The book Cold Magic by Kate Elliott is somewhat difficult to evaluate for me. I am part of its target audience, given my love of fantasy (more than sci-fi) and epic series featuring a female lead. So, check and check. And, yet, the book is full of WTF moments. Many things don’t make sense. And, yet, I read it. I read it in part because Bri & Scott of the always hilarious Genre Stop! podcast chose this book a few weeks ago and recorded their review, which you can listen to here (or you can download Episode 11 on iTunes). In an effort not to be swayed by their undoubtedly cutting review, I’ve endeavored to write down my thoughts before listening to theirs, which as a Genre Stop superfan, was called for a lot of restraint. And, so, here goes.
The first in Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy, Cold Magic is supposedly a pseudo-steampunk epic-fantasy story, but, after a few early references, I felt like the steampunk faded a bit, so it’s primarily a grand-adventure epic type of story. I mean, sure, there’s talk of invention, science, etc., but, as with many other issues with this book, it’s just like one more ingredient that is added and not fully developed.
Cold Magic’s main YA fantasy clichés:
1. Orphan or unknown lineage
2. One-of-a-kind girl with unknown amazing powers
3. Thwarted love
As I was reading, I found cause to mock several elements and much of the early storytelling was overly-convoluted and ineffective for both world-building and plot. By the middle, however, I was pretty much into it. Fully committed! I didn’t want to stop or anything. But, you may ask, isn’t that always the case? Who wants to stop in the middle of consuming a book? (Well, presumably a lot of people but I’m not one of them. Thus, my saying that I was “into it” must be tempered by the fact that even were I not “into it” I would probably finish it. I take no prisoners! I simply kill them and have done with it!) I think around Chapter 15, which is maybe like a third of the way through, the story started to make more sense to me. We (and Cat) start receiving more information, and Cat launches into an internal soliloquy reviewing the history of the world as she knew it, which, while helpful to me, was both too little too late and, like, confirmed that there is way too going on in the book, and it’s just an odd mix of real history and bizarre details. Anyways, let me reiterate, despite early references and brief explanations (like: fuck the Romans, viva la Kan’ani!) this isn’t clearly laid out until chapter 21, which is approximately half way through the book! Again, perhaps not everyone will care about this, but it is always interesting to see how fantasy authors generally build off history as we know it but then deviate in random ways, and, voila, fantasy?! Regardless, despite the many issues with it and the jokes I shall make at its expense, let me be clear: I liked it enough to be curious about the rest of the series.
Strong Female Friendship?
I honestly find that much of the female-heroine fantasy (not YA) features a story surrounding a woman with zero intimate friends, particularly other women. Here, though—perhaps in a nod to its YA orientation (wait, is it YA??? ’cause I feel like the tone definitely is, and, yet, the characters are supposed to be college students…), so, in a nod to its YA orientation, which is a sub-genre much more committed to giving its young women besties (shout out to Vampire Academy, for example)—our main girl, Cat, is bffs with her cousin Bee. While it quickly becomes clear why Catherine is Cat, I’m not sure why the author felt the need to give the other main character an insect name. Like, Cat is apparently a cat. So, following (faulty) logic, is Bee really a bee??? Does she buzz around pollinating things? Men, perhaps? Is she a Queen Bee? I just think if Cat is a cat, then Bee should be a bee. Anyways.
