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.
The 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+
If you like women adventuring, try Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbound & Oath Blood.They are from the Valdemar series. I really wish there were more books like these.
Hmm, intriguing. Particularly for me since I’ve lived in Mali and my husband is Malian. But I’m confused by the white face on the cover. Is the proposition that Africa was abandoned by the Africans and populated by Europeans? Or did they all intermingle? I see some references that are clearly from Malian culture (mansa for example is the word for king or ruler) but the description of the politics and world-building don’t give me any indication as to the ethnicity of the characters.
@Diane P: Tarma & Kethry! I read those books in my teens and loved them. I’m still fond of them, actually, even though I think I’ve outgrown Lackey’s Valdemar books. You have to be a certain age to appreciate them best, in my opinion. I guess that explains my love of adventuring women! I completely forgot about those books until you mentioned them.
@sula: The basic premise is that Africa was abandoned because it was overrun by man-eating ghouls. Cold Magic initially refers to this as “the salt plague” but it’s not a disease. It’s ghouls. Basically, the kingdom of Mali led an exodus out of Africa, across the Mediterranean on Phoenician ships into Europe, where they intermingled. I would say the Europe of the Spiritwalker trilogy is a mash-up of African and Celtic cultures.
Cat and Bee are Phoenician. Cat’s husband, Andevai, being a cold mage, is from the African-Celtic cultural melding and is clearly described in the book as being black.
I got this book mostly because I was interested to see how a mash-up of Celtic/West African culture would work. I also worked in francophone West Africa so it would amazing if Elliot actually pulled it off. What are your thoughts on this?
I loved her JARAN series and did really enjoy the first few books of her CROWN OF STARS (before it became interminably dull) so I’m holding out hope… She seems to have done her research well in both those series.
Thanks for the clarification. Definitely more intriguing to me now. Will have to see about the entire trilogy. :)
I picture Cat as being a good deal darker in complexion than the woman shown on the cover.
Heh. I’m only about halfway through the first book, but I plunged into this review anyway, spoilers be damned. (I have a high tolerance for spoilers.) From what I read, it looks like I will continue on with this series.
I’m so obsessed with this series. I did want to note that Kate Elliott has said the girl on the covers doesn’t match how she pictures Cat. I can’t find the link (though it is mentioned here: http://kateelliottsff.tumblr.com/post/53008108495/just-curious-because-i-was-talking-with-a-friend-the). So there is definitely some cover-whitewashing happening.
@CD: Did you get this book or did you get Cold Magic? Cold Steel is the final book in the trilogy and not at all the place to start.
I thought she pulled it off well, with the caveat that I don’t really know much about Mali. The world is truly meant to be multicultural, and I liked that about it.
(And ha! Everyone I know has that experience with Crown of Stars. It was fine in the beginning… but then it kept going.)
@P. Kirby: Spoilers were unavoidable, this being the third book in a trilogy, but I tried to keep it as vague as I could. I come from the school of thought that if spoilers ruin a book, then the book was probably not worth reading in the first place. I realize not everyone shares this opinion, of course.
@AlannaB: Yes, I always pictured Cat as being darker-skinned and with more Asiatic features. (People who’ve read the books know that my describing Cat as Phoenician is not 100% accurate.) Must have been all the emphasis on Cat’s straight black hair.
“(And ha! Everyone I know has that experience with Crown of Stars. It was fine in the beginning… but then it kept going.)”
LOL! That’s a great way to put it…
And yes, I bought the first book of the series. It’s on my (very large) TBR pile but the Malian connection is pushing it up near the top – and if Andevai is of West African descent, it goes right to the top. West African guys are HOT ;-)… The fact that it’s a brisk(ish) three books is a huge plus.
[sigh] Remember those days when fantasies wrapped themselves up after 3 books? OK, I don’t think I do, but it’s nice to pretend.
@CD: Gotta echo the sentiment. West African guys ARE hot. And given that I never get to read about them in my romance books despite having one as my real life hero makes me very eager to seek this series out. Not to mention my curiosity over how Malian culture will be referenced. Cold Magic was only $1.99 at Amazon, so that’s an insta-purchase. :)
Well, my first love was French Ivorian so I obviously have a thing there. Although I do prefer the Sahel when it comes to men ;-). I think it’s the French/African accent combined with that old style gallantry, and their general tendency towards tall/lean. And the robes – my God, the robes…
On West African heroes, here was this book which I bought years ago but I’m too scared to read it in case it’s awful – do you want to give it a try and report back? Pretty please with Richard Armitage on top?
@CD: Ah yes, the flowing robe aka “le grand bou-bou”. I read about 25% of Cold Magic last night and saw some references to boubous, which made my night. Also, mention of the royal Keita family (of which my husband’s clan is part) gave me some confidence that the author had at least done some of the appropriate historical research. Haven’t had enough exposure to the cultural aspects to make any judgements there yet. I did get a kick out of reading the description of the hero’s facial hair and dark skin and glancing over at my adorable (tall/lean, natch) hubby’s neatly trimmed beard. heh.
Hmm, that Silhouette looks like it could be awesome or awful. Go ahead and take the plunge! For $.01 paperback price, I might join ya. Richard Armitage makes everything better.
Ha, I kind of want to join you all in reading that book. Simply because there’s a POC hero on the cover.
(I’m so easy.)
You are easy, Jia ;-)… Although he is also pretty cute and I love a man in braids. Can’t see that a black mercenary would have the time to grow his hair and get it braided but what do I know…
I’m a bit worried as West African mercenaries do not exactly scream “romance” – I’d normally scream a number of other things, or just scream for that matter – and there’s such potential to get the setting wrong. I bought it more because I wanted to encourage more of those types of books than I had any hope it was any good. But who knows – the author was apparently a South African reporter so might actually know what she’s talking about.
