Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Cold Magic

by Kate Elliott

Europe is under ice both figuratively and in parts literally in this alternate history fantasy. It's the 19th century, and the world should be on the brink of an industrial revolution. But the Cold Mages rule, and they don't welcome new technology that could reduce their advantages over the rest of the population.

Cat Barahal is an orphan who is being raised by her aunt and uncle. Whilst they're not rich, the Barahals can afford to send her and her cousin Bee to study, as well as training them in some of the skills of the family trade: spying. Their lives of books, suitors, and worrying about social standing are about to be disrupted when an arrogant young Cold Mage called Andevai comes to visit, and insists on marrying Cat against her wishes as the result of an old contract, and then dragging her far away from everything she's ever known. Their exit from the city of Adurnum takes place in fire and turmoil, pursued by an angry mob.

On the road Cat and Andevai scarcely talk in spite of having to spend a lot of time in each other's company, and this forced silence between them wasn't very credible. It's almost as if they're only silent to increase the misunderstanding between them and increase the tension, because it makes the pair of them seem unusually pig-headed, cagey, or perhaps even stupid.

Another problem with this story is the way nearly every main character happens to be gorgeous. The young people in this novel are like a parade of models, and when characters are physically perfect as well as having other excellent qualities such as wit and magic they are harder to relate to.

Fortunately, although Cat has Mary Sue tendencies she doesn't have everything go her own way, which makes it easier to root for her as she is herded from one place to another and treated like a caged bird or an enemy, depending on who is dealing with her. She has to struggle to survive, and as revelations pile up she discovers that everything she thought she knew about her own history is in doubt, and she has no idea who to trust.

Later on in the story we meet Rory, and exuberant flirt with a sense of mischief. There are also a group of trolls, playing completely against type by being very civilised and sophisticated. This is a world with not just magic, but an otherworld layered behind the regular one, peopled with strange creatures and accessible to the lucky few who know how to cross over and get back safely.

The world building in Cold Magic is impressive. Ice has changed the landscape of Europe, but only a little. A war against Rome won by the Phoenicians two thousand years ago has also altered history, as did the Cold Mages' dominance over the kings and princes who would otherwise have ruled. America exists under the name Amerike, but it's occupied by intelligent trolls descended from dinosaurs. It's a very different world from our own, and yet it works because the differences are quite logical and carefully considered. A lot of work has clearly gone on to make the world of the Cold Mages fit together, so it's a very credible environment.

The political side to this story attracted me: it's meaty and brutal, centring on the inevitable struggle as the world changes due to technology and the clash of the old ways with the new. But with the added element of magic, the inevitability of our own history seen in hindsight becomes more doubtful. In our world slaves were emancipated, democracy happened, and working conditions eventually improved. But things could go any way in a world that operates under slightly different rules, and where Mages act like tyrants because nobody can challenge them.

Cold Magic has hints of a love story, but the action and intrigue are more to the fore. The criticism I mentioned earlier about unrealistic silences does seem at first to be a romantic device, but it's also justifiable for a young woman who has been brought up to trade in information to be good at keeping her mouth shut and keeping secrets, so that comment is a nitpick rather than a big problem with the story. Above all, it's a rollicking good read that left me eager for more.

19th August 2016

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

    Female Protagonist  

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Review ©

Source: own copy