They do roll of the tongue nicely as as pair. Cat and Bee! Bee and Cat! The friendship felt quite forced to me at the beginning. Bee’s character is first presented as a bit boy-crazy (in comparison to our bookworm Cat) and seemingly fantastic at charming those around her (again, in comparison to the more blunt Cat). This might have more to do with the writing, which I’ll mention more below, but we get this description of Bee from Cat, “The babble pouring mellifluously from her perfect lips began to melt Maestra Madrahat’s rigid countenance.” A poet our Cat is not. Anyways. Bee and Cat and Cat and Bee. Again, early on, we’re hit with this
subtle description of their friendship: “Bee and cat, together forever. No matter what trouble we got into, we would, as always, face it as one.” It just sounds a teensy bit juvenile when we are supposed to be dealing with two women 20 years old. I mean, I am currently 26 (? I can never remember) and writing at a site I created called strongfemalefriendship, so, I tots get it. Pot. Kettle. Etc. But, ya know, as much as I love my friends, I’m not going to blithely declare that we’ll be TOGETHER FOREVER, unless I’m kidding, because I’m just that kind of heartless and cynical bitch. Sorry, friends. (BFFs still? For realz?) And, secrets? From her BestieBee??? Fogeddaboutit! As she says, “I had never told anyone, except Bee, because Bee knew everything about me just as I knew everything about her.” Honestly, that is such a naive thing to assume. I assume that I know approximately 33% about my really good friends and maybe another 20% is fake or lies or something and then the rest is an opaque sludge that neither of us care to investigate. I suppose it could be intentional to set up our character, Cat, who will be forced to grow up throughout the story. The Cat-n-Bee friendship is also colored by their familial relationship. When Cat arrived to live with her aunt and uncle and cousins, she is instructed at age six that, “This is your home now. I lay this charge on you, that you must protect Bee, if there comes a time when she needs your protection.” Umm… Sure, auntie. All the best family dynamics begin like this! Cat is living there out of the charity of her extended family—plus, she is supposed to protect the either weaker or more important child, Bee. Not cool, Aunt Tilly, not cool! I’ll leave you with another immature Cat-n-Bee-ism: “That was the code of Bee and Cat: Keep your mouth shut and don’t say anything until you know what’s going on and how much trouble your cousin, how is also your best friend in the world, is in.” Again, I’m all for obfuscation and lying (it’s called survival in my book), but this sort of pledge is overly saccharine for two girls aged twenty.
As concerns the writing, well, it’s not usually great when a turn of phrase actually takes you out of the story unless it is such a powerful line, or perfect placement, etc., that you want to soak it in further. If you pause while reading merely to bask in the warmth of a phrase or sentence, that’s magical! If you almost feel like purring* and rubbing your face into the writing because, shiiiiit, those words you just read were written so [insert adjective that you desire] and expressed a thought or experience so wonderfully that you have an animalistic need to express your pleasure, well, that’s what’s great about reading and writing! But, if the pause is less about reveling and more about reevaluating or questioning, then that’s a shame.
Like, in a way, I enjoy the first chapter line, “I ripped my besotted gaze from the neat cursive and looked up.” Besotted! With neat cursive! I, too, am often engrossed in books such that I might appear the besotted lover! And, yet, coming this early in the book, and the emphasis on the writing style—like, maybe she’s just really turned on my cursive handwriting and it has nothing to do with the story she’s reading—made me pause and say, huh. Another phrase that stuck in my craw was: “She launched a glare like a musket shot in my direction and strode imperiously from the parlor.” I should say here that actually I don’t hate it but I’m not sure I like it, either. And it’s definitely hard to miss. Later, continuing with the whole Bee-as-a-weapon thing, “Bee used the tone of voice that, like a stake, always impaled me to the wall.” I ultimately found it kind of humorous and always went with it, though continuing to note of my favorites. In fact, as I write this, I now increasingly like it. Forget having a face to launch a thousand ships, I want to launch glares like bullets! Nay, like rockets! And I want to be a stake always impaling people to walls! How fun?! (I have always wanted to be the stake in Buffy or Faith’s hand…) In fact, I think I’ve convinced myself now that I loved the writing. It’s ridiculous and amazing and so blatant with its trite analogies. I’d go back and rewrite the above to simply state that, but I’ve already written this, and I’m nothing if not lazy.
