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Cold Magic (The Spiritwalker Trilogy) Paperback – September 9, 2010
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
The first installment of Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy puts a decidedly steampunk edge on epic adventure fantasy. The setting is a pseudo-Victorian Europe at the emergence of an industrial revolution, replete with dirigibles, gas lights, and great political and social upheaval. The unpopular cold mages believe that the "reckless tinkering" of radical scientists and natural historians will destroy society. Irreverent orphan Catherine Hassi Barahal mostly thinks about staying out of trouble and finding out about her mysterious explorer parents, but when a cold mage shows up to collect on an old contract, Cat is forced to marry him and undertake a nightmarish journey across an ice-covered country in which she learns frightening things about the mortal and spirit worlds. After a slow start, Elliott pulls out all the stops in a wildly imaginative narrative that will ring happy bells for fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.
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It's a definite hands-down great read ... the characters, the mysteries, the background history, the cultural complexity, were all so intriguing I couldn't stop reading Elizabeth Moon An exuberant narrative with great energy and inventive world building ... I utterly loved it FantasyBookCritic An entertaining read SFFWorld.com --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
The map is so interesting because the alternate history is so baroque. Let me lay that out a little.
First, we are in the Gaslamp era, but also still in a heavily glaciated epoch. I believe ice stretches across a lot of what is for us the United States, though the map doesn’t show that. Deep history must be quite different in this world, because dinosaurs didn’t die out; in the Americas, troödons gave rise to the “feathered people,” just as in Africa apes gave rise to the hominids.
I have never seen such a fabulous nonhuman species in a fantasy series. Never. I just love how the feathered people are designed. They are so nonhuman. Their underlying instincts are so clearly different from human instincts. The reader is not bashed over the head with this, the feathered people are a crucial but relatively small element in the book, but it is obvious. They are simply wonderful. So that’s one element – these sentient troödon descendants.
Second, waaaay back when (not sure how long ago, but a while), an important West African empire dug too far down in the salt mines and let loose the “salt plague” – at first the reader has no idea that this is a zombie element, and if zombies are a turn off for you, have no fear! You are not bashed over the head with the zombies, either. They are an important background element, occasionally brought into the foreground, but this is not by any stretch of the imagination a “zombie book”. In the Cold Magic trilogy, the historical importance of the salt plague is that it drove a mass migration from West Africa to Europe; the mages of both the African empire and the Celts found common ground and basically established a powerful empire drawing on both traditions. This gives us the main background culture for the story.
Oh, and third, the Roman Empire is still more or less a going concern.
And fourth, we wind up in the Antilles for quite a lot of the trilogy, where we find a quite distinctive civilization; the European colony city of Expedition exists at the edge of the Taino culture and features, by the way, a great creole type of language that must have given the copy editors absolute fits.
So the background is, as I say, baroque – and that’s before getting to the magic, though ordinary mortal magic is in fact quite straightforward in comparison, with cold mages and fire mages. One of the cleverest details is how the cold mages can’t walk by a fire without putting it out, and thus mage houses are heated via a Roman hypocaust system.
In addition to normal magic, though, there is the spirit world and the Wild Hunt and shapeshifting sabertoothed cats, not to mention the dragons . . . once again, baroque complications flower off in all directions.
Also I’ve left out the extreme tension between the mage houses and noble lineages who hold all the power, and the common people who are just at the edge of demanding legal rights. It’s like the peasants’ revolt in Britain in 1381 AD, only on a larger scale and with complications like the Napoleon-esque Camjiata, determined to conquer all of Europe and establish a new legal system, though he sure is determined to rule as Emperor himself no matter what he promises – he could be the scariest guy in the trilogy, though in such a civilized way.
So. That’s the background.
Now, the protagonist. What counts as epic fantasy for you? This is a big, complicated work, but we have exactly one pov protagonist, which means I’m not sure whether to call the trilogy “epic fantasy” or not. Also, the narration is first person, which also serves to give a more intimate feel to the story than I would generally think of for epic fantasy. On the other hand . . . the trilogy does “feel” like epic fantasy to me, more than anything else.
Though I don’t necessarily object to a clutter of pov protagonists, I did like Catherine Barr Barahel – Cat. Since the story is Cat’s, you have to like her voice or you won’t care for the trilogy. I did like her. She is one of the relatively few impulsive heroines who really works for me, probably because she is smart, brave, stubborn, and loyal. I also like how much of a sensualist she is – that’s relatively rare, I think, and it is a trait that helps the reader feel immersed in the world. For a while I did feel Cat was being pretty stupid about various things, but not (usually) so much so as to be really annoying, and anyway she can eventually accept the obvious when it bashes her over the head hard enough.
