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Cover of Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

The Wild Hunt is stirring and dragons are waking from their long sleep.

Cat Barahal was the only survivor of the flood that took her parents. Raised by her extended family, she and her cousin, Bee, are unaware of the dangers that threaten them both. And although they are poised on the brink of an Industrial Age, magic — and the power of the Cold Mages — still holds sway.

Now, betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful cold mage, Cat will be drawn into a labyrinth of politics. There she will learn the full ruthlessness of the Cold Magic rule. But what do they want from her? And who will help Cat in her struggle against their powerful magic?

You might not believe this one, but despite being friends with [personal profile] renay for ten years, I had never read a Kate Elliott book before this one. It wasn't for lack of trying; I have Black Wolves, and I tried to read this one a few years back and just bounced off it. But I circled back around to it, and this time I got sucked in.

Kate Elliott's Cold Magic revolves around Cat Hassi Barahal, a proud member of a family of spies and mercenaries in a fantasy alternate history version of Europe where mage houses squabble with princes for power. She gets non-consensually married off to a member of one of the mage house to pay off a family debt, and spends the rest of the book trying to wrangle mages, the spirit world, and protecting her cousin; the resulting drama is delightful.

(I will be ATTEMPTING to avoid spoilers as far as I can, wish me luck!)

I think the reason that I bounced off the story the first time I tried to read it was that I didn't know it was an alternate history story! This time, I got a couple of pages into the book and went "Wait, is this an AU where Carthage didn't lose to the Romans?"

Then "Holy shit, this is a universe where colonialism didn't happen?!"

Then "Wait, is this still world in an ice age?!" and "Okay, there's magic and zombies that were trapped underground and magic bird-like troll things!?" and right at the end of the book "Holy shit, this is set during the industrial revolution as well?!"


The thing that impresses me most about this progression (and apologies to my twitter followers, who got this shrieking in real time), is that every new thing the book brought in revealed more about the world and moved it one step away from the story I thought I was reading. It's not a pure fantasy story, it's an alternate history one with changes starting all the way back in the Roman era — but it's also a fantasy story, a Regency story, a story with so many non-white voices. Like, in the backmatter, Kate Elliott describes Cold Magic as an "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies and the intelligent descendants of troodons" and I didn't even know that was a mash-up people could write, let alone did.

Part of this shift works so well because the book is written strictly from Cat's point of view, and for all her considering herself something of An Expert In These Matters, she's not. Her father, Daniel Barahal, spent his life writing diaries that serve as histories or travelogues for all of the places that he'd been (His approach seemed very Herodotus to me, especially considering the way he reports stories about magic and the Wild Hunt — as things that people believe that he does not!), which Cat has spent her life going over, because her narration does sometimes take on the same tone and level of detail as a history! I studied ancient history, this is never a bad thing. Cat is interested in different cultures (even if she has her prejudices, such as Romans), which is great, especially as there are so many in this book! (LOOK, A BOOK SET IN FANTASY EUROPE THAT DOESN'T FLATTEN EVERYTHING DOWN TO A HANDFUL OF CULTURES AND OUTLOOKS! LOOK AT THIS! And then join me in judging the shit out of the whitewashed cover!)

(I have to say though, I found there to be very little sense of place? Like, I don't usually need the maps in fantasy novels, but I had to flip back to it half way through just to find out which country Cat was in, and I was surprised to find that she had been in England and France! (They never separated in this world setting by the look of the map, and Scotland is just gone.) I guess this makes sense for a world so different to ours? But also if the name of the cultures had been changed, I could absolutely have believed that there was no connection between our world and this one, so.)

I do love the world building and the presentation of it. There are so many interesting things in this world, starting with trolls! I thought trolls were birdy-humany-creatures and they turned out to be dinosaur-creatures, intelligent enough to have their own law firms and have elaborate schemes that span continents. This is delightful, because whenever the lawyer-trolls show up they are an oasis of reasonableness. That said, there was one part of the world-building that I side-eyed quite hard relating to the trolls, where it was implied that America produced trolls instead of humans, which was a bit... Oh wow, way to erase native cultures there? But I'm assured by the people who watched me livetweet this book that IT IS FINE, Cat is wrong on this one and Kate Elliott didn't commit massive erasure there.

