Cold Magic by Kate Elliott – Book Review [Shadowhawk]


Shadowhawk reviews the first book of the Spiritwalker trilogy.

“An intense novel with some likable characters, but often very slow, Cold Magic has something for everybody and is also a great example of some superb world-building.” ~The Founding Fields

Kate Elliott is one of those authors I’ve wanted to read for a long time, said time being defined as “since early 2012”. I wasn’t able to get around to any of her books last year, but I made a resolution that I definitely will read at least one of her books in 2013, which is why I put it on my “25 Series I Want To Read In 2013” list. I love doing a reading challenge, and this was the perfect way for me to make sure that I could read at least the first novel.

The thing that really jumped out at me while I was reading the book was Kate’s world-building. Her Europe is an alternate world where magic and those who can manipulate it, whether they be human or creature, very much exist. She has recreated a Europe that has a great amount of cultural diversity that also extends to people of colour. So often, that is one of the elements of worldbuilding that is ignored by authors, whether on purpose or otherwise. This was one of the things that made Cold Magic a stand-out novel for me, and I wish that more authors would chose this route. If authors include more diversity in their worlds, then their work is more inclusive, and it will have wider appeal.

The diversity in the nature of magical creatures was something that I very much expected, since this is an urban fantasy novel. Sometimes, these revelations can follow one after the other too quick, and a significant chunk of the middle of the novel is devoted to this aspect of the novel. And it doesn’t end there. Kate Elliott to far more in the narrative than is shown on the pages. For me, that alone is reason enough to read the sequel, Cold Fire.

Cat Barahal, the protagonist, made for an excellent character. While the novel starts off really slow and the issue persists for a fair bit of the narrative, I really enjoyed reading about her, and exploring more of her back-story. Cat is a character with a past that is mired in mysteries and deceit. Cat’s relationship with her cousin Bee, and with her fiance Andevai, serve to define and explore her character. We never see things from their perspective since the novel is told in the first person, but seeing them through Cat’s eyes explores an entirely different side of their character. Given that the entire narrative revolves around Cat, this is all the more appropriate. Sometimes it is to the benefit of a novel if we see people and events filtered through the eyes and mind of a protagonist. Sometimes the reverse is true. In the case of Cold Magic, the former approach worked really well. The setting is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time so the having that consistent outlook on it works to the advantage of the narrative, the author, and the reader alike.

Seeing Cat change from a rather shy character in the beginning to someone much more in control of her fate was another highlight of the novel. She refuses to submit to anyone’s whim and she is someone who can stand up and speak for herself, even when it might not be the most wise thing to do. There are countless scenes in the novel when she stands up to someone of higher rank and with greater authority than her. The fact that she is unique in that regard as far as other people in that setting are concerned, is even better. She wants to be treated with respect and courtesy, and she is not afraid to demand either from the people around her. This shows up repeatedly in her interactions with Andevai in particular, since he is a cold mage, and thus has a great amount of magical power, power that is to be feared.

Another thing I wanted to comment on is the fact that Cat is a bookworm. She reads a lot, owing to her fascination with her (dead) father’s travel journals. The very first chapter and another two later on, have a library/study as the setting, and as a bookworm myself, I loved that little bit of worldbuilding. Characters who actively read in SFF, and are not of the magician/sorcerer variety, I enjoy reading about immensely. This part of Cat’s nature connected with her instantly, and is one of the reasons that I liked her so much.

Andevai himself is a very engaging character, even though he doesn’t appear as such when we first meet him and for a few chapters after that. He is someone caught between two worlds, and his life is one of constant struggle and humiliation because of this. Seeing what makes him tick, not to mention his redemption as a character where the reader is concerned, made for some of the novel’s best moments. His back and forth with Cat, his indignation at being forced to marry her, and his arrogance, it all made for some really great reading. Throughout the novel, I kept thinking that there had to be a way for the two of them to get together. It didn’t happen as I expected since, to be honest, I expected a fairly straightforward romance between the two of them. But happen it does, and seeing it come about showed that the author had a firm handle on how to progress either character towards that eventual goal. It could definitely have been handled a bit better, since I often felt that Andevai was simply too indignant, as if he carried a way too big chip on his shoulder, but in the main, I’m quite satisfied with how things turned out.

All for the better of the narrative and the characters in the end.

There are moments in the novel when it is as if the narrative is leaning towards steampunk, but there is never a proper commitment in that regard. It was as if the author had to rein in that aspect and keep the novel focused. Given that the early parts of the novel go to great lengths to talk about how the airships in this setting fly, and their usage, I expected more, and felt a little let down when I didn’t. Perhaps this is something that is explored more in the sequel. I would certainly like to see something like this, to be honest.

And speaking of missed opportunities in the narrative: despite everything I’ve said so far, the first 100 or so pages move along very slowly. There is a lot of world-building and character-establishing going on, which drags the pace down quite a bit and makes it a bit tough to follow along. I will freely admit that despite liking the characters and being intrigued by the setting, I came close to putting the novel down. It gets better chapter by chapter after those first pages, but things were definitely tough until then.

The ending also felt a bit rushed, but I did like the way things ended all the same. There was enough for me at the end that a lot of my questions were answered, and the author had opened the gates to yet more questions, so now I’m invested in definitely reading the sequel at some point.

I’m not sure if Cold Magic does justice to Kate Elliott (kind of a reverse concept I know, but bear with me) since I doubt this is her best work. My interactions with her over social media, and reading her blog for the last 8 months or so at the least tell me that she can definitely do better. That for me is an incentive to read more of her work, and she has written both science fiction and fantasy over the years, I have a tough choice on what to pick next!All things considered, Cold Magic is definitely a novel I can recommend to you.

Rating: 8/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.