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REVIEW:  Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

REVIEW: Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

Dear Ms. Elliott,

I loved the first novel in your Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Magic. It introduced us to an alternate earth in which the ice shelf never receded, the Empire of Mali fled out of Africa and formed an alliance with the Celtic tribes, and colonialsm never happened the way it did in our own history. Cold Magic told the story of Catherine Barahal, who grew up in a family of spies and who, in place of her beloved cousin Beatrice, married into a powerful clan of cold mages.

Cold Steel by Kate ElliottThe second novel, Cold Fire, however, left me enthused and unsure. I’d gone in wanting more adventures of Cat and Bee. What I read instead was a story in which Cat and Bee were jerked around and betrayed by various men. And while I understood the underlying critique of the patriarchy, it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting. Those mixed feelings made me less confident about the final novel, Cold Steel. Would it be like the first novel, which I loved, or the second, which left me ambivalent?

Nevertheless, I wanted to see how Cat and Bee’s adventures would end, so I picked it up. Thank goodness I did because not only was the story what I’d wanted, it was a great conclusion to the trilogy.

Cold Steel opens with Cat desperately wanting to go after her husband, Andevai, who has been abducted by her father, the Master of the Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, she can’t because she’s also wanted for the murder of a queen. (The details of both these situations are covered at the end of Cold Fire.) She has to face the accusation but while the empire who lost its queen wants her blood, the colony where she makes her home wants to use her as a figure to rally behind. This is all well and good, but she has things to do, places to go, and husbands to rescue.

But even after Cat reunites with Andevai, further conflict awaits them. Revolution has come to Europa. The voices against the oppressive rule of the cold mages grow louder, and the armies of Camjiata have taken advantage of the situation. Throw in the machinations of the spirit world and a disagreeable man from Cat’s past, and she has her hands full.

I was excited to see Cat and Bee go globe-trotting in this one. Even though they don’t spend the entire book together (due to Cat having to go into the spirit world on multiple occasions and Bee’s inherent nature not being compatible with the landscape), the cousins spent enough time going on adventures and getting into trouble that my desire for interactions between female characters was satisfied. As far as I’m concerned, the fantasy genre needs more stories like this — female friends going on quests together and driving the adventures rather than following a male hero around or being a sidekick.

I also liked that the conflict between Cat and Andevai took on a different form. It wasn’t due to personalities clashing. This is not the beginning of their romance. Nor was it due to drawn out romantic insecurities or the introduction of a love triangle. Some series do this to their main couple in later books and it turns off many readers.

Instead the conflict was caused by their respective families. Cat’s father is the Master of the Wild Hunt. That is a definite issue on multiple levels. But the more immediate conflict was brought forth by Andevai’s family. In Cold Steel, the mansa of Four Moons House gives Andevai everything he’s ever wanted and because of Andevai’s nature, this traps him in the most effective cage possible. This puts strain on Cat and Vai’s relationship because for all their talk of revolution and changing the ways of the mage houses, there is a true risk of Andevai giving into temptation and becoming everything he hates. The question is whether Cat will stand by and see if he becomes the man she hates or remains the one she eventually fell in love with.

I loved that while the story is told from Cat’s POV and revolves around her adventures, we catch glimpses of Bee’s. Her story intersects and aligns with Cat’s but she has her own life. She becomes an activist speaker for the revolution! How great is that? She’s perfect for it with her looks and her gift with words. She also sleeps with multiple men and not once is she slut-shamed for it.

What I’m less thrilled about: Drake. Drake is the man who took advantage of Cat in Cold Fire and coerced her into having sex with him in order to be cured. He makes a return in Cold Steel as Camjiata’s top mage. His obsession with besting Andevai and vindictiveness towards Cat are one-note and unsubtle, and there was a lot of it. He’s the bad guy. We get it. (How do we know he’s the bad guy? He slept with the heroine when she was incapable of giving proper consent!) I suppose when it comes to antagonists, I prefer multifaceted characters with complicated motivations like Camjiata or the Master of the Wild Hunt.

Other than that, there are many other background things to like: the gender fluidity of the dragons, the question of what form revolutions should take — outright rebellion or change from the inside, the various ways women show their strength and influence. There’s a lot to like here.

I know many readers shared my opinions — adored the first book and felt let down by the second book. But if you count yourself among that number, don’t let the second book stop you from picking up this one. I think it lives up to the promise of Cold Magic. And if you’re new to these books, know that it’s a completed trilogy, which is something not often said about the fantasy genre these days. B+

My regards,

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REVIEW: The Hedgewitch Queen by Lillith Saintcrow

REVIEW: The Hedgewitch Queen by Lillith Saintcrow

Dear Ms. Saintcrow,

The blurb for your new ebook, The Hedgewitch Queen, promises “a romantic epic fantasy that centers around a young woman who must advance to the throne amidst court intrigue, conspiracies, and magic.” While I love romance, epic fantasy and magic, the phrase “court intrigue” usually gives me pause. However, I’ve enjoyed your work in the past, and I was curious to see how an author I favorably associate with urban fantasy would treat the trappings of traditional fantasy.

