz Bourke, Paul Weimer (SF Signal), Lurv a la Mode, yours?

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