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I read the two available novels in Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy in four days, because I couldn't get my hands on the next fast enough. Some books I put down for days and don't think of them much, but there's some that I read every minute I've got free--but I don't need to go on, you all know the sensation.

My usual back cover gripe: the back cover enticement of Cold Magic was one of the most misleading things ever and told me nothing about anything; from the back cover you'd think it a steampunk novel about two cousins going to university. In the extras at the back, Elliott provides the best descriptor for this book I've seen: she calls it a mashup because it's an "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendents of troodons".

As if I could resist.

Cold Magic begins with Catherine--known to her family as Cat--attending the Academy with her cousin Beatrice (Bee). So far, on track with the back cover; the world that Cat and Bee inhabit is said to be 1830's, but an 1830's where land exists where the English Channel does in ours, connecting Britain to the rest of Europe. An 1830's where Scandinavia is covered in a thick ice shelf. Nevertheless, Victorian attitudes continue to prevail, as Bee and Cat can only attend lectures on the balconies of the lecture hall, where they are learning about airships and aerostatic principles.

And then the cold mage Andevai arrives, and everything changes. In this cold Europa, cold mages are a force equal to the temporal power of princes and lords. They are organized into Houses, which are confederations of powerful mages, often from one bloodline. These mage Houses hold clientage--a vaguely feudal ownership, what I would call 'manorialism' (between unequal parties) not 'feudalism' (between equals). That is to say, they own land, wealth, and also the people who work for them, who pay tithes and other dues and are bound to the land. The cold mage invokes an agreement that Cat's aunt and uncle made years ago regarding the eldest daughter of their house, marries Cat on the spot, and takes her away.

Now begins the interesting parts! Both Cat and the reader are kept ignorant of why everything is happening for quite awhile, as the intricacies of the world are slowly revealed. In keeping with the blended cultures, there are mages and also djeliw, historians and magic-users who can see into the spirit world, although they cannot enter. We get to see the countryside's culture when Cat ends up in Andevai's village; it's very much different from city life, which is what Cat is accustomed to, with its own forms of courtesy and social rules.

I also really enjoyed Cat's family. I love Bee's personality and her comments, and I love that Elliott structured the novel around their relationship, rather than the more conventional Andevai-Cat relationship (though I would probably read a novel just about them, too). When the sabre-toothed cats showed up, I definitely thought something was up--they were mentioned too often and acted too strangely to be window dressing. Rory's comments and behaviour made excellent comic relief, especially since Cat spent so much time fleeing from one thing or another during that time. It's never explained just how cold mages get their power, except through the spirit world, but that suits me fine; what I'd like to know more about is what cold mages can do. We know that they can shatter ice and iron, if they're strong enough, and that they douse fire just by proximity, involuntarily; this last means that mages must live in houses heated externally and have heat piped in.

Alternate history, fantasy-historical novels are my absolute favourite genres, partly because I get to unpick the worldbuilding and history, and I spent much of the novel figuring out where was where and who was who. Since this novel is set during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, Napoleon had to enter in somewhere (is there such a novel, written as a modern writer looking back to the 18-19th century, who did not deal with Napoleon?); apparently he's had his exile to his island, but he wasn't successful at reforming legal codes, nor in doing consolidation of states. However, here Napoleon's from Iberia (I have no idea if Portugal and Spain are separate or not; he's called the "Iberian Monster") and was repelled by the cold mages.

--

In Cold Fire, Cat ends up in the Americas, but it's an Americas that's vastly different from ours. Like Cold Magic emphasizes, much of the world is covered in ice; Canada is completely covered, and ice stretches into much of what is the United States. Instead of humans, the feathered troodons--what the humans call trolls--live there. Cat becomes entangled in the politics of Expedition, a city in the Caribbean. In Cold Magic, Cat finds out her paternity, and much of her actions in this book are dealing with it. This is because her father is actually the Master of the Wild Hunt, and the Wild Hunt kills one person every year--and this year, they are after Cat's cousin Bee, who can dream of the future. The Master of the Hunt tells Cat that she can choose who dies this year--some powerful mage--or else it will be Bee.

