Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review of Cold Magic by Kate Elliot Book One of the Spiritwalker Trilogy

Cold Magic is the first book in the Spiritwalker trilogy.  As with all new books in a series, it is necessary to do some world building to properly set the story for a reader.  Unfortunately, Elliott's approach was heavy handed and boring, because she ignored the adage of show and not tell.  At times it felt like being immersed in a history lesson about people, wars, and countries that as a reader, I could care less about.  Approximately, the first 100 pages is dedicated to world building and this makes the story exceedingly boring to read. At one point, I was tempted to put the book down, and simply give it a DNF.  It should not take 100 pages to begin telling a story.

Cold Magic is a steampunk novel in which magic and technology are clearly at war with each other.  The cold mages demand patronage of the people for protection and in return, the people are virtually enslaved and must exchange their labour.  Technology holds the promise of freedom from the oppressors.  The people seek voting rights as they were formed in ancient Rome as well as the ability to profit from their own labour.  There are far too many clans to list in this review and they are often difficult to remember as one reads the story.

For all of their belief in technology, the people are very spiritual.  Beneath the world that is readily visible is another realm of magic.  In this realm a dragon dreams and these dreams effect the faith of the waking world.  Fantastical creatures exist there whose purpose is as of yet unexplained.

In this world lives Catherine Bell Barahal and her beloved cousin Bee. They are both believe that that they are the descendants of the Hassi Barahal clan.  The Hassi Barahal's began as messengers but quickly became spies.  When the populace attempted to over throw the cruel rule of the cold mages led by Camjiata the rebellion was crushed placing the Hassi Barahal family in grave danger because of the potential of their activities becoming public knowledge and so a deal was struck whereby the eldest daughter of the Hassi Barahal clan would be forced to marry a cold mage of the four moon house before the age of majority.  Days before reaching the age of majority,  Andevai, an incredibly strong cold mage arrives to claim her.  Catherine is whisked from the home of the only family she has ever known and married off in a ceremony that binds her to Andevai using unbreakable magic.

On this journey, Catherine learns that she is not the eldest daughter of the Hassi Barahal and because of the marriage to Andevai the mansa calls for her death so that Andevai will be free to marry Bee. Catherine flees for her life with the hope of being able to save the woman that she believed for entire life to be her cousin.  As a protagonist, Catherine is strong as well as brave.  Even when placed in situations that initially appear to be impossible, Catherine uses her intelligence to find an escape. Most importantly Catherine and Bee are determined to be their own masters the world of men has other plans for them.  The only draw back I can see to this character is her attraction to Andevai.  He tried to kill her, is arrogant and at time downright cruel and yet throughout the book, she wonders what it is like to kiss him.  As her infatuation grows, it is clear that this is going to be the romance of the trilogy. 

For her part, Bee has the ability to see the future in her dreams.  She draws them so that she can remember what she has seen in her slumber. Bee is described as exceedingly beautiful and those that see her, are often stunned in silence for a few moments. Like her cousin Catherine, she has been lied to all of her life and she is determined to find out the truth of her powers.

I must say that after getting through the ponderous world building, that the story is actually interesting.  Unlike many books in the genre, there were a host of characters of colour; however, not a single GLBT character was to be found.  The female characters were strong and fought valiantly to escape the idea that there sex alone made them property and in a genre that is quick to create women as eternal victims, this was nice to see.  I further enjoyed the discussion of class in this novel.  Children were forced to labour in factories under the lash, even well to do villages had to release a third of their labour to the mages. If one was born a slave, one remained a slave, unless like Andevai, one exhibited some form of talent with cold magic but even his supposed rise in position, was simply just another form of enslavement.  The most important question asked in Cold Magic, is what is the nature of freedom.

Though the writing was at times pedantic, it is clear that Elliot sought to inject in her story a vivid exploration of  the nature of both classism and sexism, and that is something I can appreciate. I will read the next two books in the series, in the hopes that now that the world has been established that Elliot will focus on the story. All in all, it's a great story, a fascinating world, some excellent characters and a wonderful analysis of several issues that need scrutiny. But it's sad that the first third of the book is such an incredible barrier to enjoyment - I will recommend this book, urge you to read it and hold on through the beginning, once you get through it, there's an amazing story there