Stop being so smug about your cute hubby. Grrrr. I had dinner with Toumani Diabete, so there. OK, there were 15 other people at the table but that still counts…
Ah, the boubous…
@Jia: I have that book. Someone on Twitter was talking about it ages ago when we were talking about IR/MC books. I can’t tell you whether the hero was wonderful or horrible, let alone culturally authentic (although the opening does not suggest he is), because I DNF’d it about two chapters in. Hackneyed writing and a heroine who is an expert in “tyrannical pathology” and has a week to profile Our Hero. Uh huh.
I’d love to read a discussion of the book if you all decide to try it, but my eye twitches every time I see the thumbnail in my book list, so I’ll be watching from the sidelines. ;)
@Jia: I’m easy that way too. Lord knows those covers are few and far between.
@Sunita: Boo, what a shame to hear that it was unreadable. Why oh why must the good MC/IR books be so rare? I still think I may spring for this one though, just because seriously…how often have I seen a West African man featured as the hero of a romance novel? NEVER.
@CD: Heh. Yep, that is me being smug. Toumani Diabate does play the world’s best kora music and is a super-nice guy to boot. Very cool that you had dinner with him! :) Would it be extra-smug to mention that DH and I used to go dancing in Bamako at Toumani’s club on Friday nights and met/ hung out with him and other W. African musicians such as Habib Koite and Ali Farka Toure? Ok, yeah that’s a wee bit smug, but hey, most people wouldn’t even know those references, let alone put any value on them. Incidentally, as cute as the braids and locks are, at least in Mali they are quite rare for men. The only arena where they would be acceptable is for artists and musicians. No serious man of any authority would ever wear them. Was it similar in Ivoirian culture? Hubby and I got a real kick out of that movie “Sahara” that features the “President of Mali” as a bad-ass with little dreads. AS IF!
Cold Magic Malian Culture Critique Update! – at over 50% through the book last night and am pleased to report that everything that has been thrown in that has clear Malian origins rings absolutely true. From the extended greeting rituals to the role of the djeli (bards), the mystical power of the blacksmiths and the importance of extending hospitality to guests as part of the fabric of communal obligations…clearly the author has done her homework. I think I’m a little in love.
Grr, looks like my last comment got caught in the filter. Help!
@sula: Oh, I’m so glad the cultural background of the Spiritwalker trilogy is working for you thus far! I always feel this little ping of satisfaction when I connect a reader to a book they enjoy, especially if it’s because of the cultural aspects. Because I know how unsatisfying it can be to pick up a book featuring a culture you know well and are excited to read about, only to discover it’s completely wrong.
@Sunita: That’s tragic. But I may end up joining the party to read this book, just for the same reasons as sula!
OK, I think you win – very jealous of you… When I visited Mali in 2007, Ali Farka Toure had been inconsiderate enough to expire the previous year – still very annoyed by that. I did however see manage to see Habib Koite do his sex-on-legs thing, and had tea with Tinariwen just when they were on the cusp of (relative) superstardom. No huge regrets though – I spent most of my short months in Mali in the north being semi-adopted by a Tamashek family who called me called me “princess”, fed me tea, and showed me how to “danser, danser; bouger, bouger”.
Gorgeous memories but extremely bittersweet in light of recent events. I was actually in neighbouring Niger when Timbuktu was being destroyed, which was pretty upsetting. I remember how I used tell all and sundry to visit Mali – how extraordinarily safe and stable it was compared to its neighbours, and how it was one of the few countries that attempted nation-building through its ridiculously rich cultural heritage. I don’t know – I have no words.
As for braids – in my experience, practically the only African (and Haitian) men who take the trouble to braid their hair are musicians or the artistic types – most of them just do the clippers thing [sniff sniff]. Lazy sods. I’ve tried to convince various friends/boyfriends of the virtues of braids but I just get laughed at and ignored. Such is my life.
And I may tentatively try SEDUCING THE MERCENARY – maybe make it into a drinking game to make it more palatable [shot anytime I read something culturally inappropriate – yippee!]. The premise sounds utterly ridiculous though.
@Jia: Well you have my thanks. :) I am very much enjoying the book and the culture connection is a huge part of it. I would not have imagined to find a story that included Malian history and culture in the first place, let alone get it right!
@CD: Clearly we need to get together for a coffee (or a cold Castel) someday and swap W. Africa stories. Yes, the ongoing situation in Mali is utterly heartbreaking. I’m just grateful that my in-laws are safe for the moment. But the shattering of what was such a peaceful and beautiful country is just beyond sad. On a happy note, Mali has survived for thousands of years with a strong sense of cultural identity and heritage, a large part being connected to music. From the djeli to the modern artists like Habib (and yes, he IS totally sex-on-legs, with lovely dreds to boot, nom nom nom), the music won’t die.
Ok, I went ahead and ordered Seducing the Mercenary from paperbackswap, so will soon be prepared for the drinking game! We may need to set up a little bookclub or something just for this occasion. lol.
Sula – you and Jia are so easy…
You know Mali better than I do so I (eagerly) defer to your optimistic outlook! And I’m glad that your in-laws are safe.
As for a Castel – change it to that bitter-sweet mint tea and we have a deal if you’re anywhere near London, Paris or Hanoi in the next few months ;-). Or send me a PM on the AAR boards and we can do it virtually and compare how sloshed we got reading SEDUCING THE MERCENARY. Maybe Jia can join us with Sunita observing from the sidelines…