Cold Steel by Kate Elliott – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

Spiritwalker 03 Cold Steel

Shadowhawk reviews the third and final novel in the Spiritwalker series.

“A super intense and exciting conclusion to one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve read.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

The Spiritwalker trilogy is one of several series that I’ve taken a chance on this year, as part of my “Top 25 Series To Read In 2013” reading challenge. The intention was to read the first novels in each, for a total of 25 books. But as it turns out, for some of these series I’ve read multiple novels. Jean Johnson’s military SF series Theirs Not To Reason Why is one of these, and I’ve read all two books in the series already, with the third to be read soon as it arrives. These books are just to good for me to stop at the first novels. And so far, I’ve been very lucky in almost all the books I’ve read so far, and there are more to come since I’m slightly behind and need to catch up a great deal.

One of the main reasons that I continued on with the Spiritwalker series is because of the scope of the world-building (or world-exploration or world-creation, whichever term you prefer). Another is the primary protagonist, Catherine “Cat” Barahal. A third is the immense fun that is series has been from the start. And a fourth is the wonderful take on a Europe that suffered an extended Ice Age, thus changing the balance of how history played out in the real world. What’s not to love really?

Cat’s first appearance was as a girl who loved to read, who was outspoken and somewhat socially awkward but also strong-minded. And inexperienced in the ways of the world at large. The series has charted her adventures as she has grown into her own, able to hold her own against kings and queens, powerful nobles and mages alike. And through it all is the strong romantic element, tied to Cat’s inadvertent marriage to Andevai “Vai” Diarisso Haranwy. Together, these two provide a very exciting time for the reader without any moment where boredom strikes.

In the previous two novels, Cold Magic (review) and Cold Fire (review), Kate Elliott impressed me with her world-building, as I’ve already said. The relationship dynamics that she portrayed were also quite excellent. What Cold Steel does is that it marks the peak where the latter element is concerned. The way that she portrays the various relationships: Andevai’s to his adopted father who is the mansa of Four Moons House, Andevai and Cat as husband and wife, Cat and Beatrice as cousins, Beatrice and Andevai as in-laws, Cat and and Rory as cousins, Cat and the mansa as daughter-in-law and father-in-law, and so on.

Each and every relationship is given time to mature and develop in this novel. And several of these relationships have been already developing across two novels. So, well and truly, Cold Steel is the pinnacle of how all these relationships are interwoven and interplayed with each other. What I’m really trying to get at here is that Kate Elliott portrays her characters really well, whether we consider the primary characters or the supporting cast. Each of them is a character that lives and breathes through the setting and leaves his or her own mark on events, no matter how minutely.

Most of all, Kate’s characters are passionate creatures. They love fiercely, they defend what is theirs with a vengeance, and they are wholly committed to their cause, whatever that cause may be. The journeys that Cat, Vai and Bee go particularly were touching. The emotional highs and lows were hitting all the perfect beats throughout. I really can’t stress that enough.

Additionally, in the context of the rest of the series, each character peaks with their character development in Cold Fire. Every character is coming in after going through a number of experiences, both good and bad, and a lot of them make really surprising choices. The mansa of Four Moons House is the standout character here. Having seen him as an antagonist so far, a cold-hearted man who is practical to the point of appearing as a villain, he was a character who surprised me the most.

And therein lies the charm of this novel. There is an established pattern of behaviour through two novels, and then the characters go and surprise you. With the mansa it was a good surprise. And what a surprise too! I wouldn’t have expected it from him, but then again, he is an elder of his family and he is an experienced hand at diplomacy and negotiation. So really, I should not be surprised. But I was, all the same.

Something else I wanted to point out was how Kate has improved over the course of this series. I had a fair few criticisms of Cold Magic when I read it earlier this year and I said as much in my review of the book. There were some marked improvements in Cold Fire and they made the novel all that much more enjoyable. Now with Cold Steel, when Kate is fully experienced with all the ins-and-outs of the world she’s created and the character she’s populated that world with, she is in top form.

The characters are at their best here. The narrative itself is incredibly gripping, much more than in the other two novels. The sense of mystery and adventure that permeates the entire novel, and even the entire series at that, is just wonderful. I’ve grown attached to these characters ever since I first met them, and should I, by some weird reason of the kind seen in The Last Starfighter movie or something, be given the chance, I would love to spend a day with these characters in this setting. Vai, Cat, Bee and Rory are a bothersome foursome, but they are also incredibly fun characters to read about.

Can’t say that about a lot of characters really!

Everything is in its peak in the novel here. There were some bits and pieces that bothered me, but nothing that leaped out at me and said that I should rethink what I thought of the novel. I’ve read a ton of fantasy novels this year, and I’d easily put Cold Steel up there with the best of the bunch. Honestly. It always makes me happy when I writer I take a chance on like this manages to keep me spellbound across three novels and turns me into a diehard fan to the point that I’d be willing to check out other work by them.  Janny Wurts, who coauthored the Empire trilogy with Raymond E. Feist is one such author. Martha Wells, who wrote Emilie and the Hollow World is another. Graham McNeill, Nathan Long and William King, authors I’ve enjoyed reading about through their various Black Library publications, are yet more examples of that fact.

These are all among my favourite SFF authors for a reason, and a good one at that.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that Cold Steel is a fantastic novel. Everything about this novel justifies my choice in picking up the Spiritwalker series. All I’ll say in the end is a thank you to the author for writing this series and for making me a fan.

Rating: 9.5/10

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.

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  • Paul Weimer

    Well said, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    • Shadowhawk

      Cheers, Paul!