REVIEW: Cold Fire by Kate Elliott
Dear Ms. Elliott,
The first novel of your Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Magic, was my favorite read of 2010. To say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating the sequel might be an understatement. I had a few mishaps in obtaining a review copy but thanks to Jane’s heroic efforts, I received one last week and I devoured it.
As a quick introduction for new readers, the world of the Spiritwalker trilogy is an alternate Earth that never was. Many things are different, the main one being that colonialization didn’t happen as it did in our world and explorers did not “discover” lands that were already inhabited.
Three other traits govern this world. First, the Phoenicians fought the Romans to a standstill so the Roman Empire did not expand as far as it did in ours. Next, a salt plague drove the West African Empire of Mali across the Mediterranean into Europe where they mingled with Celtic tribes, giving rise to an Afro-Celtic culture. And finally, the ice shelf did not recede far enough so the northern climates are extremely cold and the magic system of Europe is ice-based. This means that the cold mages and their Houses, along with the tribal princes, are the ruling classes in Europe and believe that is the natural order of things. They have no desire for this newfangled steam technology to upset the balance..
Cold Fire picks up where Cold Magic left off. In fact, it overlaps. The first chapter of the book covers some of the ending events of the previous novel. This threw me off at first and I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t experiencing some strange literary form of deja vu but yes, they definitely overlap. In fact, a significant amount of it felt like a rehash. This isn’t my favorite narrative choice so my eagerness came crashing back down to earth and I proceeded with more reserve than I think I would have otherwise.
Thankfully, that’s only happens with the first chapter and the story continues with new plot immediately after. After the events of Cold Magic, orphan Catherine Hassi Barahal has learned everything she ever knew was a lie. The man she thought was her father was not and in fact, no one knows the identity of the man who sired her. This means she is not actually a Hassi Barahal and the only reason her aunt and uncle took her in was to serve as a substitute their eldest daughter, Beatrice, to fulfill an undesirable contract with a Mage House. At the end of Cold Magic, Cat left her new husband, Andevai, and went off with Bee and her shapeshifting brother, Rory.
Now Cat has multiple issues to face. The infamous general, Camjiata, has escaped and is gathering power in another attempt to wrest control from the Mage Houses and tribal princes. To do so, he’d like to gain the trust of Bee, who is a dreamseer, and Cat, whose mother was one of his most trusted Amazons. Because Camjiata was married to a dreamseer himself, he was privy to many visions and believes that a choice Cat makes will determine the course of the war he wishes to make.
After her aunt and uncle’s betrayal and Four Moons house’s determined pursuit, Cat and Bee have no desire to become pawns again. But in their quest to avoid the forces seeking to capture and control them, Cat, Bee and Rory end up separated. Worse, Cat finds herself halfway across the world in Terra Nova where she gets involved in a revolution.
A lot happens in this book. A lot. So many plots and storylines were going on that at times, I found it overwhelming. It was never slow and while I normally like that, I think the multitude of narratives detracted from the emotional aspects. I like messy emotions in my readings, almost to the point of melodrama, so the nuances I enjoyed in Cold Magic seemed to be lacking here.
There was the revolution storyline. The thing between Cat, Bee, and Camjiata. Cat and Andevai. Cat and the fire mage. Cat and her father. The enmity between the fae and the dragons. I like intricate plotting and multiple subplots but I honestly felt like the various storylines were scattered and unfocused. Maybe if the book had been longer (I know, I know), I wouldn’t feel that way. Multiple storylines are a staple of epic fantasy, after all.
While I appreciated the sidestep around the potential love triangle — like many readers, I’m so over love triangles — the storyline involving Cat, Andevai, and the fire mage left a bad taste in my mouth. I have no issues with the set-up. In a similar situation, I think many people would make the choice Cat did. I can understand why some readers would have an issue with it, but it made sense to me. It was a pragmatic decision made in an unfamiliar situation. I’m also glad we didn’t get any scenes in which Andevai castigates Cat for making that choice. All of his ire was directed towards the fire mage, as it should have been because the fire mage was an asshole of the highest caliber.
What made me frown, however, was everything that followed. I’ll try to keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but everything that went down between Cat and the fire mage was related to Andevai in some way. In the end, it wasn’t really about Cat at all. She was just the tool. I like that Cat is allowed to make mistakes, but I can’t help but feel dissatisfied about this. She was the one who was lied to; she was the one taken advantage of. She’s the protagonist, but the focus is really on Andevai and his feelings?
In some ways, I felt that the sole purpose of the fire mage was to contrast against Andevai and show readers that Look! He’s not actually that bad! This other guy’s much worse! I know forced marriage tropes can be skeevy if executed poorly, but I’m not convinced the introduction of the fire mage character was necessary to alleviate the problematic elements of the trope in the trilogy. I honestly thought Cat, Andevai and their efforts, both combined and individual, were enough to counterbalance that.
Some of this is personal preference, of course. In Cold Magic, I got a story about two cousins being awesome. I had hoped that Cold Fire would continue that. Instead, I got a story in which two cousins were being used and manipulated by men. Cat and Bee do a good job trying to circumvent and counter those efforts but still, it was disappointing. More so because I was teased by the promise of them going on adventures together, only to be separated. Again.
