Ugh – sometimes I really hate series. I really should know better by now after years of torture awaiting the next Harry Potter book, and now years of waiting for George R.R. Martin to release the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire.
But then I stumble across a fantastic series and am reminded why I put up with it. And luckily for me, I’m only waiting on my library, since Kate Elliott has already published the two final books in the Spiritwalker trilogy.
Elliott’s Cold Magic takes place in an alternate universe Earth where the Roman empire’s legacy endures through it’s historic colonization of Europe and North Africa. Per the title, magic exists in this world but it wars with technological innovation. Cat Hassi Barahal, the protagonist, and her cousin Bee are in the science camp – students at a prestigious academy and members of a far-flung family of merchant spies who despise mages. Cat and Bee excitedly attend lectures and yearn to see a real airship when their lives are thrown into chaos by the arrival of a cold mage, Andevai, who binds Cat into marriage with his powers.
Cat, who is an orphan, spends much of the book trying to figure out who she is and where she comes from. She still has nightmares about the death of her parents and now her surrogate parents – her aunt and uncle, Bee’s parents – stood by as she was forced to marry a stranger. Andevai is as cold as his title as a cold mage suggests. He wields immense power but that doesn’t necessarily magically fix his problems. Neither of them love the situation they’re in or who they’re in it with but can they make the best of it?
This was one of the most innovative fantasy settings I’ve read. I was a huge Latin nerd in high school, so it was great seeing a steampunk offshoot of the greatest empire in history (arguably). The Hassi Barahal family is a direct offshoot of the powerful tribes of Carthage so there’s much discussion about how the victors (the Romans) write history and corrupt the truth of the Phoenician culture. Additionally, the exodus from Africa and the discovery of the new world “Amerikes” were fascinating deviations from our own history.
I also loved the struggle between science and magic mirroring the struggle between traditionalists and radicals in the text. Both sides were well-drawn and understandable. The political and personal motivations of every character were realistic and Elliott gave us enough historical background (in a non-boring way!) to explain how this world got to this point of conflict. Unfortunately, Cat’s personal history remains confusing, though it will hopefully be better explained in the sequels.
Cat and Bee could be weak and dense at times, they were multi-faceted characters with plenty of room for growth, which did happen over the course of the plot. Although arrogant and vain at the beginning, by the end Vai made me swoon. And I loved the trolls and minor radicals, such as Brennan. However, some of the supporting characters were less fleshed-out than the principals, especially for playing such a large role off-screen. This is the one part where I felt like the background information was murky and could’ve used a systemic map of the political and familial systems to understand how the characters are inter-connected and allied.
Overall, this is the start of a fresh new fantasy world and I’m eager to explore more.