The Hedge Witch Queen by Lilith SaintcrowThough Duchesse Vianne di Rocancheil et Vintmorecy studies the common magic of hedgewitches and not the magic practiced by aristocratic courtiers, the Court of King Henri of Arquitaine is the only world she has ever known. When she stumbles on a coup that leaves both the king and his daughter dead, Vianne must follow the last wishes of her Princesse by taking the Aryx, the magical seal of Arquitaine, to friendly territory in Arcenne.

Unsure whom to trust, Vianne turns to the handsome and mysterious Tristan d’Arcenne, the Captain of the Guard and the King’s Left Hand—a man of dark deeds and dubious motives who may harbor tender feelings for Vianne, or who may view her as merely a means to an end. As she journeys to Arcenne with Tristan and a coterie of guards, Vianne alternates between feelings of guilt for surviving the coup that killed her Princesse, mistrust of what seems to be Tristan’s strong affection for her, and desire to pass on the burden of the Aryx to someone more fit to take the throne than she.

Since the story is told in the first person from Vianne’s point of view, the reader gets a forced front row seat for her internal angst, insecurity, and lemming-like urge toward self-sacrifice. Vianne is an engaging narrator, but she is also one of those heroines who repeatedly doubts her value, and disbelieves the many characters in the book who tell her she is beautiful. While the story makes plausible explanation for Vianne’s diminishment of her own worth and mistrust of compliments, the explanation does not make her narration through this section of the story enjoyable. Nor does it endear her to me.

Stubbornly humble, self-sacrificing heroines are one of my pet peeves, but readers who do not mind that character type will likely enjoy The Hedgewitch Queen more than I did. Had I not been reading this novel for review, I would probably have put it down and not returned to it until I’d forgotten how much Vianne annoyed me, but I am glad I had a reason to keep reading.

As Vianne’s confidence and determination increased, so did my interest in the story. It helps that Vianne’s character growth allowed her relationship with Tristan to develop into the sort of sweet but troubled love that will keep many romance readers hooked in hopes of an eventual HEA.

Despite my early annoyance with her, Vianne evolves into a fascinating character whose adventures I would gladly follow into a sequel. She learns to accept and exercise her power. She also learns to trust people, but questions linger. Does she trust the right people? What secrets remain hidden from her?

The Hedgewitch Queen is the first of a two-book series, and while the initial journey set up in the opening acts is resolved, you leave big questions unanswered. Those questions ensured my determination to read the next book, The Bandit King, due out in July 2012, but left me frustrated. While I appreciated Vianne’s character arc, finishing The Hedgewitch Queen did not provide the satisfaction that comes at the end of a good story. Instead, it left me feeling like I’d just read half a book and would have to wait another half a year before reading the rest.

Overall, I’m conflicted about this book. I read it and plan to read its sequel, but it is not a book I will rave about to my friends. I appreciate Vianne’s character development, but she actively annoyed me for a good portion of the book. I eagerly followed Vianne and Tristan’s romantic relationship, but the novel’s unanswered questions left me less than fulfilled on that aspect, too.

The narrative tone of your earlier Dante Valentine urban fantasy novels struck me as pitch-perfect for the subgenre, but the tone of The Hedgewitch Queen did not work as well for me. Though it was engaging and readable throughout, it sometimes sounded modern, and other times seemed to be trying too hard to sound archaic—especially in the deliberate use of archaic spellings like “donjon” for dungeon and “farrat” for ferret.

Other readers might appreciate these word choices, but they pulled me out of the story. My first instinct was always that I was looking at a misspelling. I had a similar problem with the use of deliberately misspelled words like “chivalier” and “oublietta” where my mind wanted to read “chevalier” and “oubliette,” but your decision to italicize those words helped me adjust to them.

The world-building solidified as the story progressed, but it took while to draw me in. Part of the difficulty, I fear, is that this book reminded me a little of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart Trilogy—another high fantasy series with a female first person narrator, lots of intrigue, and a strong romance thread set in a kingdom modeled on medieval France. I realize the comparison is tenuous and unfair, but as much as I wanted to judge your world on its merits alone, Ms Saintcrow, it had to compete for space in my brain with Carey’s creation, and it simply was not up to the task.

On the bright side, I believe I will be less conflicted about this book’s sequel. The excerpt of The Bandit King at the end of the The Hedgewitch Queen hooked me immediately, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Tristan’s thoughts and motivations. Though The Hedgewitch Queen gets a solid C (for “conflicted”) from me, I have high hopes for its sequel.

~ Josephine

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