Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Cold Magic

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Book 1 of The Spiritwalker Trilogy

It is the dawn of a new age... The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy.

“I was not a bard or a djeli or an historian or a scribe and I was certainly not a sage, but that didn't mean I wasn't curious…”

Young Cat Barahal thinks she understands the world she lives in and her place in it, but in fact she is merely poised, unaware, on the brink of shattering events. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood, betrayal and old feuds, she will be forced to make an unexpected and perilous journey in order to discover the truth, not just about her own family but about an ancient secret lying at the heart of her world.

Cat and her cousin Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can't be trusted, who can you trust?

As discussed in previous reviews, I have a difficult relationship with steampunk.  The aesthetic of the steampunk universe tends to take precedence over the story itself, something that can derail even the strongest of writers.  Once it becomes airships and goggles, corsets and red-headed lady pirates, I tend to lose my interest in the book.  It's not that such stories are bad, per se, it's just that the steampunk subgenre can do better.

Therefore, I was surprised when I picked up this book and was about 25% of the way through it before I realized that one could classify Cold Magic as steampunk.  I didn't see it coming. There are airships and strange technology.  However, the strength of the book lies in the fact that Elliot doesn't rely entirely on the appearance of steampunk but instead takes huge chunks from both the alternate history and historical fantasy subgenres.  This is a world in which the New World is at least partially settled by trolls - feathered creatures who fly airships.  The Roman Empire collapsed, but far more slowly, leaving smaller principalities and cultural groups to evolve into a more modern society.  Those familiar with Roman-era place names will find themselves at home here.  

Our heroine, Cat, is trying to finish the university in her town alongside her cousin while living with her aunt and uncle.  Her plans are put on indefinite hold when a family debt is called in and she is married off to a Mage, Andevai, who can barely give her the time of day.  There are some misunderstandings and some skullduggery and Cat finds herself on the run, looking for ways to save her life and for answers.  

But the time you reach about the 3/4 mark of the book, the story will sweep you away right to the end.  However, the first part of the book is slow, and had I not been warned that Elliot's books tend to start on the slow end, I might not have finished it.  It's not that the book is bad or that the characters are uninteresting, it's that the book's plot doesn't seem to have a clear trajectory for a long time.  By the time the reader understands what is going on, they are well into the book.  If this is the sort of story writing you like, it won't bother you.  I generally prefer to see, if not the details, the likely path a plot might take:  a romance, an adventure, a murder mystery.  

The world itself is fascinating, with some holdouts from Imperial Rome still around with many Industrial Revolution features starting to pop-up.  I can't speak to the accuracy of any historically researched details in the book; that's not really my thing.  I have a feeling, though, that if you are the sort of person who spots such inaccuracies, steampunk/alternate history is probably not your thing.

The characters are fairly strong and the dual mysteries of "who is Cat" and "what is the truth about her family" will carry many readers to the end of the story.  For those readers who need a dynamite beginning to get hooked, you might be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars.  

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