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[Book review]: The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

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Book 1: Cold Magic

 

The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.

Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.

Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.

The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.

Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: Cold Fire

 

 

Turmoil is brewing in Europa. The legendary general Camjiata has escaped from prison and is now building up an army-in-exile. Cat and her cousin Bee are still pawns in the plans of the rich and powerful, but Cat's otherworldly sire also has plans for her. For her part, Cat just wants to escape these machinations and forge her own path. Events bring her to the Antilles, the home of the Taino Kingdom and the Europan colony of Expedition. There she meets the powerful fire mages and becomes embroiled in yet more intrigue and magic, as her father prepares to use her to draw a powerful soul into his grasp.

Cold Fire is the middle volume of Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker Trilogy, which picks up shortly after the events of Cold Magic. Like its forebear, this is a well-characterised novel which eschews the normal conventions both of the epic fantasy and steampunk genres (whilst borrowing from both). There are elements in this book of the Victorian comedy-of-manners (and occasional, intriguing echoes of the likes of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) and Celtic mythology, as well as the northern European legend of the Wild Hunt.

Elliott's masterstroke here is moving the story to the Caribbean where a whole swathe of other influences come into play, especially the culture and nature of the Taino people. This gives the book a very different atmosphere, especially the much warmer climate which moves us away from the Ice Age-afflicted Europa of the previous novel.

The clash of cultures, with Expedition and the Taino Kingdom presented as in some respects more egalitarian and liberal in matters of the power of women and sexual freedom but still ruled at the whim of an unelected elite, gives the novel a source of tension and debate. However, these tensions are not explored in depth, as the book devotes a lot of time to Cat and Andevai's relationship. Given that the first novel established the situation - them marrying against their will, initially disliking each other but eventually falling in love - this second book does feel like it retreads a lot of the same ground. For a novel almost six hundred pages in paperback, it also feels like not a lot of ground is covered: the opening chapters are interesting and the grand finale is excellent, but the middle third or so of the novel indulges itself in elements which feel a little too soap-operaish.

In some respects this is a typical middle book-of-a-trilogy syndrome, with the pace faltering as the story switches from an introductory to a concluding mode. But Elliott is a fine enough writer - one of the best in modern fantasy - that she overcomes these issues and delivers a cracking finale in which all of the carefully-set-up elements come into play and sets the scene for the final novel in the series, Cold Steel.

Cold Fire (***½) is an interesting and original epic fantasy novel which does things rather differently from the norm for the genre and is all the stronger for it. However, the pacing feels sluggish at times before returning to form in an excellent ending. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 3: Cold Steel

 

Revolution has come to Europa. Radicals are urging the oppressed workers, born into clientage to the nobles and mage houses, to rise up and seize control of their own destiny. At the same time the Iberian general Camjiata has returned home, raised an army and invaded the Gallic lands. But these great events are of lesser important to Cat Barahal than finding her husband, Andevai, now a prisoner of her enigmatic father.

Cold Steel concludes the Spiritwalker Trilogy, Kate Elliott's skillful and intriguing blend of epic fantasy, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, steampunk and, er, dinopunk, all told as something approaching a Victorian comedy of manners. It's a highly unconventional work from an author constantly seeking out new angles in the fantasy genre.

It's also the best book in the series. The first two novels set up a lot of complicated elements, such as the Wild Hunt, the mage houses, Camjiata, Cat's intricate family backstory, the magical abilities of her cousin Bee and the radicals, but then let them drop into the background in favour of Andevai and Cat's romance. With that now established, these other elements rise to the fore and the story becomes more epic and complete, moving between the difference storylines and characters with greater ease than in the first two novels. It helps that the fire mage James Drake is now promoted from middling annoyance to outright supervillain in this novel, giving Cat and her allies something more tangible to fight against than the mysterious Master of the Wild Hunt and the otherworldly courts he answers to.

The pace is crisp and effective, with the book not getting bogged down in side-elements as occasionally threatened in Cold Fire, and indeed some elements feel a little under-explored given their set-up in earlier novels (most notably the dragons, who get one spectacular scene but otherwise don't play much of a role in affairs). A very minor issue is that the book does become slightly obsessed with Andevai's wardrobe choices to the point of parody (although I suspect this is the point): I could certainly do with never reading the words "dash jacket" in a fantasy novel again.

Beyond that, Elliott fulfils in Cold Steel (****) the promise laid down in the earlier two, delivering a finely characterised, enjoyable and offbeat conclusion to an original and different kind of fantasy trilogy. It's less weighty and intense, and maybe less memorable, than her earlier Crown of Stars and Crossroads series, but it may also be more fun. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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