Cold Fire by Kate Elliott – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the second Spiritwalker novel from Kate Elliott, published by Orbit Books.
“An extra special sequel that takes the characters to new places and through new adventures, this book has my seal of awesome on it.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
So after two more straight first books, I am back to talking about a sequel. I’ve mentioned before how sequels can make or break a series, how important they are to maintaining interest in a series, especially when the series is a trilogy. In that case, the sequel marks the (should at least) high point of the series and it needs to be good so that readers can keep coming back. Sometimes sequels fail that particular test and it is only a certain loyalty and trust in an author (or even series) that gets the reader to go pick up a third book. I’ve seen plenty of cases like that. But then there are sequels like Rachel Aaron’s The Spirit Rebellion, Jean Johnson’s An Officer’s Duty, Gav Thorpe’s Crown of the Conqueror, Nick Kyme’s Firedrake and others that impress even more than the first novels and are solid books building on what’s come before.
Cold Fire, Kate Elliott’s second novel in the Spiritwalker series about the Hassi-Barahal cousins Cat and Bee set in a pseudo-Europe that is remarkably different from our own, is one such sequel. In most ways, Kate delivers a much better novel than Cold Magic, whether that be the characterisation or the world-building (or rather, world exploration it should be said!), the romance, the action, and so on. Sure, a few small things ring false, but fortunately there weren’t that many of them, very few indeed.
Cold Fire serves as a great vehicle for Cat and Vai to develop further as characters. The early chapters serve to recap the events of Cold Magic and then once we are past that, once we have been refamiliarised with the characters and events, we kick into the heart of the story, as Cat and Vai go on their separate paths, which take them far from each other, but also keep them close. We see Cat develop more of her unique powers and status. We see Vai grow much more compassionate and that much more likable. And we get to see a really nice progression of their romance, their relationship as husband and wife, despite their many struggles.
If anything, Cold Fire is the novel where these two become more mature, more aware of who and what they are. In Cold Magic, they struggled to create their own distinct identities, to establish their own paths divergent from the destinies that others have intended for them. This time, they are well-set on the path to become characters in their own right, to be free to choose and do as they want. Due to nature of the narrative, first person through Cat’s eyes, we know well what happens to Cat and how she is shaped by her experiences, and thus we don’t get to meet Vai until much later. And so he retains his mystery and charm for much of the novel. Before, he was a riddle that Cat struggled greatly to solve. Now, it is Cat who is the riddle for Vai. The flip was therefore a great touch, and it doesn’t become apparent until well into the final third of the novel, when events really kick into an overdrive.
Reading through the novel, it is clear that Kate Elliott lavished a lot of attention on her characters, getting their distinct voices and appearance and mannerisms etc just right, all to make them more realistic and believable. Like I said however, there were a couple missteps which I found to be really odd. The first of this was when Cat arrived in the Antilles (the Caribbean) and has an interesting… encounter with a character we come across early on in the novel. It highlighted her naivete and I suppose that was the intention of the author, but I couldn’t really get behind it. It was too… convenient and Cat doesn’t think things through as much as I expected her to. The second happened much later, and again involved Cat, when she walked into a tavern to confront the aforementioned character. Given all the development that Cat undergoes all through to that point, this rang especially false. It made me go “really, Cat, really?” and I had to shake my head at her.
And this brings me to the point about the Antilles. The early chapters were set in Europe but after a rather harrowing and interesting encounter that Cat goes through, she finds herself left deserted rather unceremoniously in the Antilles islands. She has a mission to fulfill this time, a mission that involves exposing the heart of what is happening there, something that threatens to upset a delicate little balance between the normal world and the world beyond. This was an angle that I really liked. Given the revelations in Cold Magic, I was all set for the author to exploit Cat like this and Kate delivered on that expectation most handsomely. The entire challenge facing Cat also serves to test her character and her loyalties and her love even.
To go back to Antilles however, I loved that Kate really fleshed out the locale and the natives. They were given a great outing in terms of exploring their culture and their traditions, setting them apart from all the Europeanness that we had been treated to up until that point. It made for a great change of pace. I’m not familiar at all with Caribbean history so I cannot say what Kate’s “changes” to her Europe ended up happening to the Spiritwalker version of Caribbean, the Antilles. Regardless, it was great to see how the islands and their natives become embroiled in the political war raging throughout Europe, on behalf of the former warlord Camjiata, the man that Cat’s mother used to be a bodyguard for, part of a warrior elite within his armies. The mere hint of his presence in the Antilles ruffles feathers all over and it was thrilling to see how it all plays out in the end, as the heights of Camjiata’s ambitions and plans are revealed.
The scenes that are set on Antilles, whether those when Cat is within the care of the fire mages who rule all of Antilles as an elite social cast, or when Cat is out and about among the (normal) natives, do a great deal to show off a non-anglophone society in great depth in their own element. If I had to make a comparison, then Kate’s exploration comes close to what Aliette de Bodard did with the Aztec culture in her Obsidian & Blood noir fantasy series. It is not often that a non-anglophone culture is shown in a good light when compared to the traditional pseudo-European (or American) cultures. Usually they are shown in a very negative light, with their entire reason for existence being that the “more enlightened” culture needs to be shown as the stronger, more powerful, more… relevant. But that is not the case here, and this is a great point in Cold Fire’s favour.
Finally, there were still a few pacing issues with the novel, mostly in the middle third, but when compared to Cold Magic (again!), they weren’t that many. Generally, the entire narrative flows much better this time around because a lot of the basic world-building has already been done. The author’s focus has now shifted to exploring the world that she has built up, introducing the reader to new sights and sounds while still holding everything together in a cocoon of familiarity so that readers aren’t too disoriented. I certainly wasn’t.
Now, in all of this, here’s the thing.
When I first read the novel, I had certain… reservations about it, and I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped that I would. And this kind of bothered me, because I had really wanted to like it. Don’t get me wrong, Cold Fire is a fairly good book. It was just that it didn’t meet all my expectations and it fell short of them. But then I started writing this review. My process of writing a review has changed immensely since I first started. Going in, I always have a certain plan of action in how to approach critiquing the book in question.
Given my reservations, I thought about it all again. Word by word, as I wrote this review, I just instinctively realised that Cold Fire is a better book than I was giving it credit for. And the main thing here was the entire romance between Cat and Vai, and how their relationship ends up affecting Cat’s cousin Bee. Plus all the cultural stuff we see in the Antilles islands. Hopefully, my review convinces you to pick up this book, and its predecessor. They are some of the finest examples of (historical urban) fantasy fiction I’ve read to date. Certainly worth reading and talking about. The last bit there is really key!