The good, the bad, and the world-buildling
This story is set in a fantasy world that reflects, and distorts, our world circa early 1800s. Sort of. Thus, residing in “Europa,” there is much discussion of the Roman Empire that collapsed around the year 1000 and the multiple principalities and city-states that have quarreled ever since. Throwing it back further, there is still a lot of animosity between the Phoenicians and Romans, which is apparently important to the characters at the start of the book. Again, based on the simple elements of history, the Phoenicians were considered to be an important Mediterranean society eventually overshadowed by later groups. I can’t help but focus on this aspect because it’s always of note how fantasy authors play with the world we inhabit, tweaking it here and there to alter reality. Sometimes it’s just in the spelling, which is by far the least effective and easiest move, and hence this world has an Amerike (oooohhh, edgy!). Plus, Amerike is home to trolls! (Again, this is quite random. Is it some sort of political commentary on the state of Americans?) Most importantly, and WTF-weridly, there is this guy “Camjiata” who is Napoleon. Except not. Well, he’s Napoleon, but, like, apparently also some sort of “true” revolutionary who might be painted as a hero in the coming books? Not the Napoleon who crowned himself emperor. So, again, very odd mix of fact and fiction happening here. But, heaven forbid the author doesn’t include the whole “imprisoned on an island but escaped” detail…
Catherine. Cat. I should be clear that she does not appear to be, in fact, a cat. Or a were-cat. Or a shifter. Or choose-your-own-nomenclature-for-animal-human-fantasy-mixes. “Cats always land on their feet.” <– I feel like that was written 100x in the first several chapters. Really hitting us over the head with it, here. What other cat comparisons can we expect?? Well, curiosity, natch (“what else could you expect from a cat?”). But, she has the name and apparently some supernatural abilities (heightened senses, especially hearing) and other traits often attributed to our fictional feline friends. She “hunts” for books. She “pads” down stairs. These, again, hint at her kitty klawz. In her view of herself, she reflects, “I am not a Cat for nothing. I’m really very friendly but there comes a time when people cross a line and must be put in their place.” After all of this rather on-the-nose cat talk, I was relieved to finally be introduced to some actual fantasy big cats. Without writing too much, I was into it. But, of late, I can get down with some anthropomorphic animals and some animalistic humans or whatever. I’m not even going to get into her “brother” cat Rory…
Break for random thought association: Cold Magic. Escape to Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain. Nicole Kidman. Cold. Magic. Hot. Brimstone. Magic. Hot and Cold. Katy Perry. Cold Magic. Cold. Ice. Winter is Coming.
- The author’s name. Why, oh why, are there TWO “t”s at the end of Elliott? AND IT’S A PEN NAME! It’s like she’s trying to mess with my head and ensure that I can never find her book when I type it in the library catalog as the more understandable name of Kate Elliot. But, nope, there’s nothing here under Kate Elliot, are you sure you typed in the correct name??? Oh wait, why not add another pointless letter? Her real last name is better. Rasmussen! Who wouldn’t want to read a fantasy book by someone who sounds like Rasputin! It’s guaranteed to exude a kind of magic.
- “The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.” Not feeling it. And that’s the first line! I just do not like the pseudo-scientific-prophetic pronouncement. And though not its fault, I presume, I immediately think that #winteriscoming and then I’m confused about what fantasy world I’m currently inhabiting.
- I also was over-thinking the associations of temperature with magic and, at the same time, trying to remember how the earth was created, or other planets, and if they’re like hot balls of gas and matter or something or all cold, or maybe that just depends on how close a planet is to a star, I presume, but, also… etc. Now I simply feel like an imbecile who know less than a third grader or whatever. Now the best way to start a book, fantasy fiction or not.
Anyways. I don’t feel like talking about this book anymore. Plot summaries are irrelevant. There are 100 other things that are sort of important but, really, what’s more important than female friendship, prose, history, and cats?! Nothing! So. Cold Magic: stuff happens, etc.
Also, I did just listen to Bri & Scott’s take on this book and it seems like we share several of the same observations, though, as always, theirs are hilarious to hear. I definitely would echo their comments about the ridiculous and superfluous surface-level politics and the way that the characters say everything, rather than have descriptions convey anything. And I’m glad to hear Scott and Bri spent a lot of time on the ridiculous word choices and sentence structures! The adjectives! The analogies! Oy. Vey. I also love Bri’s three tricks to getting through bad writing. CHECK IT OUT. You will laugh. You absolutely do not need to have read the book. In fact, despite this review in which I ultimately consider reading the next book, I’d recommend you not read the book. Go directly to the podcast. (Only read it if you are like me and like to waste your time, but, truly, there are many other fantasy books out there that are better!)