This is an alternative history, ice-punk, young adult novel by Kate Elliott. People in my book club had discussed it before I joined, and a friend gave it a thumbs up on her blog. That, coupled with what sounded like some pretty interesting world-building on the back cover, convinced me to give it a go. It is the first of a trilogy; I will not be reading the next two…
In fact, the world building was a bit messy. The final mix of elements is pretty colourful, but how that mix occurred at all is a bit mysterious. Cold Magic is set in a Europe in which the Roman empire still persists to some degree; in which Phoenicians still identify themselves as such; and in which enormous immigrations of people from Africa have resulted in novel and vigorous cultural syntheses. The most striking of these is the development and dominance of magic that emerged out of the combination of African and Celtic spiritual/magical practices. The world is in the middle of an ice-age and the sea level is much lower. So much so, in fact, that Britain is linked by land to mainland Europe.
The protagonist is Cat(herine), scion of a middle class family of traders and spies come on hard times. She has a happy life, hanging out with here bff coz, going to school, gossiping about boys, and wondering about what really happened to her dead parents. Unfortunately, all this comes to an end when Andevai, a young man from one of the powerful mage houses, turns up brandishing a contract that requires her to marry him. As quick as that, Cat is ripped from her comfortable life and dragged across Europe. Needless to say, she is not particularly happy about this. When it turns out that Andevai was actually supposed to marry Bee (the bff coz) rather than Cat, trouble of all sort breaks out.
This being a YA novel set in a magical world, it is perhaps unsurprising that Cat has unique and mysterious special powers (and, in a highly unlikely coincidence, it turns out that her cousin has [entirely unrelated] unique and mysterious special powers, too). The novel basically involved her fleeing from place to place, gradually learning about the circumstances surrounding her family, her own birth, and the powers she possesses. Oh, it also involves lots of thinking about how impossibly handsome her new husband is. All this occurs against a backdrop where radical parties seeking democracy and technological innovation (airships!) plot against the magical powers that be.
The world Elliott depicts is an interesting one, but her depiction is a bit clumsy. I feel that she herself is a little unclear about when and how her world diverged from our own. There are occasional highly artificial infodumps which fill in some gaps, but this is hardly good storytelling. The inclusion of trolls (apparently intelligent evolved dinosaurs from America) also seemed to undermine what could otherwise have been a pretty solid alternative history setting. I quite liked the revolutionary stuff, the opposition of autocratic military power against the hereditary power of the mage houses, and the undermining of technological advancement by the traditionalist magic users. However, some of the themes are less successful than others. There’s some token sub-Dickensian woes of the working classes stuff and some very blunt (and odd-sounding) feminism in there too. A formulaic greeting includes the phrase “I hope there is no trouble”. The response? “No trouble indeed, thanks to my power as a woman.” Or if a man: “No trouble, thanks to the mother that raised me”. The process of greeting someone, which goes on for ages and involves queries into the health of progressively peripheral family members was a good invention, but this particular aspect seemed a bit arbitrary and out of keeping with the rest of the world.
I also had a very hard time getting my head around the romantic elements of the book. The YA fiction I’m used to (Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Pullman, Patrick Ness, Ursula LeGuin, Garth Nix, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner) doesn’t have this kind of stuff in it. There were many instances (“I wondered what it would be like to draw my fingers along the pleasing line of his jaw”, for instance), but the one that made me actually curse in disbelief was:
He stood very close, his expression not arrogant at all but focused, disciplined, and direct as he stared at me. Only at me. “What do you want me to do Catherine?” Kiss me.
I know there is a huge audience that expects this kind of mooning, but I’m always so disappointed when I come across it.
My final problem is with the main character herself. She is pretty kick-ass, independent, and good with a sword, but she’s also sappy and paranoid. There were also far too many scenes of her explaining how hungry she was, how much she enjoyed food, and how quickly she finished off the plate set in front of her. I also didn’t like the first-person voice here. There were constant first-person explanations of how she felt — feelings and motivations that didn’t really ring true. A good writer lets readers infer these things for themselves from actions and speech. It would have been better if Elliott had done just that — eliding over Cat’s bizarre (as written) mental state, letting the reader come to their own conclusions. Ultimately, though he seems opaque to Cat, I felt that Andevai was the more natural and comprehensible character.
So, good effort on the world building, even if it didn’t come together perfectly. Plus, it’s always nice to see a culturally varied gang of protagonists. On the whole, though, it’s not a book I could really recommend to anyone…