Cold Magic and Cold Fire are by now well acquainted with the alternate earth imagined by Kate Elliot. In her world, the Roman Empire is still in existence and people live in a feudal state with Princes and Mage houses controlling them. People are extremely aware of the spirit world, which once a year unleashes the wild hunt to gather the souls of those who are going to die in the following year. Nothing is stable in this world, as the people are trying to overthrow the regimes which rule them. Cat, the protagonist, must not only deal with the political upheaval and war but the legacy of her heritage as the daughter of the Master of the Hunt.
Like all novels in this trilogy, I firmly believe that Elliot could easily have dropped 100-150 pages and not lost a thing in terms of the story. I often found myself wishing that she would just get to the point. It also felt very disconnected, as the characters were repeatedly presented with problems to over come and then quickly did so, only to then be thrown into yet another issue. These problems didn't really seem to connect and it felt like we moved from one action scene to another.
One of the things I love about this series is the fact that nearly all of the character are multi-racial in some form. As a person of colour, I am used to seeing myself erased in science fiction and to see Elliot's passion for including us really did present me with some hope. This inclusion however did not extend to GLBT people, which while normal, is never acceptable. We were introduced to a disabled character but because of her relative youth, she was never actively a part of the major plot and instead served to bind Vai to the Mansa. It was however encouraging to see Cat advocate that she should get a proper cane as befitting her size, as well as an education.
As a protagonist, Cat is extremely strong. With lines like "It would take a strong man not to speak of harnesses," in reference to the suggestion that a man should control her, there is no doubt that Cat refused to be bound by an sort of gender convention. Cat had no problem killing when the need arose, her handy sword always be her side, or risking herself for the people she cared about. It however all fell apart when it came to Vai. Suddenly, this woman who walked the spirit world, punched sharks and escaped ghouls became a quivering mass of jelly. Yes, we get that Cat loves Vai but was it necessary for her to obsesses about his clothing, or lose all conscious thought looking at him without a shirt? Cat constantly in Vai's service, lugging his clothing around (because heaven forbid something happen to one of his precious dash jackets), or mending the blasted things because he just had to look his best. I don't remember one instance of Vai doing anything similar for her. Cat defied gender boundaries when it come to the social world but the minute it came to her relationship with Vai, gender roles were firmly and most irritatingly in place.
In this third book, I had really hoped to see Cat grow as a person and instead what I got was a spunky agent, who constantly leaped before looking, though everyone around her asked Cat to pause and think. To some degree, this is understandable given Cat's age but we should at least have seen some growth. It is only in her confrontation with court, the night the hunt rode, that we get any kind of evidence that Cat is capable of conceiving and following through with a plan - minus of course an exit strategy.
In fact, all of the female characters in the book were strong and well rounded. Bee the revolutionary who gave speeches, while shutting down misogynist heckling in the crowd, was particularly interesting. Bee grew from a character who tagged along with Cat out of a sense of loyalty, to a young woman who had dreams and passions all of her own. She learned that a woman must stand on her own and not depend on the luck of a good marriage to a powerful man. Though she blushed at mentions of sex, Bee had lovers and in the end, considered taking two husbands for her own happiness, rather than material security.
Much of this novel involved revolution and class war fare. I thought it was excellently done and am happy that Elliot didn't wrap this up in a neat little bow, despite the fact that the series is YA. War, and revolution are not only messy, they take twists and turns and never end neatly for either side. The sides of the revolution where not cut and dry and though there was a clear desire for freedom, what form this freedom would take and how people would govern themselves was not answered.
Generally speaking, Cold Steel is not a bad book per say, it simply has many of the same problems that the two proceeding novels have; Elliot always uses two words when one will do and it has far too many needless descriptions. In a novel like this, it is important to cement the world itself because if that is not believable, none of the story will be; however, it was not necessary to give us in depth descriptions of Vai's ridiculous wardrobe or every time a character changed their clothing.
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