I did like bits involving Cat’s father. His inhuman nature was fairly obvious already, given hints from the previous book as well as the fact that her brother’s true form is that of a sabretooth tiger, but the actual identity was interesting. I found their first meeting interesting and his introduction to be rather creepy. I also thought the handling of Cat’s being bound to his will pretty clever and I admit it took me longer than it should have to notice that she was answering all questions with more questions.
Despite the fact that the main storyline was purported to be Cat’s attempts to circumvent Bee becoming the target of the next Wild Hunt, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I thought the revolution storyline made up the main plot and in some ways, that was part of what weakened the story for me because here Cat is tasked with this one thing but all these other things keep taking her attention. I can’t say if that was the intention. The cover copy implies one thing, but it very well may have been the other.
Not that this isn’t realistic — people can’t just focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else — but it made for a very scattered, overwhelming book. I was a little disappointed to see that despite their best efforts to avoid it, Cat and Bee were still being tossed around by the machinations of other people. Cat was used. Bee was used. I can’t help but feel this is a step backwards from the previous novel. That said, I do like where Cat and Andevai’s relationship ended up and what I hope to be the focus on the next book. B-
Previous book in this series: Cold Magic (review)
I just finished this one recently as well and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as book one, which was also my top read last year, I do think I ended up loving Cold Fire. But in reading your review, I totally get your points, especially about Cat and Bee being used so much – but I also think this is setting up book three for them to seriously take their lives back in hand. At least, that’s the feeling I get as well as hope for.
I didn’t get the impression that there was anything more happening plot-wise than there was in book one. Both books are definitely busy books, but I always felt the author did a good job tying it all together.
I could have stood for Cat to punch Drake one more time, just one more. *g* Those scenes were great.
I think my only hangup was that first chapter. It was a little slow going. I was glad to get past it and that the pace picked up after.
I loved loved loved Cat’s and Vai’s interactions this time. If we’re talking about people being used, then he has been as well. If you’re not a ruling mage of one of the Europa mage houses or a character like this General Camjiata, then I think you could make a case for everyone else being used in this book’s world.
But I really do think Cat and Bee will give the ones who used them what’s coming to them. Fingers crossed.
I loved your review. Great insights.
Great review! I just read Cold Magic this month, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I though I would, partly because of the complexity of the worldbuilding. In the author’s notes at the end of the Kindle edition, Kate Elliott talks about how the story was a collaboration with her three children, and my first though was “Too many cooks…” The result is certainly unique, and I still look forward to reading Cold Fire soon.
@KMont: Ha! I love the scenes in which Cat punches Drake. I even liked the part where Camjiata smacks him upside the head.
I guess I’ve become wary of trilogies in which the heroine is implied to take back her life in hand in the final book. Just because sometimes it doesn’t come. Thanks, Mockingjay, thanks. I am still looking forward to the next book, but I guess I’m riding in the middle of the bus now rather than the front seat.
@Hannah: Yeah, I had those author notes at the end of my copy too. I talked about this book with one of the other DA reviewers (January) and she had the same reaction as you: the worldbuilding was overwhelming and complex. But I think I may be more forgiving of overly complicated worldbuilding than I am of overly complicated plotting. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the complicated plotting and multiple storylines were a result of wanting to explore the big world?
I really liked your review. I’m excited to read this book,despite the problems. I also really liked Cold Magic and have been waiting for the sequel.
I’m wondering whether you think that this book isn’t as strong partially because it might suffer from middle-book syndrome? You know, where it is a separate book but really it is the middle bit of the story and often feels fuzzy and undone as a result? I find that this happens A LOT with fantasy -ologies. For me, I think it has to do with the waiting. Waiting for the next book to arrive or waiting to write the next book can either build anticipation or divert attention to tragic effects. Often for me, that wait between books (writing or reading)can really kill a story . . . I just lose it. Hopefully, the final book can bring it all back together.
*Thanks, Mockingjay, thanks. *
Ha! Good point.
@lazaruspaste that’s why I try to wait til all the books are out before I read them in a series such as this. I hate waiting for the next book; I lose my momentum and I start to lose my grip on all the plot threads. It’s generally much easier and more fun for me to read a series like this back to back. May be less fun for the author however.
Um sorry, that was supposed to be @lazaraspaste…
@Lazaraspaste: You know the funny thing? I don’t think this book suffers from middle-book syndrome. Or at least, what I think of as middle-book syndrome where the book is a bridge from the first book to the last. For example, I really thought Wise Man’s Fear by Pat Rothfuss was a middle book. Cold Fire, though, doesn’t really read like a middle book.
I already have the first book in this series, and have been wanting to read it for a while now. Is there any word yet on when the 3rd book will be coming out?
@Angela: Probably September 2012? This trilogy follows the traditional fantasy release schedule of one book a year.
@Jia: At least I don’t think we have to worry about a female heroine written by Kate Elliott NOT taking back her agency. Considering her output since the late 80s this is just not an issue with this author.
Oh and the chapter which retold the ending of the first book was supposed to be a feature – the solution of the problem of who has read what of the book before.