Review: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
Reviewed by Gillian Polack
Two cousins are each other’s best friend. They are at school together and plotting mischief as intelligent (and bored) girls do in their late teens. Cat is ripped from both the emotional comfort of a poor family with status to maintain and from her best friend’s company, and forced into marriage. The marriage is not what it seems. Nothing is what it seems. Cat’s whole world is turned upside down over and over again. This is the basis of the story. It provides a very strong underpinning for the adventures that Cat has, for the relationship with her cousin is firm enough and developed enough so that we have a clear understanding of who she is and what she’s leaving behind. At one stage Elliott cheats with this, and adds to the background so that we begin to doubt those relationships: this detracts from that lovely emotional solidity that she establishes early on, but she is a fine writer and, it shifts the tenor of the novel rather than destroying it.
This is a fabulous adventure. While the characters occasionally seem mawkish, (Elliott describes mischief and mayhem beautifully, but the descriptions of the development of affection are a bit stilted) they are fun. The girls are never ciphers and never boring. They are in charge of their own lives, even when the rest of the world would really rather they behaved nicely. This is one of those increasingly rare broad-scale fantasies where people count and are not just cogs in the plot-wheel and with a world that is both credible and sophisticated.
Kate Elliott has designed a steampunk world where magic is curious. She doesn’t use standard sources for magic types and brings a great deal of originality to her world design by breaking with magical stereotypes. What’s more, she fits her magic clearly into her world – politics and power and magic are in conflict as well as in bed together.
Elliott’s Europe isn’t our Europe. Not only is the magic different, but Carthage was not destroyed. Elliott’s alternate history is not complete. It leaves out some rather important factors: Christianity doesn’t exist, which makes sense given that the politics and history of Rome was so very different, but why is there no Judaism? Elliott probably has a good explanation, but I found myself looking for it at unexpected times, especially when the manners and mores suggested a very familiar Europe.
In other words, at the level of big picture, Elliott does a splendid job. Her writing is superb. Her world is inventive and fascinating. Her culture falls into familiar patterns from time to time. For some readers this is a plus, for they will find comfortable tropes. For those wanting to see the worldbuilding carried to its logical conclusion and to play in that world, however, the familiarity is more of a problem.
Elliott’s great strength is her narrative style and her sense of place and time. As a reader, I couldn’t put the book down and I found her story compelling.