I haven’t always been a fan of big fantasy books. If a novel comes labelled ‘First in the Epic Saga’ and is heavy enough to kill a charging rhino, odds are I won’t even read the blurb. But over the past year or so, my mind has been changed. Thanks to the excellent recommendations of programmer, folk rocker, horseman and general renaissance man Glenatron, I’ve discovered that some of these hefty tomes aren’t just a perfectly passable way to fill a fortnight’s reading. Some of them are – and I’m overcoming years of prejudice to say this – really worth your time.
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, despite one central flaw I’ll get to later, is one of those books.
Character, History and Gender
Set in a very different 19th century Europe, Cold Magic is the story of Cat Barahal, a young woman weeks away from adulthood. Taken from her family as part of a long standing magical and political pact, she finds herself in the hands of a powerful house of sorcerers. These cold mages form an alternate aristocracy alongside the traditional lords and princes, their authority entangling in messy, complicated ways. Their political schemes soon threaten Cat’s life, as well as that of her beloved cousin Bee, and it’s up to Cat to… oh, you get the idea.
Cat is a likeable if prickly protagonist. Like Jane Austen’s heroines, she’s written in such a way that the reader realises things she doesn’t, even though the story is written from her point of view. Getting that right takes skill, and it’s a skill Elliott has clearly mastered.
But the biggest appeal for me about this character is the way that she is presented as a woman in a gendered society. Some fantasy authors address the gender inequality of feudal societies by simply ignoring it. That’s fine, you can do what you want with your world, but it means we miss out on exploring the consequences of inequality. Others just take it for granted and provide no female characters with real control over their lives – not a great example to current and future generations. Elliot does something I like far more. She presents an unequal society, and then shows how Cat deals with the consequences of that inequality. From the social order of her school to the prejudice against a scarred female veteran, gender imbalance is in the details as well as the big picture of Cat’s arranged marriage and assumed disposability. But both she and Bee empower themselves despite that, and that makes for a great character in an interesting setting.
A Whole New World
That setting is one of the biggest draws of this book. As Elliott writes in the back, it was inspired by a long world building exercise that she carried out with others, and that attention to detail shows. Climate, geography, politics, economics, social norms – so much is revealed, and it’s all fascinating. There are elements of fantasy, like the feathered trolls, alongside steampunk airships. There are spies and intrigues, wars and treaties, two thousand years of history impinging on the present. It cleverly winds strands from real history into the mix. The classical references are nice, but it was when I realised who the infamous General Camjiata represented that things fell into place for me.
Most interesting to a social lefty like me was the depiction of society beyond that scheming elite. We see the pervasive oppression that comes with a long standing feudal hierarchy, just like the one that dominated in early 19th century Europe. We also see the horrors of factory life, the way that the transformations of the Industrial Revolution led to a whole new kind of oppression for the vast majority of people. And we see the reactions against this – riots and revolutionary plots, the sort of stuff that left me white-knuckled with excitement when studying 19th century history. These aren’t things I’ve seen a lot of fantasy novels, and I look forward to seeing their consequences explored in the rest of the series.
Stop, Exposition Time!
Having said all of that, the loving and detailed world building also leads to this book’s big flaw – exposition. Elliott has built a wonderful world and quite rightly wants to share it, but sometimes the explanations get clunky. The plot will grind to a halt for two pages of background on ancient wars. Sometimes characters will explain things they have no real reason to explain, in a manner usually reserved for the least charismatic university professors, just to get information across to the reader. And much as I loved the world these sections presented, the way they presented it threw me out of the story and made it feel less real.
I’m going to come back to this in a future blog post, because I want to compare it with some other approaches, one of them equally problematic in a very different way. And it may be less of an issue for those accustomed to reading those rhino-slaying fantasy tomes – after all, this is one of the things that puts me off epic series fantasy in general. But if you’re going to have a problem with the book, this will probably be it.
By now it should be obvious that as a reader I liked this, and that I’ll be reading more of this series. But what did I learn as a writer?
Learning from others’ mistakes, it was a reminder of the disruption exposition can cause, and just how carefully it has to be handled. There are far worse offenders where this is concerned, but it’s a useful reminder.
As for what Elliott gets right, there’s so very much. How to position a strong-willed female protagonist in an unequal society. How to use hints of history for richer world building. How to reference other things without it becoming smug or putting the reader off. How to weave an intricate tangle of events for the protagonist to fall into.
I’ll be mulling this one over for a while, and that in itself counts as a recommendation.