Cat’s story starts off like a YA story, and rather slowly. We see her world and family, and her cousin and best friend Bee (Beatrice) – the relationship between Cat and Bee is the most important relationship in the story. The story really starts when Cat is unexpectedly forced to marry a very powerful young cold mage, Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, who incidentally is enormously appealing, with his mix of vanity and confidence and insecurity. I’m sure you can see this coming, but of course Cat eventually falls for him even though at first she detests him.
And then we go from there, with the good guys getting together and being wrenched apart, and facing down villains, and basically trying to save each other and the world.
In some ways the villains are the best part — Camjiata with his suave, sympathetic conviction that he should be emperor; the master of the Wild Hunt with his inhuman detachment and casual cruelty; the mansa of Four Moons House with his certainty that people of good birth, like him, should naturally be able to dispose of lesser beings like villagers — he actually grew on me at the end; and of course the fire mage James Drake, who when we first meet him seems like a perfectly okay guy and then every. single. time. he reappears, he reveals himself as worse than we thought.
So. Here we have a story that opens slowly and then adds one complication after another, with important female friendships, important male friendships, complicated family relationships, angsty romances, good guys that you can root for even though they’re flawed, bad guys that you can love to hate, intelligent troödons, and complicated culture clashes. And dragons. If you’re in the mood for a fairly intimate-scale story told against a cluttered, ornate background, this might be exactly what you want.
OK, the were-tigers were not a huge part of this. Sadly.
A lot of things happen to Cat- our protagonist- and they pretty much make sense in theory. To my mind, Elliot did not do the foreshadowing that would make them make sense plot-wise, at least not all the time.
The same was true for the characters. The important ones acted in what seemed to me to be arbitrary ways. They were weak or strong, friendly or not, in a fairly random fashion based more on the requirements of the plot than on their own characters.
Because of this, while the plot was twisty, it was not necessarily coherent. I would hope that some of this would be resolved in #2, which I have not read.
The heroine is an engaging girl, and deals competently with all the crap that is thrown her way. The "romance" is awkward, and not all that persuasive; Cat's relationship with her cousin Bee is much more compelling and mutual.
I liked this book enough that I am willing to read #2 at some point. The political and magical systems are pretty fascinating, though not the focus of the book. I am a sucker for fantasies with peasant rebellions (rare and far between), and this one has some promise.
I'll read #2!
Catherine Hassi Barahal has grown up in the home of her aunt and uncle since the age of six after her parents tragically drowned, leaving Cat as the only survivor. She has spent a lot of time idolizing a father that she barely remembers by reading his extensive journals. She also attends college with her cousin and best friend Beatrice (Bee), learning about the new technology sweeping through the country. Slowly fading are the old days of magic and tradition. Overall Cat’s life, while not void of tragedy, has been pretty good. That is, until a cold mage turns up at the house and Cat is forced to marry him in order to fulfill a contract her family entered into thirteen years ago.
With no time wasted, and no explanations given, Cat is whisked away in her new husband’s carriage to Four Moons House, one of the existing mage houses. Now, Cat’s past and that of her family’s is being called into question. With unease brewing between revolutionists and the mages, Cat keeps her head down and herself silent. She no longer knows who to trust or what the mage house wants with her, but she’s determined to make it out alive.
Cold Magic starts off slowly as Kate Elliott establishes the history behind the world she’s created. I found it unfolded to me less through the interactions of the characters and more through an internal monologue of Cat’s (the book being told from her point of view). I guess we could say this speaks to Cat’s character. She’s very book smart, is able to recall various maps of different lands and minute details given in class lecture. However, she’s also strong-minded and stubborn. When faced with the perilous journey ahead of her she doesn’t just give up to her situation. She lies in wait for the perfect opportunity to stand up for herself, and when needed, she’s fully capable of defending her life. She’s determined to get back to Bee, and even if everything else is out of her control, she will succeed at least in that one matter.
Cold Magic picks up with the appearance of Andevai, Cat’s now husband. He comes onto the page very mysteriously. We, like Cat, know absolutely nothing about him, and up to this point, we know even less about the cold mages. He’s proud and arrogant, but that same arrogance is well-founded as he’s extremely strong in his magic. Yet it also makes him a little blind to the motives behind his commanded marriage to Cat. We don’t know enough about him to truly know what side he will stand on. All I will say is that I held out hope for him throughout the entire book, and he and Cat’s interactions were the best in the book (second only maybe to the interactions between Cat and Bee).
The world Elliott created in Cold Magic is on the brink of another revolution. Years ago the man who would “unite the lands of Europa” was defeated and imprisoned, but there are those that would see him freed, and unrest is definitely felt throughout the land. Cold Magic ends with some questions answered, but others are given to take their place. At this point I’m fully invested in finishing Cat’s journey, and I’m happy that the entire trilogy is published.
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The strongest point is intricate world building.Read more