We get more information about the Wild Hunt, of course, but nothing about the story that Cat's father records in his journal way back in the first novel, which I hope is answered (it's very intriguing). I didn't like how Elliott wrote out the accents of the characters, but at least she dropped some of it later on. I liked how the ghouls came up again, and their terribleness was expanded on; at first I didn't understand (in Cold Magic) whether "teeth of the ghouls" was metaphorical or not, but the prospect of terrible, unending pain-filled existence is no joke. Although the writing is good, it's also kind of hard to follow, for some reason; it's almost as if every sentence is written with a surprising structure/conclusion so I can't rely on following along, I have to be actively paying attention the whole time through. But if I read through it again, there's nothing wrong, I just can't parse it very quickly. Maybe it's just dense. Sometimes if people use verbs which are imbued with meaning (instead of 'do', 'pound') each word is important, instead of the clause? I'm speculating, I don't know and I don't have a copy of any of the books on me.

Although apparently the trolls are the main sentient beings from America, many of the place names on the map are distinctly First Nations, suggesting that humans probably moved in. I admit to being rather weirded out about this; after all, since it's so icy, wouldn't the Bering Sea have frozen over ages ago (and remained frozen over), allowing humans to migrate? Perhaps it was too icy and people couldn't get through.

--

Final opinion: I love them, I must have the next nowwwww.

I made a reaction post which can be found here: http://silverflight8.livejournal.com/262479.html, which is much more interesting, in my opinion. I have to admit, I prefer those sorts of posts over reviews, where I feel constrained to not spoil the books (...not always very successfully) and have to write summaries, argh, plot/novel summaries are the bane of my life. The most interesting part of reviewing is the nitty gritty when you get to talk about specifics!

On one last note, because I went and looked for fic and then got grumpy about tagging (I should stop this): there isn't racism. The colour of the characters' skin is mentioned because Cat takes notice of physical appearance when she assesses people, but there's never a value attached to any particular skin colour. Not to mention most of the characters are of mixed ancestry--Elliott's quote about "Afro-Celtic...mashup". I suppose you might make a case for nationality, but even there, I think the reason some people look down on the Phoenicians (sorry Cat) is because of the historical Roman-Phoenician battle, i.e., history. Even friction between Expedition (kingdom around the Caribbean) and Europa is absent. I think an exploration of classicism and social standing would be fascinating, especially as it intersects with history; certainly it seems that the Roman empire lasted longer and had greater influence, and their views on slavery were somewhat different from Christian views became (possibly why manorial bonds continue to exist there.) But I don't see the point of the character of colour tag, since their skin affects nothing.


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/136965.html.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
kmo_lj
Sep. 6th, 2013 05:11 pm (UTC)
i had been rec'd this series before by another Kushiel fan, and i have to admit the amazon blurb made it sound less than exciting to me. but your review clearly made Cold Magic sound awesome. adding to my "to read" list!

btw i just started reading Indigo Springs and am loving it! i keep feeling like it would make a great tv show.
silverflight8
Sep. 6th, 2013 05:42 pm (UTC)
All back covers lie, I swear. I hope you like Cold Magic!

Aww, yay! I think so too--can you imagine the special effects? The things that the chantments do? That'd be so cool.
wordsofastory
Sep. 6th, 2013 11:04 pm (UTC)
I had read Cold Magic back when it first came out, and very much liked it. Thanks for reminding me that I need to pick up the sequel!

I also really love the world-building; I can't think of any other fantasy book that's at all similar. Which is so nice! I do get tired of all the generic medieval Western Europe fantasy worlds.
silverflight8
Sep. 7th, 2013 04:27 am (UTC)
I hope you like Cold Fire! I'm really loving the mashup too, and how it mixes up history as we know it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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