The other things in the world-building that stuck with me — Amazons (!!!), the apparent ice age still going on, the zombies emerging from salt mines, the revolution apparently kicking off — don't get as much play, although I enjoyed the way things that don't seem important at first due to Cat's priorities suddenly turn out to actually be integral to what's going on! Plus, what we see of the spirit world, without giving any spoilers, is fascinating. It's so strange and alien and (in parts) colourful, so I really enjoyed those parts? And I enjoyed the characters that she met there, or who guide her there, because they feel like familiar character tropes being given set up to have space.

Speaking of character tropes: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ANDEVAI. Cat is great as a protagonist; she wants to know things (and thinks she knows a lot already, with varying degrees of accuracy on that one), she is smart and skilled and her biases are clear. And she is so proud of herself and her family, and her loyalty and love for her cousin, Bee, is so unquestionable that it makes me giddy — throughout the entire book, her feelings for and relationship to Bee are the emotional core! Her motivation! The thing she literally holds on to when everything else is gone! (YES, GIVE THIS TO ME, I AM COMPLETELY HERE FOR A BOOK PRIORITISING FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS.) But her other main emotional relationship, such as it is, is with her husband, Andevai, and oh my gosh.

I cannot get over Andevai's fuckawful behaviour in the first half of the book. He marches into Cat's house and marries her without her consent! He is fussy and disgustingly rude to everyone he meets who he perceives as beneath him (so... Anyone who isn't also a mage, pretty much.)! He spends three days refusing to talk to Cat or explain anything, and then is aghast that she doesn't know the cultural mores she needs to get by! On the plus side, he KNOWS he's out of line, but for fuck's sake man! I come to Andevai as someone who has read a lot of romances, so I looked at his behaviour at the start and went "This is a character where I am going to be expected to tolerate all of his bullshit through two-thirds of the book, and then I'm going to have to believe in his sudden transformation into a likeable character, isn't it?" But!

But, about halfway through the book actually explains what the fuck is up with Andevai! And it doesn't excuse his behaviour, doesn't even try to excuse his behaviour, but it goes "This is a character who has been taken from everything he knows and installed into a position of power and privilege, and now he not only is going to do everything he can to stay in that position, but he's lost his ability to relate to how other people are affected by his actions and power and privilege!" How [personal profile] renay phrased it when we were talking about it was "Elliott was trying to critique a type of privileged male character who is ignorant of the things people around him have to go through, because he's entered into a privileged system and internalised it," and this... Sounds about right to me! From the way he treats Cat to the way he treats strangers to the way he treats his own blood relatives, he strikes me as someone who's not deliberately thoughtless with other people, but is so absorbed in his own problems that it just doesn't occur to him that other people also have things to do, and it is supremely frustrating to read. Like, respect to Kate Elliott for sticking to her guns on showing his behaviour as maybe understandable but not acceptable, where other authors might (and have, in different genres) falter, because I needed that.

... I'll tell you what, though, I really appreciated how much Cat was like "I really don't like my husband, but he is REALLY ATTRACTIVE, this is THE WORST!" all through the book, because that was how I felt about him too!

(... THAT CONVERSATION WITH CAT AT THE END THOUGH, goodness me you asshole, did you save up most of your charm for that moment?)

(I find it interesting to compare and contrast Cat and Andevai's thoughtlessness; they both have their blindspots and hurt people without intending to, but Cat's missteps are primarily social, and the person who ends up most hurt by them is her! Andevai's missteps, whether they're social or not, can get other people killed. APPRECIATE HOW HARD I'M TRYING NOT TO MAKE THE "THAT IS CHILLING" COMMENT ABOUT THE LITERAL ICE WIZARD, OKAY.)

As for the other characters:
  • I cannot speak about the mansa or Cat's not-Bee family without shrieking spoilers indignantly, but suffice it to say: EVERYONE IS TERRIBLE AND THEY ALL NEED TO SORT THEIR SHIT OUT. ESPECIALLY Cat's uncle, because what the fuck.

  • I am so sad that we don't know more about Cat's mother though, because what we do get about Tara Bell is amazing and I would read an entire book that was nothing but her and Daniel travelling around, having adventures; has someone already written the epic AU where she and Daniel survive, and they raise Cat together! And while I appreciated how important Cat's dad is to her, I really want more relationships that are girls and their mothers, rather than any child and their father. This is my preference, this is no slight upon the book at all, it just would be nice if Tara Bell had as much of a presence in the narrative as Daniel Barahal, especially when two of the mysteries literally centre on her past.

  • The dinosaur lawyers and their team are WONDERFUL. I like them so much, and would like a lot of art of dinosaurs at desks practicing law and using presses now, thank you.

  • My favourite characters are Bee and Rory and only the fact that I need to write this review is stopping me diving face-first into AO3 (and the next books I GUESS) looking for more about them. I NEED THEM TO HANG OUT AND RUIN CAT'S DAY ALL OF THE TIME, OKAY. I particularly liked that Bee considered Cat just as important to her as she is to Cat; I have seen stories where that hasn't been the case, but this avoids that pitfall, and how her pride is presented as just as valid as Cat's! And she is skilled and determined and willing to put the fear of her into everyone she has to to protect her cousin. Plus: her demands of the mansa are so reasonable, and her reactions are great!

    I especially like that the cousins aren't played off against each other! Cat might be frustrated by or tease Bee over her crushes, but there's not the conflict that some media gives to that dynamic? I am so glad of it, and that they trust each other so unquestioningly!

    Plus I love Cat and Rory's relationship, it is precious and exactly what I wanted. Yes, hugging! Teasing! Genuine concern and protectiveness on both their parts! I need it. ... Basically, forget the plot, I just want Cat interacting with her family as they try to negotiate where everyone stands.

Some of the beats are exactly what I expected; genre savvy took one look at how specific Cat's aunt was about Cat being the oldest and was like "WELL I SEE WHAT IS GOING ON HERE", the reliance on Bee's [spoilers] to navigate the last few chapters felt a bit... Much... And I looked at Rory when he showed up and just went "You are either going to be a relative or I am going to ship you two like crazy" and I'm glad I found out which way that went before I got too invested. But also there were some really cool twists on motifs and structures I recognised from studying classics, so I am REALLY HAPPY.

It really felt like a First Book In A Trilogy to me, though, which is remarkable because I usually have the opposite problem: I read the first book in a trilogy and go "Yes, what a satisfying standalone novel! I am so happy with that!" and then [personal profile] renay goes "Surprise, it's a series!" (See also: Ninefox Gambit, Ancillary Justice, God's War, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Leviathan Wakes...) Like, I realised halfway through that I still had no idea what the main plot was supposed to be, or if I'd even seen the main threads of it yet. I don't know if it's just me or if the pacing is as strange as it feels? It felt like there was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, a lot of action followed by long stretches of characters just... Not talking to each other, and very few of the mysteries even have hints of a solution yet. We are so locked into Cat's POV, and she just doesn't know enough.

As ways to sell me on actually remembering to finish a trilogy, I guess that works!

In conclusion, then: I really enjoyed this one! It took my love of ancient history and its storytelling and rolled with it, and gave me a multi-cultural story with strong familial relationships and female friendships. The smashing together of all the different pieces worked really well, and the result was novel and bright and it made me really happy. I definitely made the right choice starting my Kate Elliott bingo card here.

Other Reviews

Jodie and Renay coreview Cold Magic, The Book Smugglers, Kristen at Fantasy Book Café, yours?

Other Posts in this Series

"Where have you been all my life?" Jaran by Kate Elliott by Mieneke
Giveaway! Court of Fives & Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott
Robot Pals and Revolution: A Passage of Stars by Kate Elliott by Renay

Date: 2016-09-07 12:28 pm (UTC)
transcendancing: Darren Hayes quote "Life is for leading, for not people pleasing" (Default)
From: [personal profile] transcendancing
Thank you for that lead in, I also haven't read any Kate Elliott yet - and only realised that this year thanks to [personal profile] renay and now need to rectify this, but it's nice knowing I'm not the only one! Although now you've read it and I'm still lagging - but SOOOOOON!!!

Date: 2016-09-07 02:32 pm (UTC)
owlmoose: (Default)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
The thing that impresses me most about this progression (and apologies to my twitter followers, who got this shrieking in real time), is that every new thing the book brought in revealed more about the world and moved it one step away from the story I thought I was reading.

This is exactly how I felt about this book, too. It confounded my expectations a lot, in ways I totally enjoyed.

Cold Magic was also my first Kate Elliott book!

Date: 2016-09-08 08:22 am (UTC)
chelseagirl: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chelseagirl
I have Spirit Gate in my TBR pile, but now you are making me want to read Cold Magic first . . .


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